The Italian economy has stalled, with industrial output and consumer spending flat, and Silvio Berlusconi's government is groping for ways to get it going again before European elections in June which could deliver them a sound drubbing.
But there is one industry that seems always to prosper - the "Ecomafia", as it has been dubbed. This extensive, secret network of criminal clans and gangs - precisely 169 of them, it is claimed - makes its money by despoiling the Italian environment.
The Ecomafia has two major activities, both of them going full steam ahead: illegal construction, and illegal disposal of waste, particularly hazardous waste. "Waste management" is a notorious front for mafia families - witness television's supposedly fictitious Sopranos. But last week's annual report on their activities by Legambiente, Italy's biggest and most widely respected environmental non-governmental organisation, confirms that the sectors are prospering as never before.
Illegal construction has plagued Italy since the Second World War, and has seen famous beauty spots disfigured by mammoth unauthorised hotels, villas popping up in archeological sites in the middle of Rome, and tens of thousands of more humdrum cases of mob-connected contractors rapidly putting up blocks of flats while politicians and bureaucrats pocket their bribes and turn a blind eye.
Many of these illegal eyesores have been demolished, but every time the authorities appear to be getting a grip on the problem, the central government announces another condono edilizio - an amnesty which grants legitimacy to the buildings on payment of a fixed fine per square metre. This fiscal wheeze is one of the notorious one-off tax measures, much criticised in Brussels, to which Italian govern- ments resort when they need to plug holes in their budgets.
Mr Berlusconi announced another such amnesty in 2003, and according to Legambiente it stimulated a dramatic increase in illegal building. "Under the stimulus of the announcement of the amnesty, 40,000 new illegal constructions got under way, reversing the previous downward trend," the organisation said last week.
Illegal rubbish-disposal has likewise enjoyed a bumper year, with the gangs offering manufacturing firms in the north unbeatable rates to truck their hazardous waste away. Corrupt civil servants then doctor paperwork to make the waste appear innocuous, and it is buried in national parks in the south, where the gangs are mostly based, or dumped in abandoned quarries, posing a menace to ground water.
There are other, more ingenious ways of disposing of the stuff. Last year it emerged that middlemen were selling toxic waste to farmers in the central Italian countryside of Umbria in the guise of fertiliser. A salesman from a company with the name of Ecoverde (Ecogreen) approached a farmer in the village of Montona and offered him 20 truckloads of a new type of fertiliser for nothing. If he was happy with the results, the man said, he could buy more.
It was not fertiliser but toxic waste, as the farmer discovered when his pond turned black and his fish swelled and died. The owner of Ecoverde and 57 others were arrested and charged with offences under Italy's recently tightened laws against waste-trafficking.
A three-year police investigation into the waste racket revealed more than 4,000 illegal dumps sited across the southern half of the country. The business is believed to be worth some €7bn (more than £4.5bn) a year and to involve 22 criminal gangs.
But despite investigations and a few dozen arrests, the Ecomafia continue to defy the law. All told, says Legambiente, the turnover of the 169 clans grew by more than 14 per cent last year to nearly €19bn.Reuse content