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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 August, 2003, 14:40 GMT 15:40 UK
'Burning for money in Italy'
By Irene Peroni
BBC Monitoring, Caversham

Fires threaten south Italian architecture
Fires threaten south Italian architecture
Forest fires raging in Italy have been made possible by a prolonged heatwave, which has left the landscape tinder-dry from north to south.

But few Italians believe the blazes have natural causes - increasingly they now blame criminal gangs.

A number of people have been arrested who are reported to have been paid to start fires on behalf of criminal interest groups.

In some cases, it is also suggested, the fires have been started by the people who are paid to put them out.

Experts give short shrift to the idea that hooligans and petty arsonists might be responsible.

"I don't think that any Italian can seriously believe that there are 6,000-7,000 pyromaniacs who roam across Italy to start fires - it is obvious that there are people who do it because they have been commissioned," Mario Moricone, head of the firefighters' department, told Italian state television.

Eco-Mafia or small business?

According to a study by the National Forestry Corps, a majority of blazes are started by farmers and shepherds who want to gain new grazing and farmland.

But a growing role is believed to be played by the so-called Eco-Mafia, which controls a large share of Italy's rubbish disposal business.

The Eco-Mafia has an interest in starting forest fires because it aims to win public contracts for the reforestation of the affected areas - an operation that costs public coffers some 2,000 euros per hectare.

By doing so, it also creates new space for illegal dumps - a cheap way of getting rid of toxic and industrial waste.

Turin Attorney General Giancarlo Caselli, speaking at an environmental conference in Tuscany on Monday, said: "If there is some dirty money to be made, the Mafia is always first in line."

The former head of the National Forestry Service, Giuseppe Di Croce, has blown the whistle on an equally disturbing scenario.

He believes that government plans to boost the number of water-bombing aircraft - possibly setting up small fire-fighting fleets for each region - could be counterproductive.

He fears that this move could create new economic interests dependent on the number and size of blazes.

"It would be a waste and a folly: tying important investments to the number of fires threatens to fuel the fire business," he told the daily newspaper La Repubblica.

Others argue that, as fire-fighting operations generate temporary jobs in regions affected by high unemployment, people involved in short-term fire-fighting or reconstruction operations might be behind forest arsons.

"There are people who take advantage of the pre-emptive measures adopted by the government: since they are paid by the operation, they secure a job by starting fires," fire brigade official, Antonio Jiritano, told communist daily Liberazione.

"This way, those who have a three-month contract renew it each time by alternatively carrying out rescue and reconstruction operations."


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