It is Wednesday and since we haven’t heard anything from the local authorities with regards the progress of cleaning up the ravine, we decide to visit the town hall once again- as Wednesday mornings are an opportunity for ‘an audience’ with the Mayor. This time, we are received with less gentility – I feel we are rapidly falling out of favour and towards being a pain in the proverbial. Nothing significant has happened in the last two weeks, other than that the story has once again changed. It seems that the contract for cleaning ran out at the end of December and a new one hasn’t really been put into place, so the waste offices are in a bit disarray and cannot deal with any extra demands. On top of that, the news is that the cleaning of the ravine has been lumped together with two other clean-up projects and the three of them are out to tender, which will take a minimum of 15 days before a firm can be appointed, after which there are still more bureaucratic hurdles to jump before anything can happen. Giovanni the vice mayor gets a bit exasperated having to explain all this, after all he’s not responsible for the waste department but the tourism officer. In the end, he promises to send us an SMS with updates by Tuesday (which he hasn’t done!) and, if there is no progress, to take us to the regional office.
In the waste office, a man we haven’t met before looks at our photos and says, in his opinion, nothing will move until the summer at the earliest, and in any case it will be a very costly operation – in the region of 20,000 Euros, or more if the bridge proves not to be strong enough to hold ‘recovery’ vehicles.
I bump into Sergio (the consigliere) in the corridor and when I ask him how the story about the CCTV camera is unfolding, he just shrugs his shoulders and rolls his eyes – there’s no reply from the authorities on this front. He seems to imply that a lot of talking may have happened but not much action. While we are talking, the mayor passes us and studiously ignores me. I’m sure he remembers that 2 weeks ago he promised us that the ravine would be clean in the space of 10 days.
In short, nothing has moved and the stories change with every visit to the town hall.
Meanwhile fresh rubbish arrives in the ravine almost daily and stray dogs help themselves to the freshly dumped horses’ heads.
Maybe it’s time to go to the press?
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Now that we have the mayor’s promise that the ravine will be cleaned (still waiting to see it happen before really believing it though!), we start thinking one step ahead of the people who will arrive with their cars loaded with rubbish to find their favourite dumping spot transformed and CCTV cameras in operation… They will of course drive on and look for the nearest suitable spot to dump their stuff – which in this case would be the top end of Passopomo where there is a little hole in the fence and some people already have made use of it to dump a few bags, a buggy, several sacks of cement, some roller blinds, old plant pots etc. So one morning Frank and I go armed with a wheel-barrow and netting to fix the fence and remove the rubbish. We make acquaintance with the neighbour who watches us suspiciously to start with but eventually even introduces us to his wife and comes out to help a little. A couple of hours and the fence looks as good a s new and no more rubbish is to be seen. Next, we need to find some second hand Christs and Madonnas to spread around the place, maybe cement some on the bridge, because apparently people refrain from dumping in the presence of a holy audience. Rosy thinks it’s hilarious that we might scour the rubbish dump of the local cemetery for unwanted religious icons. We might even go to the local priest and see if we can’t get him to donate a figurine.
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On a beautiful Wednesday morning, we head once more up the hill to the town hall, this time to meet the mayor. The receptionist telephones through to upstairs – “Gli Inglesi, sopra la spazzatura…” we are famous already, or shall I say infamous. She sends us up to meet Rosalia on the second floor. The offices are grander here, and we are received with extreme politeness, even a touch of reverence, offered a seat and asked about our concern. Rosalia of the second floor is as touched by our story as was Rosalia of the first floor (it seems one has to be called Rosalia to get a secretarial job in Zafferana Council), and she views with disgust our latest photos, which include some rather unsavoury shots of freshly butchered horses’ heads. What opens the doors to people’s hearts is the fact that we are strangers who spend their free time, even their honeymoon, cleaning up nature.
After 10 minutes wait, we are lead into an office where –surprise, surprise – we meet Sergio, the consigliere. Sergio has good news for us. Last week, the sindaco sent a formal request to the police, who then sent a formal request to the regional courts, to be allowed to fix CCTV cameras by the bridge. Everything has to go its bureaucratic way; a camera infringes on privacy rights. They are expecting to get the go-ahead within ten days, by which time they will also organise vehicles with the necessary equipment to lift all the rubbish out of the ravine, including the tyres, fridges and vehicles. Sergio emphasises that Zafferana prides itself on being a clean town, and that they will deal with this incident despite the fact that the bridge does not lie within their boundaries but is the county of Catania’s responsibility. He promises to let us know when the cleaning action will take place and he alerts us that this Sunday the group PuliAmo Zafferana will meet for a cleaning day, if we would care to join them. He also tells us that our request to visit the Isola Ecologica means obtaining an authorisation from the desk of waste control, but we should be able to get this in due time. Once Sergio has explained everything, he takes us across the hallway to the mayor’s office.
Alfredo the mayor jumps up from his seat behind a huge desk and comes towards us to receive us with a cordial handshake. He thanks us for our initiative and tells us that Zafferana, although just a small town, includes a huge area in its jurisdiction (bigger than Catania) and that the question of waste disposal is an ongoing and very complex concern. He shows us the Council’s initiative to print educational title pages to children’s exercise books, which get distributed in all schools, each year with a different message. Last year it was about separating different types of recyclables, this year it tells about the initiative of linking clean water and waste disposal. For every kilo of recyclable waste that a resident of Zafferana brings to the Isola Ecologica, they receive a credit note for a litre of purified drinking water from the Casa del Acqua. As we leave, the mayor gives us his promise that within 10 (working) days, the ravine by the bridge should be clean and the CCTV in position to catch further perpetrators.
We leave the office stunned to have achieved such a positive result. On the way down, we pop into the office on the first floor to personally thank everyone there and to show our faces, just in case they’d forgotten us… 😉
Of course one shouldn’t count one’s chickens before they are hatched and we are looking forward to promises being put into action, but what we can say for sure is that everyone we met in the council received us with the utmost politeness and a willingness to help. Everyone there wants to make a change regarding the current situation of illegal dumping, but it needs a lot of money and co-ordination, and it can at times be beyond the town council’s financial abilities to do so.
We look forward to joining PuliAmo Zafferana on Sunday. Apparently more than 300 people took part last month.
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The brightest ideas hit me in the morning, just when I wake up…
This morning, I come up with the plan of moving the van to the watering hole near the stables, fill up with water and then stay there while doing all sorts of things that require hot water, such as washing woollen socks, doing a big washing-up and having a shower. Then fill up again before moving back to our parking place. If we do it early, there won’t be anyone around to see me having a shower (we have to hang the shower head outside the van). The plan works a treat – until the time comes to have the shower. I’m already wrapped in a towel ready to head outside when we hear the put-put of a little Tuc-Tuc coming up the hill. Antonino and his mate (also called Antonino) have arrived nearly an hour early! One minute later, and they would have had a perfect view of me in my birthday suit! I hop quickly back into my clothes – the shower will have to wait…
Frank and I borrow Rosi’s car and with the two Antoninis in tow, we set off to the other side of the ravine, where we have the neighbour’s keys to get through the property to where we have compiled the rubbish. Antonino is keen to walk up the ravine to view the source of the problem. As we approach, we are hit by the smell of rotting cadavers, and sure enough, new evidence has been thrown on top. Antonino gets on the phone to his boss to bring home the urgency of the matter. As we stroll back down the ravine, Antonino tells us that he’s just a simple dustman, but with a passion for clearing up what they call ‘abusive discharge’ – illegal dumps in nature spots. When we ask him what else we might be able to do to move the matter of the ravine, he advises us to go to the town hall and request to speak to the mayor today, as he is available to the general public on Wednesdays.
We take to the Antoninis straight away, they are men of action and straight, clear talk, no sides. Antonino the older tells us with a proud smile that between the two of them they keep Zafferana clean. The little Tuc-tuc is impressive too, seemingly small but able to swallow a large amount of rubbish bags. We take a quick photo and off their go, not before leaving us another role of large rubbish bags and the promise that they will come back and pick them up once we’ve filled them.
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The work of cleaning the ravine at Passopomo cannot be done by us alone – it needs professional power, with the right machines to lever the vehicles out, and people in protective gear who can deal with the poisonous stuff. So we decide to approach Zafferana Council – we’ve been told that they have a good reputation for environmental awareness. Our first attempt is an email (which, if you are interested, you can read here in English as well as its’ Italian translation), but neither of the three addresses we find on the internet seem to work. So on January 5th, we take a paper copy and try to deliver it by hand. The doors of the town hall are open but everything seems very quiet. We pass by an unmanned reception and venture into the belly of the administration. However, the only people at work on this day are cleaners and the police. We try again the next morning, and you can read about that visit in a previous chapter.
Entering the town hall of Zafferana is like entering some kind of theatre play. Every character seems exaggerated, almost cliché – we have the beautiful, doe-eyed secretary; the grandiose, benevolent, fast talking higher official; the mute and slightly grumpy ‘fat controller’ who doesn’t move from behind his desk; the serious, intelligent and ambitious young consigliere, and, last but not least, the very important Mayor, in his splendid (and verging on the opulent) large office on the upper floor, facing the town square and overlooking his ‘realm’ all the way down to the sea.
We don’t meet the mayor until our 4th visit though. Before that, we pay another visit to the waste disposal office on the floor below, where despite becoming known for uncomfortable information, we find an open ear and a generous reception. We are here to find out if anything has happened ‘back stage’ in the two weeks since our first visit, since we have not seen any changes at the ravine, other than more rubbish having been dumped. Alfredo, in charge of waste in this town, gets a bit more involved in the conversation than last time we called round. He asks us if we can give the council one more week to come up with an action plan. This makes me reflect on how these people see us. We are foreigners and this seems to give us some kind of kudos, we are respected, listened to and treated very politely. I try to imagine how it would be in England – let’s say a Sicilian arrives at Totnes town council to report an illegal dump and ask for its removal. Somehow I doubt that they would be paid the same kind of attention we receive here… Nevertheless, we are slightly frustrated by the permanent reply of ‘non e facile’. Well, yes, we know it’s not easy. We know it will cost money and requires several organisations to work together, but this should not mean that nothing is being done.
In the same way as two weeks ago, more people gradually arrive and are shocked by the story, especially when I mention that there are fresh animal carcasses and that we cannot do anymore cleaning ourselves as last time he went to the ravine, Frank contracted some kind of bug, possibly from being in the vicinity of the cadavers.
As no-one tells us to leave (or more likely, we don’t get the subtle ‘hints’ since we are not fluent in Italian, let alone au fait with Sicilian cultural undertones), we sit in the office and present our case for about half an hour. Before we leave, Antonino promises to come at 9am the next morning.
Below is a photo of the new lot of rubbish in the ravine, with a horse’s head perched on top.
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The pollution in the ravine troubles Frank and me. But we don’t really know what to do, it is beyond our ability to bring all this back up the slopes! It seems indicative of the Sicilian attitude to rubbish: we see the young ones on a regular basis dropping plastic wrappers once they’ve eaten the contents, and none of the adults remark on it. The amount of plastic used in general is shocking: each meal new plastic plates, forks and cups are used and thrown away. It’s also hard to find a place where one can correctly dispose of rubbish. We have several bags in our van and have repeatedly asked various people, but most don’t know where we can officially dispose of them. One person offers to take the stuff to the recycling place in his town but when he says he would have to pretend it’s his, I politely decline – this is part of the whole story and I want to find out what are the correct options. In the end, Chantal takes me and our rubbish to a place 5km from here, where we find large bins by the side of the road. They are marked – plastic, paper and general rubbish – but they are filled to the hilt with a total mix of everything, so there is no use separating our stuff out. Besides, they don’t have lids and are so full that one big wind will take away most of the top layer and generously spread it around the area. Chantal says that they used to have better facilities, but someone set fire to them. It is costly to dispose of rubbish correctly, I am told, and various people recount stories of illegal dumpings just outside their property gates. One day, a whole lorry-load of builder’s rubble was dumped on the top end of Passopomo, making it impossible to exit with the horses. Rosi had to pay for its removal if she wanted to be able to take people on rides along this route. Nobody ever tells a story of someone having been successfully fined for illegal dumping. The only success story we hear is that a friend of Chantal’s, after repeatedly clearing up an illegal dump just outside his property, hit on the brilliant idea of erecting a big statue of Christ in the very spot. That stopped the dumping from one day to the next, although they proceeded to dump 200mtrs further up the road instead.
People we tell about the ravine either shrug their shoulders saying there’s nothing that can be done about it or they change the topic. Most laugh when we suggest contacting the local government to come and clean up. Very few can be persuaded to come and have a look and possibly help with ideas or action. Frank and I have decided to start cleaning some 200mtrs below the bridge and just do a bit every day, slowly working our way upstream. We have a few people helping, each day a different team, most notably a neighbour who spots us on the first day and comes with hammer and pickaxe, as well as clearing a path below his property to help get the heavy stuff out of the ravine.
But something is moving. Just the fact that Frank and I descend into the ravine to do an hour or two of wrestling the rubbish from the brambles and the river-bed makes it impossible for others to ignore the situation. It’s uncomfortable for them, we notice. We’ve become something like a splinter to people, but at the same time, they start to think how they can help move this project along. I think there is a mixed feeling of annoyance, respect, guilt, frustration and wanting to ignore everything, and none of those feelings go away. We wrote an email to the mayor of Zafferana, but despite trying three different addresses, it bounced back every time, so we will need to deliver it by hand after the festive season is over. We hope that he will have an open ear and be willing to act – he has a good reputation for addressing waste issues in his constituency, so let’s hope…
This morning, we spoke to someone else who recommended other points of contact in addition to the local government, so we have a bit more research to do in the next few days. Meanwhile, the ravine slowly transforms from squalor to a spot of outstanding natural beauty. It’s hard work but actually very satisfying and good fun. We’ve cleared about 60 mtrs in 4 days. However, the race is on because as soon as there is heavy rainfall, more rubbish will definitely be swept down by the inevitable torrents.
Here are two photos, before and after one of our cleaning actions. For more photos go to the flikr album
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We arrive in Passopomo during a torrential downpour on the morning of December 20th. There is a whole group of people waiting for the weather to clear so we can go horse riding, but it doesn’t let up, so we share lunch in the rain and then people disperse. Towards the evening, the clouds lift and we begin to see what a beautiful place we have arrived in: to the north, we see Mount Etna, quietly smoking (apparently we just missed a fairly spectacular eruption) and to the South, the land gives away, with spectacular views all the way down to the sea. The stables lie in the centre of a large estate with vineyards, olive, orange and mandarin groves. We have taken residence in the car park, which is covered in black volcanic grit that dries out as soon as the rains stop.
What strikes us when we open the door on the first morning is the amount of rubbish that is lying around just outside out doors. So as per usual, we take some time to clear our temporary ‘garden’ (little do we know just how long we will be encamped here…). What is it that people in Sicily don’t seem to see how ugly all this plastic is, let alone dangerous for animals? Two large rubbish bags later, we sit down for a breakfast in the splendid sunshine.
I am writing this chapter two weeks after the fact, and the contrast between the Beautiful and the Ugly continues. We have never been in such a beautiful place, combined with the openheartedness of people, and the joy of being surrounded by a bunch of horses that are so calm that some of them can be let out to roam freely during the day. Our encounters are so manifold and rich that they warrant a whole load of chapters – but so is our discovery of a terrible fly-tip just on the border of the property, where people abuse the fact that a quiet road crosses the riverbed on an old bridge, to chuck their rubbish, letting it spill into one of the most beautiful ravines we have ever seen.
Most of the time, this ravine is dry, but there are clear signs that once the winter storms come, the rubbish is swept down and along with great force, distributed and embedded between rocks and volcanic sand, or wrapped around trees. Whole cars fold themselves along the line of this force.
We are stunned by the contrast, and shocked into action. In the following chapters we will share our discovery of the beauty of this this area, as well as its ugly pollution, and you will see how we progress (or not, as the case may be) with the cleaning of the ravine, and whether and how the people around us and in the local government respond.
For more pictures on this chapter, go to the flikr album
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