The Multinational Monitor



Greening Italy

An Interview with Giovanna Melandri

Giovanna Melandri is Secretary of the Lega per l'Ambiente (League for the Environment), an Italian environmental association formed in 1980. It has over 60,000 members and 600 local affiliates, making it the broadest environmental and peace organization in Italy. Lega per l'Ambiente maintains its headquarters in Rome.

A decentralized kind of energy supply, based on renewables, leads to a growth model which helps preserve community organization. Multinational Monitor: What is the Lega per l'Ambiente's focus?

Giovanna Melandri: Since 1981, when all of our new activity and initiative was directed toward the nuclear energy issue, we have broadened our range of interests. We now work on issues such as chemical and industrial waste, toxic waste, toxic sites, waste management, groundwater contamination and urban planning and use.

The organization uses a number of instruments. The first one is legal assistance groups. Each regional headquarters has a Center for Legal Assistance. These are composed of lawyers who are willing to let us use their professional knowledge for free. We bring industries that have damaged the environment to court and do other things like that. That is a very useful tool. Our members, but also, more generally, citizens, know that they can come to us and we can use this system.

Our scientific committee is another important instrument. We have a scientific committee with nearly 300 volunteer members, including technical people, university professors and experts in various fields.

With their help we produce an annual report on the status of the environment in Italy. It is something like [the Worldwatch annual] State of the World report, but reduced to a [national] Italian level.

MM: What sort of ongoing projects does Lega per l'Ambiente conduct?

Melandri: We have two important initiatives each year. The first one is the Green Boat, which goes around the [Italian] Peninsula, takes samples of water, tests them and gives out [the resulting] data to the public to let them know which areas are the most polluted areas of the coast. In this sense, we are substituting for the [government] institutions which should be doing the work; they do it, but they do it badly and they say that the sea is clean where it is not.

The second thing is the Green Train, a train with a technical lab, which takes samples of air in the main cities of Italy. We then give out data on the air situation. Italy still doesn't have monitoring systems in the cities which can tell us when the pollution is too high or when it is unbearable. Our numbers are the ones looked at by the public and also, ironically by government institutions when they want to know which cities need urgent action.

MM: What is the League's relationship with big business in Italy?

Melandri: It is mainly adversarial. But we also try to make constructive proposals to corporations. We go to the general shareholders' assemblies of Montedisos, a big chemical firm, and this year we are going to the shareholder assembly of Fiat, a big car company. We will be protesting, doing sit-ins and so forth, but we would also like the shareholder assembly to agree to some of our specific and technical requests about what [the companies] should do. Last year at the Montedisos assembly, our actions generated widespread public interest and received front- page coverage throughout the country. [After that], the industry became interested in listening to us and having some dialogue with us.

I would say that the organization's attitude is that we have to hit hard and be very uncompromising about our requests; only then will industry be interested in talking to us. There are some environmental groups in Italy that I think are too ambiguous about this. We have been criticized for ambiguity in the past for things which I would not consider ambiguous, like getting sponsorships for the Green Boat that goes around Italy every year.

MM: You accept corporate sponsors for the Green Boat?

Melandri: Yes.

MM: Even from companies like Fiat?

Melandri: No, not Fiat, but big groups, yes. We have no foundations in Italy; it is not like in the United States where you have a very strong system of private foundations financing environmental groups. The Minister of Environment gives little to no money to groups. We get half our budget from membership, but if we want to do projects like the Green Boat, we need [additional] money. We try to be as cautious as possible, but we absolutely need that money, otherwise we couldn't do anything. We have been criticized for getting that money, but I think that the criticism will dissipate as people realize that it doesn't change what our activities are, what our initiatives are and what the results of our activities are.

MM: How did your anti-nuclear campaign originate?

Melandri: The campaign against nuclear power started with a group of experts and bright people who looked at the energy plan in Italy and saw that nuclear was not the answer to our problems, that we had to recover energy efficiency standards. They looked at the nuclear model, the way nuclear power plants structure the economy. A decentralized kind of energy supply, based on renewables, leads to a growth model which helps preserve community organization, does not create overly centralized urban areas and keeps dispersed and decentralized development going. Along with all the safety issues that go with nuclear power, it was this thinking about what it means to have ecological and environmentally-sound development which pushed us [to launch the campaign].

From 1981 to 1986, there was really strong campaigning and efforts to establish some concrete examples of other energy possibilities, such as solar.

Then in 1986, there was Chernobyl; Chernobyl helped us. The information that was given to the public was uncertain and contradictory--people didn't know whether what they had to drink or eat was safe or what was happening. That kind of [fear was felt] throughout the country.

By the way, this differs significantly from France, where the French press was able to keep the accident secret for two days. In Italy, they couldn't do that for a couple of reasons. First, we were strong; the French green movement didn't really exist at that time. Second, Italy didn't have all the power plants that France had; though there was a very strong lobby to protect the state-run industry.

When Chernobyl occurred, we were able to convince many authorities who had not previously been on our side to start collecting signatures with us [on petitions opposing nuclear energy]. The Communist Party--which in Italy is a good social democratic party and is, in fact, now changing its name--came into the game.

MM: Once you submitted the signatures, what sort of campaign did you run?

Melandri: We had big demonstrations. There were two demonstrations of 200,000 people each--big ones, really big ones. We were running around all over the place....

The national referendum vote against nuclear energy in Italy was in 1987. Approximately 59 percent of the voters said they did not want nuclear power in Italy. Since then, no nuclear plants have operated in Italy. Three plants were decommissioned and two others, which were undergoing construction, were not completed.

MM: Lega per l'Ambiente is now concentrating on the chemical industry?

Melandri: Yes, we are focusing our activities on pesticides, agrochemicals, toxic waste and the siting of chemical industry factories.

MM: What other projects or campaigns do you have underway?

Melandri: We are asking a number of companies to close down some plants which are unsustainable. We want to stop the production of pesticides and fertilizers. We are looking at specific plants, their emissions levels, the different kinds of wastes they produce and how they are managed. There are some which are in such bad shape that we have asked them to close down.... A Montedisos plant closed down last year.

MM: Has Lega per l'Ambiente examined Italy's export of hazardous waste?

Melandri: Yes, we have a very strong working group on that. You have heard about the ships that went around the Mediterranean Sea with our toxic waste last year. I must say that was a big, symbolic issue because it was sort of "hot" on the high seas, but the amount of toxic waste which was carried was absolutely nothing compared to the amount of toxic waste whose destination remains unknown. This issue is big. We have to track down the legal trade in these materials with Central Europe, Romania, Eastern Germany and with the Third World.

MM: How does working in Europe, where the actions of one country can have such a strong environmental impact on a neighboring country, affect the work of an environmental group?

Melandri: Generally speaking, environmental issues are very much international issues. Certainly within the European Community, between the European countries, there is a strong need for coordination. That is why we always try to act jointly with other European environmental groups. With regard to global warming, for example, we have formed a climate action network which puts together all the groups in Europe and throughout the world, and the European groups are constantly in contact with each other.

There are some areas of environmental protection where Italy is not far behind in comparison to other European countries; there are others where we are really still very far behind, for example car standards--fuel standards, urban planning and traffic, congestion of cities. Our cities are getting more and more unliveable because of traffic and air pollution. We have a very, very bad problem with air pollution.

MM: How do you anticipate the consolidation of the European Community in 1992 is going to affect the environment? What sort of responses are environmental groups preparing?

Melandri: Nineteen ninety-two is going to affect the environment very badly. I don't know about the environmental groups, but it will definitely be bad for the environment. Recently, there have been studies and projections about it. Just to give you an example: it is projected that with the implementation of the single act in 1992, there will be an increase in private transportation--as opposed to public transportation--of around 25-30 percent for all of Europe.

This is really a lot if you think of the impact in terms of emissions and pollution. This is only one example. There are many others, involving the lowering of certain environmental standards, especially implementation in countries which are the least developed economically and want to attract investment.

I think that 1992 will undoubtedly lead environmental groups in different countries to work together on European, not national, complaints. I think European environmental groups will have to begin to learn to do more of what we are just learning to do now. We should never stop doing things like demonstrations and sit-ins, but we also must learn how to lobby and put pressure on national governments and particularly on the European level--on the European Parliament and especially the European Council.

I think that will be one of the decision-making areas where environmental movements will have to learn to counteract the force of the industrial lobby, which in Europe is very strong.

MM: Do you feel EC 92 and the internationalization of capital and the related internationalization of environmental problems will lead the public to feel helpless, and cause the public to believe the environmental movement "can't make a difference?"

Melandri: I think that is a problem in Italy. The public is starting to perceive environmental issues that way: "what can we do about it? It is too enormous and too big." It was easier for us to stress our own Italian nuclear issue; that was the first real push of the Italian environmental movement which, I must underline, is still very young.

I think you always need to bring back the global and planetary issues and explain what they specifically mean for people in their own lives and in their own daily routine. Take the greenhouse effect: what does it mean for you and me? We very much need that kind of decodification.

On the other side, while the globalization of capital is creating new problems, I feel that international capital will not be able to [get away with ignoring] the environment, though [its effort] will be too little. The last 20 to 30 years of totally neglecting the problem cannot continue, and I think everyone is beginning to recognize this. In part, this is due to the environmental movement, but it is something that is bigger and stronger than just the environmental movement.

It is getting tricky because on one side of this you have consciousness and awareness rising, and on the other side, international institutional mechanisms are becoming more complicated. I think one of the big challenges for the environmental movement in the next few years will be to develop and influence international environmental law and the international mechanisms for regulating global environmental issues. I think this issue of international regulation is one of the main topics facing us, but that can be an opportunity too; I don't feel that it is only a limit.

Chernobyl helped us. The information that was given to the public was uncertain and contradictory...
The national referendum vote against nuclear energy in Italy was in 1987. Approximately 59 percent of the voters said they did not want nuclear power in Italy.
I think that 1992 will undoubtably lead environmental groups in different countries to work together on European, not national, complaints
I think one of the big challenges for the environmental movement in the next few years will be to develop and influence international environemental law and the international mechanisms for regulating global environmental issues.

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