My article in the current edition of the Money Magazine. An e-copy of the magazine is available on this link.


You speak the word ‘mafia’ and it conjures up the quasi-glamorous images of American cinema. Frozen in the rackets of the 20th century, the iconography of those films of casinos and bootleg alcohol or even heaps of cocaine on grotesque captain-of-industry desks, misses a significant chunk of today’s racketeering. It is the exploitation, the trafficking, eventually the ruination of the most precious resource and therefore the highest priced commodity that we have: the environment we live in.

The term ‘ecomafia’ was coined some three decades ago by the Italian environmental NGO Legambiente. It describes several activities, some of which we might recognise in our neighbourhood. Illegal construction is one, an activity that is criminal not merely because it is a crime against good taste but because it relates to the parallel crimes of money laundering, itself of course an ancillary activity to the predicate crimes the proceeds from which it is laundering. It is the concretisation (quite literally) of the trafficking of drugs, people, and contraband, that enables the perpetrators to enjoy their ill-gotten wealth.

Ecomafias also exploit our habits, particularly our wilful generation of huge volumes of waste taken away from our front doors, sparing us the smells and inconveniences of our lifestyles and trafficking those wastes to dump them on poorer communities. Unlike illegal construction which happens in our face, it is harder to get people interested in waste trafficking, especially if it relies on old colonial routes dumping our first world problems on Africa and Asia.

Consider the predatory exploitation of rare resources or behaviour that causes consequential damage to them: the unlawful extraction of water for example, or its spoiling through unlawful practices.

Illegal construction, dumping of waste, and the unlawful exploitation of resources have long been perceived as activities worthy of punishment or sanction. But they are rarely recognised as part of a wider mafia activity because, as with many other aspects of law enforcement, we mistake the mafia for an ordinary business whose unsavoury attitudes and aggressive approaches to the market are no worse than ordinary capitalism and initiative.

That is how they get away with it.

Consider the collective frustration of yet another environmental disaster perpetrated by what we endearingly call “a cowboy developer” acting without proper permits. They are made to pay some fine in exchange for the regularisation of their unlawful act. Consider that against payment, what used to be unlawful has now been blessed into legality by the state.

The fine is calculated as a factor of the offence itself: one offensively unlawful building, one fine which is proportionate to the value of that building. You see, that building is worth much more to the “cowboy developer” than what they might sell it for. It is an enabling tool for far more significant economic activity. It is a place where cash coming in from, say, drug trafficking, can be shown to have been spent in making something. The something can then be resold and the income from that neatly deposited in bank accounts. The process of “regularising” an illegal building by the authorities is itself an act of money laundering. The fine the “cowboy” is made to pay is a fee for the normally extremely expensive service of laundering proceeds of crime. It’s a business cost for an organised crime syndicate.

By walking away with the collection of a fine the authorities assuage their consciences. They have not allowed an illegal environmental act go unpunished. They’ve ticked their box. In the meantime, “cowboys” can go right ahead and encroach some more on whatever nature is left and cast some more people in the shadow of their monstrosities. The obvious victims here are people whose health has been degraded some more on the altar of other people’s greed.

Deprived of nature, space, silence, clean air, sunlight, and a restful landscape, people are robbed of the physical and mental health they were born with a right to. Perhaps less obviously because of its often-inanimate silence, the environment is a victim as well. If we are to consider that we are collectively responsible for it, we must speak on its behalf and stand to protect it from the intrusion of mafiosi as we would speak for extorted owners of high street shops.

There’s some growing appreciation of the need to address these issues at the European level. Just last March the European Council signed off on a new European directive updating definitions of ecological crimes and directing member states to increase penalties for these crimes. New offences include illegal recycling of polluting components of ships, mishandling chemicals, or trafficking timber.

It’s important to remember that we are not here talking of corporate fines or sanctions ostensibly imposed to punish unlawful activity but effectively incorporated as a business cost like yet another tax. This is about identifying individual culpability and rewarding it with stiff prison sentences.

The new directive recognises that mafias will avoid coercion by violence if they can. Coercion by less bloody means is more economically effective. The most obvious and relatively inexpensive method is corruption, bribing politicians and officials, and infiltrating state organs to secure permits or certificates of provenance that enable the criminal activity they want to undertake.

While it is clear that an activity which is not covered by a required permit issued by a state organ is unlawful, that cannot mean that an activity which is covered by a required permit is, in and of itself, lawful. Permits granted within the context of a mafioso relationship between the private interest and the state or officials within it are a fig leaf that any decent law enforcement must see through.

The new directive is explicit in clarifying that a permit is no key to immunity from committing environmental crimes. There’s no such thing as a license to kill. There’s no such thing as a permit for ecocide.

Another way in which the authors of the directive show new appreciation of the mafia nature of these activities is that some of the solutions for combating it comes straight of the manual on fighting organised crime. The directive recruits civil society as a partner in this fight.

Too often victims of mafia – not the ones whose relatives have been shot or bombed – but the many others who are forced to live in communities whose economies and social cohesion is undermined and robbed by the mafia, do not recognise themselves as victims. This is especially the case with environmental crimes. Too often people accept pollution, noise, and the wounds of towers of concrete sprouting from the countryside, as the given and underlying circumstances of their existence. And the environment itself does not hire lawyers.

The new directive directs member states to remove barriers to environmental NGOs to join criminal proceedings against environmental criminals parte civile, as if the NGOs themselves were the direct victims of the crimes under review.

The directive does not yet have the force of law. It is brand new which means our own authorities have two years to turn it into national Maltese law. And that’s not an automatic process. Nor does it come with any guarantee of success. Our authorities have a habit of conducting these exercises of transposing laws behind closed doors and inserting in the law somewhere some way of making them practically ineffective. And then there’s the matter of enforcing them. Good luck with that.

Because a mafia state is also an ecomafia state. Only we can change that.