Oil giant v Sicilian heritage: A battle for environmental justice

5 Mins read

What does GreenPeace climate litigation in Sicily symbolise for the younger generation? 

Growing up I have always been ashamed of my hometown.

The first thing you notice as soon as you go past the ‘Welcome to Gela’ sign is the endless stretch of land, where the ugly red and white towers for industrial production are. 

Before even seeing this, you can sense it through the poisonous stench of industrial waste that has been part of my life since day one.

Although Sicily can seem a beautiful place for tourists coming to famous destinations, the part of the island where I spent 18 years of my life never seemed worthy of praise for me. 

If you’re booking your next holiday to Sicily, thinking the whole island is a paradise, and your knowledge is limited to Taormina, Palermo and all those beautiful natural landscapes and historical buildings, there’s a side of the island you completely missed (or was strategically hidden from you). 

That is why taking my boyfriend home for the first time made me anxiously undersell my town, asking him not to have high expectations of any sort, which he might get from watching TikTok’s videos of the island. 

Gela’s Gulf, located in the south-west of the island, was once a popular tourist destination and a stunning unspoiled natural setting.

It was converted into an industrial area as part of one of Sicily’s three complexes, the others being in Syracuse and Augusta. The opening of the petrochemical industry in 1963 has caused decades of pollution, ruining the natural landscape of Sicily.

With its flame-shooting six-legged-dog logo, the oil giant ENI is widespread throughout Italy like a disease. Releasing 419 millions of tons of CO2 just in 2022, ENI is amongst the first 30 companies globally to produce the highest quantities of pollutants.

In May 2023 Greenpeace and ReCommon filed a lawsuit, the first ever Climate Litigation against  “the fossil fuel company ENI, the ministry of finance and Economy,  for past and potential future damages resulting from its contribution to climate change, of which ENI was well aware but chose to ignore for decades”, as reported by their media briefing. 

During my interview with Simona Abbate, a correspondent from the Climate litigation she affirmed: “While waiting for a judge’s verdict any day now, a possible victory for Greenpeace could set a legal precedent and hope Italian citizens to keep fighting.”

What the lawsuit represents is the possibility to imagine and hope for a better future for my town and any other affected areas. 

Going home with my boyfriend offered me a new perspective. While walking on the beach I didn’t expect him to enjoy the view, as one side is directly facing towards the industry – not exactly a postcard view. 

Not so Postcard View Gela, Arianna Distefano
Postcard of a not-so-postcard view [Arianna Distefano]

But while we were walking past ‘La Conchiglia’, or what’s left of it, he said he was impressed by the beauty of the place and saw the potential in it.

La Conchiglia, a renowned tourist destination during the 50s and 60s, which today’s generation probably don’t know about, is a symbol of what happened to the city.

Picture this: in 1958 with a shell shaped design ahead of its time, the structure was originally submerged in the sea, anchored to the seabed by stilts deeply embedded in the sand. To reach its central structure, surrounded by two rows of cabins, you would have to walk across a 30-metre-long bridge.

The iconic place, named the ‘pearl of the Mediterranean’, a centre for cultural and artistic performances, hosted major Italian singers of the time in its vast circular space that was used as a restaurant and ballroom.

Other than being a tourist site, the venue had a special place in locals’ hearts, as many celebrated their weddings, special occasions, and attended balls there.

My grandparents remember fondly the time spent there and, although they have witnessed first-hand the decay of the structure alongside the one in the whole city, they preserve memories and feel a profound attachment to the place.

This is something I could never relate to.

It angers me that the damage caused by the industrial complex before I was even born has caused so much suffering, decay, and pollution that I could never see the beauty, nor understand the feelings of my grandparents towards my own hometown. 

Gela – Lido La Conchiglia 1960 [Wikimedia Commons]

Although it could take years to happen, restoring this place’s beauty could mark a transformative step, starting with a thorough decontamination of the area. Meanwhile, demolishing the existing structure to make way for a repurposed building or salvaging what remains, could pave the way for a brighter future for Gela.

‘La Conchiglia’, as a beach destination, was shut down only five years after the opening of the petrochemical industry when the consequences of industrial production became evidently widespread.

The industry aesthetically ruined the landscape. This had worse repercussions when locals started getting sick and refusing to bathe in the area, and tourists began to notice industrial waste in the sea and partially black sand from petroleum waste attached to their skin.

Following the complete shutdown of the chalet, the Conchiglia was still used as a space for events and restaurants, but it had never restored its fame. The lateral structure, where the cabins were once located in the water, now in the sand after partially falling, was demolished in the 2000s.

The owners sued Eni for the damages it caused to their business and the lack of tourism, but they lost the lawsuit.

The space was later used to run illegal poker games until a homicide related to mafia organisations took place within it, and at that point, the building was left to its fate by the owners and the state. 

Today the building is doomed to be demolished because despite being a protected building by the province, the work to make the structure safe again was never completed, and the risk of its collapse is extremely high. 

La Conchiglia Today, view from the beach [Arianna Distefano]

Local residents, including Conchiglia’s owners, have pursued legal action against Eni, the oil giant, but despite the Italian State’s 30% ownership, no action has been taken to address or compensate for decades of air, water, and ground pollution leading to a raised mortalitymalformations and cancer cases. 

The petrochemical complex in Gela was recently transformed into a ‘biorefinery’ closing some areas and letting off thousands of employees.

While some of the procedures of burning petroleum waste in Gela have stopped, there is a pressing concern for citizens to start the decontamination of the areas where, for decades, the industrial waste was buried under the soil. 

“Young people experience social pressure and they struggle to imagine their future in a place like that,” says Simona Abbate. 

At age 12, I had already decided I would leave the place and never look back. Nearly everyone I went to high school with has moved to major Italian cities for university and has no plans of returning.

My hometown is a striking example of why the Greenpeace campaign is so important for citizens. 

Simona Abbate told me the legal action is part of a bigger campaign against the fossil industry aimed at changing public opinion on big oil companies and making people realise how much the industry influences media, news, and political matters.

“We’re not asking for money, we ask them to address their faults and recognise their damages in all the aspects: economic, environmental and health-related.”

The possible victory could pave the way for efforts to restore the natural beauty of landscapes and revive tourism in previously affected areas, and that gives us hope for the first time in decades.

Artefact has reached out to Eni for comment about this story, but so far the company has yet to respond.

Featured image by Roberto Pocorobba via Wikimedia Commons.


  • +


  • -
Related posts

The journey to MaXXXine: Revisiting Ti West's X and Pearl

9 Mins read
In the ever-evolving realm of contemporary film, few endeavours have masterfully intertwined the intricacies of aspiration, sexuality, individuality, notoriety, generation gaps, and emotional distress within the immersive fabric of terror quite like this.

Revolutionising 3eib: From shame to strength in Arab culture

4 Mins read
Amid cultural evolution, Arab millennials and Gen Z are flipping the script on ‘3eib’ through art, fashion, and collective action.

How can you make creative friends in London?

2 Mins read
Building a community is made easier with a middleman and a great location at the heart of Brick Lane. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *