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How Rome's rubbish problem is attracting wild boar into the Italian capital

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By Andrea Carlo
Rubbish piling up in Rome.
Rubbish piling up in Rome.   -   Copyright  Credit: Paola Villani

Rome is one of Europe’s greenest capitals, boasting huge expanses of unspoilt countryside within its urban confines, including the Acquedotti park and the Monte Mario nature reserve.

But what many consider to be a blessing is worsening a long-running environmental crisis. 

With nature so close, wild boar have roamed into the centre, attracted by the overflowing garbage on the streets of the Italian capital. 

The hogs have been spotted in the historic heart and outside the headquarters of RAI – Italy’s main television network.

Agricultural association Coldiretti estimates there are in the region of 23,000 wild boar around the city.

Since boar incursions are widely perceived as harbingers of urban decay, citizens have pilloried the new administration ushered in last October -- headed by centre-left mayor Roberto Gualtieri -- for allegedly failing to fulfil his promise to solve Rome’s age-old garbage troubles, after he had unveiled an ambitious €40 million plan to clean the city by Christmas last year.

Now citizens are taking things into their own hands, protesting at what they consider to be unacceptable living conditions.

Credit: ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP or licensors
A wild boar in Rome, on Sept 27, 2021. Rubbish bins have been a magnet for the families of boars who emerge from the extensive parks surrounding the city to roam the streetsCredit: ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP or licensors

Rome's rubbish problem

But frequent boar incursions into the city's streets testify to more than its geographical context alone: rather, they alert to a serious and chronic garbage problem.

For years, local institutions have struggled to tackle the waste disposal crisis, especially after Rome’s notorious landfill, Malagrotta, was closed in 2013 for failing to meet European environmental standards. 

A lack of effective alternatives -- with tonnes of Roman rubbish even having to be exported to neighbouring countries, like Austria -- has resulted in frequent delays in garbage collection.

Consequently, the rotting smell emanating from overflowing bins has attracted the hungry hogs, which come in the search for food.

“It’s been demonstrably proven now that there’s a relationship between this boar epidemic and the waste disposal crisis,” Leonardo Maria Ruggeri Masini, an environmental activist, told Euronews.

“The fact that you have uncollected rubbish in the streets and parks of the city’s northern neighbourhoods might have been the cause of this epidemic.”

While the animals’ presence in urban areas has been especially associated with former city mayor – Virginia Raggi from the populist Five Star Movement, whose administration was habitually criticised over alleged waste disposal mismanagement – it’s clear that the problem is far from being fixed.

Credit: Andrea Perotti
Overflowing Rubbish bins on Rome's streetsCredit: Andrea Perotti

African swine flu detected

Earlier this month, African swine flu was detected among the wild pigs. While the epidemic poses no threat to humans, it can affect other animals. 

This has seen regional authorities create a large “red zone” in the northern half of the city, where picnics have been banned. 

Plans are also in place to cull the boar population.

The situation has gotten so out-of-hand in the so-called “red zone” neighbourhoods that citizens have even been sticking to self-imposed nightly curfews. At the start of the month, a woman and her dog were hounded down by a group of eight boars. The hogs chased after her dog and pinned her to the ground, leaving her lightly injured.

For activists like Ruggeri Masini, the wild boar epidemic hits close to home. The young campaigner himself resides within the “red zone,” and has dedicated much of his attention to looking after the nearby Monte Mario park, where many of the hogs dwell and have been sighted.

He also recently founded a group, Liberamente, which has the goal of fighting urban decay and promoting eco-friendly initiatives in Rome’s northern districts.

“If serious plans had been put in place to contain the boars, the situation wouldn’t be as bad,” he concluded. “To eliminate the risk of boars, we need to remove these garbage heaps now.”

'We can’t keep living like this'

While the high-risk “red zones” are largely in Rome’s northern suburbs, boars have even made it to parts of the city’s centre.

Prati, an affluent residential quarter flanking the Vatican, is one such neighbourhood.

Its inhabitants now claim to be routinely terrorised by repeated boar incursions, which they say is down to institutional neglect and a knee-deep garbage crisis.

A quick walk through Prati would seemingly lend credibility to such a theory, especially when one contrasts the district’s scruffy boulevards - where cherry blossoms and weeds flourish together amidst heaps of uncollected litter – to the comparatively pristine streets in the tourist-filled parts of the historic centre, such as those surrounding the Colosseum or the Spanish Steps. 

I would not say that the situation is out of control, the city is undoubtedly cleaner than how it was.
Sabrina Alfonsi

Now that boar incursions have also become a daily sighting for the neighbourhood’s residents, it would appear that Prati – which translates as “meadows” – has started to live up to its name.

One Facebook group, Prati in azione (Prati in action), collects the frustration of more than 4,600 members who have gathered to complain about the supposedly deteriorating living situation in their district.

“Walking through Prati: almost like an open-air landfill,” reads the comment of one user, replete with photos of jam-packed dumpsters and adjacent piles of rubbish festering on the ground.

“Even in Prati, boars cross the streets on the zebra crossings,” quipped another, with a picture of a hog in the middle of an elegant avenue.

One comment is tinged with an even greater degree of desperation. “The [boar] situation is so out of control, we can’t keep living like this,” it reads.

Luca Parenti, a freelance television producer and a long-time resident of the Prati district, founded the Facebook group in 2018, which is when he started to notice a significant decline in the neighbourhood’s overall decorum.

“The boar situation is unacceptable and must be dealt with immediately!” he said. “Last week, my daughter’s classmate got an awful fright after bumping into one on the street.”

“You want to know why we have boars roaming Prati and scaring residents? It’s because of the smell of the trash in the street, which draws them in from the countryside.”

Parenti pins much of the blame on local institutions, directly attributing the current situation to administrative changes to the neighbourhood’s status and the role of various councillors.

“As someone who self-identifies as left wing, I feel deeply betrayed by administrations who have done nothing to handle the issue,” he lamented, claiming he felt the neighbourhood had been “neglected”.

“We need a serious plan for street cleaning and sweeping, which just isn’t in place,” he alleged. “While an official street-cleaning schedule does exist and can be found on the AMA [Rome’s garbage disposal company] website, it’s largely ignored. It’s only when residents file complaints that anything usually gets accomplished.”

Parenti noted how certain councillors have taken his group’s complaints to heart, and have enacted thorough clean-ups on an occasional basis.

“But a one-off cleaning here and there isn’t good enough,” he added.

“When I moved to this neighbourhood over ten years ago, it was a jewel,” Parenti wistfully recounted. “But now, as a result of years of failed policies, Prati has become the neglected fringe of the city centre.”

Credit: AP Photo
Wild boars eat garbage near trash bins in Rome, Friday, Sept. 24, 2021Credit: AP Photo

'The situation is not out of control'

In response, Rome’s environmental councillor, Sabrina Alfonsi, emphatically rebuffed such accusations. 

Despite not directly addressing comments about Prati’s specific condition, she emphasised the city’s waste disposal management is under control and has been improving.

“I would not say that the situation is out of control, the city is undoubtedly cleaner than how it was [at the start of the new administration] in November 2021,” Alfonsi maintained. “I will provide you with a stat: today, we are able to collect 2,000 [more] tonnes of garbage a week compared to the start of the year.”

The councillor concurred that the city’s overall level of cleanliness was still not fully optimal, but she affirmed the current administration was intent on finding both a temporary and long-term remedy, especially as the boar epidemic poses a health and safety risk.

“Along with [AMA], we are working constantly to increase transfer capacity and to improve the service,” she asserted. “[But] it’s obviously just a provisional solution to resolve day-to-day management. The definitive solution to Rome’s waste problem will only come about when the city will be equipped with an adequate processing plant system.”

“The presence of African swine flu,” she added, “[means] we need to move rapidly. Possible options include moving street bins into private courtyards, replacing plastic containers with heavier metal ones that are harder to tip over, or having AMA trucks set up itinerant dumping sites with a pre-determined time slot.”

Rome’s mayor, moreover, has recently proposed an ambitious plan to build a colossal waste-to-energy plant, which he claims would process 650,000 tonnes of rubbish per year, and thus help to resolve the rubbish crisis.

‘Rome needs to wake up’

After years of feeling let down by local administration and being fed up with one environmental crisis after another, citizens have decided to take the matter -- or in this case, the litter -- into their own hands.

A group of exasperated residents from 21 neighbourhoods across the city have coalesced this month to create a new organisation, the Association for a Liveable City (Associazione per una città vivibile).

Among their activities, they’re now planning a sit-in protest this Thursday in front of the city hall on the Capitoline Hill, titled Stop to the Urban Decay (Basta al Degrado).

“The citizens of Rome are fed up,” their pamphlet reads. “Citizens are disappointed, worried, and tired of protesting without any response.”

Among the citizen-led initiatives in the city, some organisations -- like ‘Retake Roma’ -- have been on the field for far longer.

Founded by American law professor and longtime Rome resident, Rebecca Spitzmiller, following a graffiti complaint in her neighbourhood, the group has aimed to provide a citizen-led response to Rome’s garbage emergencies.

In its twelve years of existence, Retake has attracted a significant following, which includes locals and foreigners – especially international students – alike. Having amassed nearly 70,000 likes on Facebook, Retake has also spread beyond the Italian capital to several other cities throughout the country, and even boasts its own app.

While most of Retake Roma’s activities centre on litter collection and graffiti removal - often collaborating with the AMA disposal company itself - it self-reportedly takes a holistic approach to the matter, engaging in various community-building activities and even civic events, such as commemorative ceremonies honouring Italy’s liberation from fascism. The association’s body largely consists of volunteers, most of whom operate within their own urban district.

“You can really tell the difference between neighbourhoods which have a strong Retake presence, and those which do not,” claimed Angela Gallo, one of the group’s members.

Yet citizens like Parenti remain sceptical that groups like Retake Roma – however well-intentioned – can single-handedly handle the crisis and affect any enduring change.

“In theory, [Retake] are useful in raising awareness,” he argued. “But what we need are projects and continuous, day-to-day work.”

For Retake founder Spitzmiller, however, Rome’s age-old garbage woes transcend alleged administrative failings but are also rooted within a wider cultural problem. She reckons that Roman citizens aren’t doing enough to tackle the crisis themselves - and she attributes this to a lack of a recycling mentality, a broken relationship between citizens and their institutions, and a reluctance to take personal responsibility for poor waste disposal habits.

“Rome needs its citizens and administration to wake up,” Spitzmiller urged. “We cannot keep making excuses and saying ‘it’s not my fault, it’s not my problem’. People need to speak up, grow up, and clean up.”