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food / travel

Puglia Postcard: Ground Zero Of Italy's Olive Tree Disease Disaster

The bacterium Xylella has arrived in Italy, infecting thousands of olive trees in a stretch of the southeastern peninsula. Europe is powerless, with the region's entire economy at risk.

Uprooting Xylella olive trees contaminated by Xylella in Puglia
Uprooting Xylella olive trees contaminated by Xylella in Puglia
Pierre de Gasquet

ALLISTE — The so-called "Giant of Alliste" suddenly appears at the bend of a path. This imposing olive tree is 32-feet-high with a base of twisted trunks measuring 25 feet in circumference. It is said to be 1,500 years old.

Its shadow appears like a sleeping pachyderm, cast onto the Italian brown earth. But at the top of the tree, several branches appear stunted and desiccated, and have lost their colors. "Have you heard the news?" a local police officer Francesco Manfreda mutters. "The Giant is dying."

It is not alone. Some researchers estimate that as many as one million olive trees in the province of Lecce, in the southeastern region of Puglia, are affected by the same potentially lethal bacterium, Xylella. The disease striking the "green gold" goes beyond southern Italy, affecting regions around the country, as well as some other parts of Europe.

"It is feared that this disease is an epidemic if not a pandemic," Donato Boscia says, pointing at a map of infected zones at the National Research Council's headquarters in the regional capital of Bari.

Boscia is the man who identified the bacterium in 2013. "There is no treatment for trees to recover from this bacterial outbreak unlike the disease known as olive tree leprosy," he explains.

Only prevention measures remain to avoid the disease from quickly spreading all over the country. "From now on cutting trees down has become useless around Lecce considering that the infected zone is huge," the CNR lab boss explains.

So far,18 species have been at least temporarily contaminated, including the oleander, the rosemary, the asparagus and 312 other stumps and subspecies liable to be infected. But olive trees, also known as kings of Puglia, are the most seriously hit, given that they cover areas across 55% of the region.

"An environmental disaster"

The road winds through devastated fields between Gallipoli and Taviano, the nearby town where nearly half the houses are for sale because of the economic crisis. Olive trees are turned into stunted stumps and stand like skeletons as if they had been struck by invisible lightning.

Sandro Portaccio, a former advisor to Italy's minister of agriculture, says the situation is grim, and in large part can be blamed on the nature of the European Union's CAP (Common Agricultural Policy), through which farmers receive a subsidy without being encouraged to take care of the land.

"We are facing a real environmental disaster," he says. "Europe can't do anything about it. The disease is bound to reach Tuscany soon."

The impact of this outbreak on the local economy risks being enormous in an area known for its single-crop farming, where each family owns an average of just 50 olive trees.

According to Donato Boscia, the Xylella disease has already struck twice in other places in the past. In California, vineyards were devastated for decades by a similar bacterium around South Bay in Los Angeles. The outbreak essentially ended what had been a long-established wine-growing industry. More recently the same kind of bacterium (named Pauca) has been contaminating citrus fruits in Brazil.

No cut, no luck

Cutting infected trees down faces many obstacles even if the European Parliament requires it. "If your grandfather is suffering from a tumor, you will not cut his head off. At worst he will end up in a different room!" Pantaleo Piccinno protests. He is the president of the provincial federation of Coldiretti (an association of agricultural producers) and owner of a large farm in the north of Lecce which has for now been spared by the outbreak.

Environmental organizations are standing up against measures for eradication and pesticide treatment advocated by Brussels. In mid-April, environmentalists tried to oppose the felling of olive trees in the town of Oria, which is one of the most sensitive areas close to the buffer zone imposed by the European Commission.

As a precaution, Brussels ordered the elimination of every plant within a 100-meter radius of the contaminated trees. But some 20 nearly bankrupt nursery owners made an appeal last May to the local administrative court that blocked the implementation of the eradication program developed by special commissioner for the Xylella emergency Giuseppe Silletti.

"The European Union should come back down to earth. Eradication is a complex operation," Piccinno protests.

Giuseppe Silletti blames the EU as one of the main parties responsible for this catastrophe. "There should have been a better European system for supervising the importing of plant species," he says.

Silletti takes the example of coffee plants that had been contaminated by Xylella before being intercepted in the Rungis market in Paris last April. In charge of directing measures for eradication and the use of insecticides, Silletti's room for maneuver is extremely limited because of constant appeals and protests, and he will have to review his original plan in accordance with the new European decision adopted at the beginning of May.

"We have already sent 40 statements to the farmers who did not implement the measures. Plowing the fields is essential. We can reduce the carrier of the disease by 80%. If we get the green light we will order the trees down to be cut down," Silletti says.

Monsanto factor

The price of olive oil has so far doubled over the past year, following lower production volumes. "Most of the farmers are ready to sacrifice a few trees to save their cultivations but the European Union forbids us to replant olive trees," Coldiretti president Gianni Cantele says.

But the solution that some advocate is to transform the Salento peninsula around Lecce into an open-air laboratory for agronomic research, which is why Coldiretti organized a ‘cluster' to promote the use of nanotechnologies that were already used to fight against tumors. "If Americans did not succeed in combatting the bacterium, other ways have to be explored. But we need more means: the European Union has to invest in research."

Giuseppe Silletti, however, sees the darkest side of all. "Let us not fool ourselves: this whole affair is a set-up by agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation Monsanto Company," he declares.

Indeed, plenty of locals are convinced that the multinational is using Xylella as a Trojan horse to market its own stumps which are resistant to the bacterium.

Boscia calls such accusations "pure science-fiction," noting the EU legislation that forbids the cultivation of transgenic seeds.

Another fact is even more troubling: a recent official report on the ‘agromafia' published in January 2015 by the Eurispes Institute and the Observatory on Crime in Agriculture casts doubt on the origins of the olive trees' decline. It suggests that the CoDiRO syndrome could be linked to the use of pesticides.

Eurispes chairman Gian Maria Fara raised the possibility of a "chemical or bacteriological warfare" to promote property speculation in one of Italy's most sought-after regions for national and international tourism. The report notes that the areas most affected by the outbreak (Gallipoli, Racale, Taviano, Alliste, Parabita…) are also the most coveted by hotel builders and developers.

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