As Tourists Return, Italy Loses Valuable Olive Trees to Bacteria


Italy’s tourism industry, which has been hit hard by COVID-related travel restrictions, is now facing the loss of one of its most popular natural attractions.

In early November 2021, the Italian government ordered the uprooting of 1,150 olive trees in the Piana degli Ulivi Monumentali, or Plain of Monumental Olive Trees, in Puglia, a region in southern Italy that attracts millions of tourists and celebrities. such as Madonna and George Clooney. The felled trees were infected with Xylella fastidiosa, a bacterium that slowly chokes trees to death. It has already infected 20 million of Italy’s 150 million olive trees, mostly in the Puglia region, which contributed up to 50% of Italy’s total annual olive oil production.

Infected trees were uprooted as they were found in a buffer zone: By creating a firewall, the Italian government is trying to prevent the disease from spreading further north. But even with their elimination, the disease risks killing the 250,000 monumental olive trees of Piana, which are estimated to be 2,000 years old. Centennial trees cover the magnificent red earth of the region, caress the blue of the Mediterranean Sea and frame its characteristic masseries (farms).

Xylella arrived in Italy in the early 2010s from Latin America. According to Ettore Prandini, president of Coldiretti, Italy’s main farmers’ association, the bacteria has caused more than $1.2 billion in damage to Puglia’s economy over the past decade. The spread halted olive production, shut down oil mills and drove tourists away.

“Puglia is facing one of the worst plant epidemics in history,” said Donato Boscia, plant virologist and chief Xylella researcher at the Bari Institute for Sustainable Plant Protection. “For the rest of the Mediterranean (Xylella) is a bloody concrete threat.”

There is no cure for Xylella; most trees, once infected by the bite of the insects that carry them, die within a few years. The government – after much delay – is trying to contain the disease while researchers search for solutions.

Visitors to the Piana experience the majestic olive grove via organized tours, tastings or sunset walks, fueling a local upscale hotel industry that includes famous hotels such as Masseria Torre Coccaro, Borgo Egnazia and Masseria San Domenico. The disease is spreading across the territory amid fears that if these majestic trees disappear, the lucrative tourism industry could follow. A 2021 study on the impact of Xylella in Puglia said that if all trees are lost, tourist services will decline by 52% in the short term and 32% in the long term.

“The attraction of Puglia is linked to its agrarian landscape,” explains Gianfranco Ciola, an agronomist from Ostuni who owns a hundred monumental olive trees recently attacked by the bacteria. “The absence of such a landscape will cripple the local economy, and the backlash will be felt, not only on tourism but on all the industries that depend on it.”

Ten years ago, when Xylella began its run north from Salento, the southernmost part of the region was still green and alive. But the widespread abandonment of agriculture in Salento — where many farming families have essentially given up tending to their fields, or abandoned them — the disease has spread rapidly. Additionally, conspiracy theories flourished. Many people refused to believe that the trees were dying from a foreign bacteria, instead blaming the scientists. And rather than uprooting the first infected trees and trying to prevent the disease from becoming a permanent threat, the region’s elected officials blamed the conspiracies.

Local courts have even begun to investigate scientists researching the disease, effectively thwarting most efforts to stop the spread of the bacteria. The disease was free to burn like wildfire across 140 kilometers and 2 million acres of olive groves. The lower part of the Puglia hat is now an open tree graveyard.

According to Boscia, the spread of Xylella seems to have slowed down in the Piana. He says the region’s lower winter temperatures are hampering the bacteria’s survival and that the faster application of agronomic practices such as plowing fields and cutting excess grass prevents the insect from spreading wildly. carrier of the disease.

“We try to encourage the grafting of monumental plants with the Leccino olive variety,” Boscia said. His research team found that two varieties of olives, Leccino and Favolosa, are disease resistant and can preserve olive trunks if properly grafted. The technique is relatively simple: cut the top of the tree and insert fresh Leccino or Favolosa shoots into the trunk, which will later become the new branches of the tree.

But the grafting technique is expensive, costing hundreds of dollars per plant. In 2021, the regional administration created a $5 million fund to support such a technique, but according to Boscia, it involved so much bureaucracy that only a few people applied.

Carmela Ricciardi, president of the association Libero Comitato Anti-Xylella (Free Anti-Xylella Committee) appealed to local tourism entrepreneurs with old oil mills and millennial trees in their masserie to lead the transplant effort; according to her, there was no response.

“They don’t realize how much of our identity we will lose when our ultra-century-old trees are gone,” says Ricciardi.

Vittorio Muolo, one of the owners of Masseria Torre Coccaro, a farmhouse turned five-star luxury hotel, says he understands and appreciates the essential role his olive trees play in creating the Puglia experience sought by visitors. . He says the owners have worked their land carefully to prevent the spread of the disease and says Torre Coccaro will start grafting its 300 monumental trees later this year – but only at the rate of 50 trees a year.

“I see a brighter future ahead of us because we are more careful and inclined to protect (our trees) against this virus,” Muolo says of the antibacterial effort.

“To those who want to see these plants, I can say, even if I may look like a lucky charm, come now,” urges Ciola, the agronomist. “Otherwise you won’t see them again.”

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