Where the Olive Trees Are Dying: A Front-Line Report on Xylella

As the disease spreads, olive growers in northern Puglia remain confident their trees will fare better than those of the neighbors to the south.

Giuseppe Cineare collecting olives at his orchard near Oria. (Photo: Cain Burdeau)
Nov. 20, 2017
By Cain Burdeau
Giuseppe Cineare collecting olives at his orchard near Oria. (Photo: Cain Burdeau)

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CASALINI, Puglia – Deep in Puglia’s hills green with olive groves there’s no sign of trou­ble. The trees look healthy and are hung with strands of olives – green and black pearls.

This is the Valle d’Itria, a rus­tic place of dirt roads, mean­der­ing stone walls, and cone-shaped struc­tures called trulli.

Italy will become a desert if they do what they want us to do.- Farmer in Oria, Italy

But not all is right. Scientists recently announced the dis­cov­ery of the Xylella fas­tidiosa dis­ease here – the same deadly plant pathogen stran­gling thou­sands of olive trees far­ther to the south in the flat­ter low­lands of Salento where olive groves range as far as the eye can see.

This quiet cor­ner of Puglia is now the north­ern tip of the deadly march of Xylella fas­tidiosa, a dis­ease threat­en­ing not only this olive-rich land but the entire Mediterranean region and the rest of Europe. the European Food Safety Authority reports Xylella has been found in Corsica, the Balearic Islands and south­ern France.
See Also: World Map of Xylella Fastidiosa Host Plants
Puglia, though, is ground zero.

And the next stop of this deadly march could very well be the Piana degli Ulivi Millenari a few kilo­me­ters from Casalini. If so, the dis­ease would threaten a coastal plain north of Ostuni filled with mag­nif­i­cent ancient olive trees.

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Many olive grow­ers inter­viewed by Olive Oil Times did not believe the sci­en­tists and gov­ern­ment agen­cies warn­ing that the dis­ease must be stopped – let alone with dras­tic mea­sures includ­ing dig­ging up and destroy­ing infected trees and those close by.

A poster is affixed to the tree requesting protection for old monumental olive trees. The area’s olive trees have been attacked by Xylella fastidiosa, a plant pathogen that scientists say is killing thousands of trees and spreading north (Photo: Cain Burdeau).

One of those grow­ers is Cosimo Epifani.

On a recent October morn­ing, the 38-year-old was gath­er­ing olives with his fam­ily. His father was on his knees pick­ing up fallen olives.

Somewhere in the nearby groves, sci­en­tists had iden­ti­fied seven trees infected with Xylella, accord­ing to a regional Web site that tracks the infec­tions.

Epifani shook his head. He did­n’t buy it: For him, the Xylella cri­sis is a fab­ri­ca­tion to enrich sci­en­tists and oth­ers and an out­growth of poor man­age­ment of olive orchards in Salento, where trees with dead leaves – leaf scorch­ing – were first noticed in 2010. The dis­ease has invaded 23,000 hectares in Puglia, accord­ing to a recent study.

I don’t think it’s going to hap­pen here,” Epifani said. It’s just a money-mak­ing scheme.”
See Also: Complete Coverage of the Xylella Outbreak
Sitting in a car, his mother, Maria Solfatto, agreed. She down­played the sever­ity of the dis­ease and believes Xylella has been in Puglia for a long time – at least since the 1950s when the region saw record snow­fall.

They alleged grow­ers in Salento – where groves are large com­mer­cial oper­a­tions – were at fault.

It’s because they haven’t taken care of their trees,” Epifani said as he packed up his olive pick­ing equip­ment and put crates brim­ming with olives into a trailer. It was time for pranzo, lunch.

They’ve found it (Xylella) because they went look­ing for it,” Epifani said. That’s what hap­pened – that’s it right there.”

Cosimo Epifani working with his family at his olive orchard near Casalini in the Valle d’Itria, Puglia (Cain Burdeau)

Despite the pleas of news­pa­pers, sci­en­tists and gov­ern­ment offi­cials, it’s com­mon to hear sim­i­lar argu­ments – and even more nefar­i­ous the­o­ries – issued from farm­ers and envi­ron­men­tal activists.

There are those who allege the dis­ease was intro­duced by multi­na­tional agri­cul­tural cor­po­ra­tions in a plot to force grow­ers to buy pes­ti­cides and her­bi­cides as well as dis­ease-resis­tant olive vari­etals. There are those who allege devel­op­ers were behind the spread of Xylella in a plot to trans­form parts of Puglia into golf courses and tourist resorts. There are those who say Xylella has always existed here.

Scientists say Xylella arrived in Puglia with the impor­ta­tion of plants from Costa Rica, where the dis­ease is endemic.

This skep­ti­cism and denial are con­tribut­ing to the dis­ease’s spread, sci­en­tists warn. The European Commission has urged Italy to do more to stop the dis­ease, which researchers say is car­ried by spit­tle­bugs. There is no known cure.

Those who doubt that Xylella causes the olive dis­ease are in denial,” said Alexander H. Purcell III, a Xylella expert at the University of California at Berkeley. Doing noth­ing allows the bac­terium and the dis­ease it causes to spread quickly. This accel­er­ates the spread of the dis­ease to their neigh­bors and the envi­ron­ment.”

The mis­giv­ings of olive grow­ers, though, aren’t just unfounded fan­tasies. In a strange twist, they echo alle­ga­tions made by Italian author­i­ties.

In 2015, mag­is­trates in Lecce announced a crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tion into whether Xylella was intro­duced on pur­pose. The mag­is­trates have said till­ing, prun­ing and other mea­sures have proven effec­tive. They also have argued that the heavy use of her­bi­cides weak­ened the trees. Their inves­ti­ga­tion con­tin­ues.

On the edge of Salento, the tragedy of the Xylella out­break comes into focus.

Only 20 kilo­me­ters south from the green hills of the Valle d’Itria, groves near the town of Oria are under attack. In the space of two years, groves here have become a kind of war zone – a scene out of a pic­ture book on plagues. It’s no won­der why some call Xylella the Ebola of the olive tree.

Olive tree near Oria, in the area of Salento in Puglia, that has been felled due to an outbreak of Xylella fastidiosa. (Photo by Cain Burdeau)

Along the high­way, tow­er­ing olive trees are cov­ered in brown brit­tle leaves. Further afield, even more groves show the tell-tale signs: dying leaves and branches.

We’re all in trou­ble here,” said Giuseppe Cineare, a 55-year-old grower who was col­lect­ing olives with an auto­matic clap­per. He said the dis­ease had­n’t been found in his grove, but that it had been in nearby orchards. If it con­tin­ues we’re all destroyed here in agri­cul­ture.”

He shook his head and lamented there was no clear plan.

There are those who are treat­ing, there are those who don’t, there are those who are doing bio­log­i­cal treat­ment and that does­n’t work,” he said.

For his part, he reck­oned his trees had­n’t been infected because he uses chem­i­cals to kill the bugs. I treat the trees,” he said.

Not far away trees had been cut down to stumps and com­pletely dug up.

In one grove a farmer appeared to be attempt­ing to save trees by cut­ting them back dras­ti­cally to the trunk and graft­ing on new stock, pre­sum­ably to make the trees resis­tant to the bac­te­ria. Some vari­etals are believed to be immune.

At one grove full of old gnarly trees, an elderly farmer com­plained that author­i­ties had deemed a few of his trees to be infected.

Look at them, they are healthy,” he said, point­ing to the trees with prun­ing clip­pers in hand. They want us to cut them down,” he said. What are we to do? What hap­pens if we don’t cut them down? They say we will be fined. We can’t afford fines.”

Cosimo Epifani working with his family at his olive orchard near Casalini in the Valle d’Itria, Puglia (Photo by Cain Burdeau).

He chose not to give his name because he was involved in a legal fight to save his trees from being cut down. Instead of cut­ting down trees, he said they needed to be pruned heav­ily and looked after.

His farm – fenced and kept neatly trimmed and plowed – was sand­wiched between groves where infected trees had been dug up. One of those trees was ancient, the farmer said. His wife showed up and spoke bit­terly about gov­ern­ment man­dates to extir­pate trees. She also chose not to give her name.

Italy will become a desert if they do what they want us to do,” she said.

Further along the dirt road the tragedy con­tin­ued. More stumps, more empty groves, more brown­ing trees.

What is the solu­tion? Will Puglia erad­i­cate all its infected trees and raze oth­ers to stop the spread? Will the use of her­bi­cides and pes­ti­cides be the solu­tion? Will heavy prun­ing and till­ing staunch its spread? Will the intro­duc­tion of preda­tor bugs prove effec­tive?

At the end of another dirt road and in the midst of a grove of beau­ti­fully twisted olives, Cosimo Albertini, an olive tree pruner and grower, came out of his farm­house to talk. He too blamed dark forces.

They poured it on us – the multi­na­tion­als,” he said. There is a lot of inter­est among multi­na­tion­als in Puglia.”

Asked to clar­ify, he stated with­out hes­i­ta­tion that he believed the dis­ease was sprayed on Puglia.

He grew ani­mated. We’re destroy­ing our pat­ri­mony,” he said about man­dates to dig up infected trees and oth­ers to cre­ate buffer zones. This is a his­toric refuge that they are mak­ing us destroy.”

He added: They want us to extir­pate the trees, just like they did in England with mad cow (dis­ease). They were com­pen­sated but they aren’t com­pen­sat­ing us.”


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