Italian Olive Growers Suffer Through Long Summer of Drought, Wildfires

Coldiretti estimates that wildfires cost the Italian agriculture sector at least €1 billion in damage. Olive growers blame climate change for longer, hotter and drier summers.

Sep. 1, 2021
By Paolo DeAndreis

Recent News

Lower tem­per­a­tures cou­pled with much-needed rain­fall last week have finally reduced the num­ber of wild­fires in Italy after a hot and dry sum­mer saw numer­ous blazes engulf the coun­try.

From north to south, munic­i­pal­i­ties, fire­fight­ers, vol­un­teers, farm­ers and olive grow­ers have been work­ing to reduce the dam­age done to crops and infra­struc­ture due to the wild­fires. Several peo­ple have lost their lives to the wild­fires.

Life depends on water, and we can­not expect our olive trees to keep up their once abun­dant pro­duc­tion.- Angelo Del Cima, olive farmer in Viterbo

Italy’s lead­ing farm­ers’ asso­ci­a­tion, Coldiretti, esti­mated that Italian farm­ers have suf­fered at least €1 bil­lion in losses due to the fires.

The asso­ci­a­tion also asked for imme­di­ate com­pen­sa­tion after tens of thou­sands of hectares of woods and Mediterranean maquis burned to ashes, with olive orchards and trees car­bonized, ani­mals dead and pas­tures destroyed.”

See Also: Algerian Farmers in State of Shock After Week of Deadly Fires

Repeated heat­waves in the coun­try have also com­pounded the effects of the drought on yields and har­vests.

For our olives, the prob­lems are even greater than just high tem­per­a­tures,” Angelo Del Cima, an agri­cul­tural expert and farmer in the cen­tral Italian province of Viterbo, told Olive Oil Times.

Olive flow­er­ing in the spring is now more and more often fol­lowed by some very quick tem­per­a­ture rises,” he added. While the olive tree is strong and resilient and can with­stand such events, its pro­duc­tion capac­ity is heav­ily affected by such abrupt weather changes.”

Similar com­ments come from the olive grow­ers in the Lake Iseo region in Lombardy, where the weather changes have impacted olive flow­er­ing and ripen­ing to the point that many farm­ers report fruit drops.

Local grow­ers also blame the ubiq­ui­tous pres­ence of the Asian mar­morated stink bug, whose spread is increas­ingly con­nected to reduced olive yields.

According to the pro­duc­ers’ asso­ci­a­tion, Italia Olivicola, water stress exerts its effects not only on the ripen­ing of the fruit for the 2021 har­vest but may also neg­a­tively affect the fol­low­ing sea­son.

Del Cima is among those farm­ers who grow olive trees along­side other crops, such as legumes.

I remem­ber very well when the land was wet for 25 days in March,” he said. Now, in the last few years, agri­cul­tural land in March seems dry as it used to become in August.”

On the warmest days of the year, heat­waves in south­ern regions such as Sicily have pro­voked unheard-of tem­per­a­tures, up to 48.8 ºC, a record-high tem­per­a­ture in Europe.

See Also: Thousands of Hectares of Olive Trees Burned to Ashes Across Southern Turkey

While experts agree that such high tem­per­a­tures increase the risk of wild­fires, Coldiretti warned that not all blazes have a nat­ural ori­gin, even more so when they hap­pen in the woods.

The asso­ci­a­tion believes that many fires are sparked inten­tion­ally to devalue land and fuel spec­u­la­tion on the future of the prop­erty.

If we con­sider that six out of 10 wild­fires are of crim­i­nal ori­gin, Coldiretti believes that… the period dur­ing which the affected ter­ri­to­ries can­not have their reg­is­tered use changed must be increased from 15 to 20 years,” the asso­ci­a­tion said.

Coldiretti asked for the cur­rent law against such spec­u­la­tions to include all pas­ture and farm­ing land.

Enhancing mea­sures to pre­vent wild­fires has also become a top pri­or­ity for local admin­is­tra­tions.

In Tuscany, the regional gov­ern­ment has banned burn­ing brush­wood and veg­etable remains from farm­ing activ­i­ties until September 19, and a few other regions are expected to fol­low suit.

According to Tuscan Agrifood Secretary Stefania Saccardi an incor­rect, reck­less or super­fi­cial behav­ior could result in severe envi­ron­men­tal dam­age both to forests and the safety of cit­i­zens and to the econ­omy of all those agri­cul­tural and tourist accom­mo­da­tion activ­i­ties that live in the agri­cul­tural and forestry envi­ron­ment. We, there­fore, call on farm­ers and pri­vate indi­vid­u­als to behave pru­dently.”

According to Coldiretti, the time has come for work­ing on eco­nomic and social con­di­tions to coun­ter­act the aban­don­ment of the coun­try­side and give value to those activ­i­ties of sur­veil­lance, main­te­nance and man­ag­ing of the land car­ried out by farm­ers.”

We should also focus on good farm­ing prac­tices to pre­vent blazes,” added Del Cima, refer­ring to the many fires that have been fueled by cut grass left by farm­ers in olive groves and other agri­cul­tural lands.

Nowadays, many cut the grass on their fields and then leave it there for sev­eral good rea­sons, such as main­tain­ing humid­ity on the soil or reduc­ing ero­sion,” he added. Maybe it is time that farm­ers alter­nate the cut grass cover, leav­ing it one year over a por­tion of their ter­ri­tory and the year after leav­ing it on a dif­fer­ent por­tion.”

See Also: Heatwave, Deadly Fires Threaten the Approaching Olive Harvest in Greece

According to Marco di Fonzo, head of the spe­cial Carabinieri divi­sion ded­i­cated to com­bat­ing the fires, his unit has iden­ti­fied 40 dif­fer­ent causes for these blazes just this year.

They go from the burn­ing of veg­etable remains to bram­bles that are set on fire, down to the con­scious act of arson­ists, although they are only a few, and to van­dal­ism,” he said. It even hap­pened that a few young­sters started a fire to wit­ness the fol­low­ing actions of the fire­fight­ers.”

Di Fonzo added that the num­ber of fires in Italy grew sub­stan­tially, not in an extreme man­ner. However, when it comes to the num­ber and dimen­sion of the blazes, the most affected regions are Sicily and Sardinia. In this period of the year, Puglia and Calabria are also quite at risk.”

And while com­pen­sa­tion for the dam­age will soon reach farm­ers and agribusi­nesses, rare rain­falls and a few pow­er­ful thun­der­storms did not end the drought emer­gency, with dry land remain­ing an easy trig­ger for wild­fires.

That is the num­ber one con­cern. Life depends on water, and we can­not expect our olive trees to keep up their once abun­dant pro­duc­tion,” del Cima said. Today, drought is much worse than it used to be 20 or 30 years ago.”

In our area, rain­fall scarcity is the first line of evi­dence of the effects of cli­mate change,” he added. While olive oil qual­ity stays strong, olive yields are drop­ping by the year.”

Both Coldiretti and the Confederation of Italian Farmers (CIA) stress the impor­tance of more sus­tain­able water man­age­ment poli­cies and new infra­struc­ture to col­lect water and rain­fall through­out the coun­try.

According to Danilo Misirocchi, pres­i­dent of the Romagna branch of the CIA, more can be done to acti­vate new [water and rain­fall] col­lect­ing areas” after two decades, in which many efforts have made it clear that improved infra­struc­ture is needed in the region.

Hills are the part [of the Emilia-Romagna region] which are suf­fer­ing most water scarcity,” he said. No water means no pro­duc­tion.”

Coldiretti warned that a large por­tion of the sum­mer crops is also at risk in the north­ern Piedmont region.

We have moved from severe weather with dis­as­trous down­pours and tor­na­does to peri­ods of drought, so much so that 40 per­cent of the total sum­mer pro­duc­tion is now at risk,” said Roberto Moncalvo, mem­ber of the Cuneo branch of Coldiretti. In the first six months of the year in the north­west­ern province of Cuneo, an aver­age of 320 mil­lime­ters of water fell com­pared to the 650 usu­ally recorded.”

One thing I notice is that peo­ple who live in the cities do not seem to grasp the sever­ity of cli­mate change,” del Cima con­cluded. We need to get our acts together if we want to limit the dam­age that has already been caused.”





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