Farmers Battle Xylella Outbreak on Mallorca

Wrenching decisions on how to eradicate the disease are confronting islanders as they imagine a landscape without vegetation. The spread of the disease to mainland Spain is seen as inevitable.

Mallorca, Spain
By Pablo Esparza
Aug. 28, 2017 09:07 UTC
Mallorca, Spain

In November 2016, the first case of Xylella fas­tidiosa was con­firmed in Mallorca. Less than one year later, more than 400 cases have been reported along the Balearic Islands.
And the num­ber of infected trees grows at a rate of 40 every week, accord­ing to the author­i­ties of the Spanish Mediterranean arch­i­pel­ago.

In all of Italy, which is 10 times the size of the Balearic Islands, they have found just one kind of Xylella in five years. We have found five strains in six months.- Omar Beidas, Balearic Government

Xylella fas­tidiosa is a bac­terium affect­ing a num­ber of plants, includ­ing some fruit trees, but it has been in the spot­light for being deadly for olive trees.

It causes the so called olive quick decline syn­drome,” a dis­ease that has a dry­ing effect on trees and leads them to a rapid death. Some media in Spain have dubbed it the Ebola of the olive tree.”

After hav­ing affected more than one mil­lion spec­i­mens in the South of Italy and Corsica, the arrival of the plague in Spain — the main pro­ducer of olive oil in the world — was seen as a mat­ter of time.

Now, in the Balearic Islands, on top of the fears sparked by the dis­ease, local author­i­ties and farm­ers are also wor­ried about the erad­i­ca­tion plan pushed by the European Union, which com­prises the total elim­i­na­tion of veg­e­ta­tion within a radius of 100 meters (328 feet) around any infected plant.

The EU’s pro­to­col also pre­vents new trees to be planted before it has been proved that the area has been bac­te­ria free for at least five years.

If applied by the book, those mea­sures would vir­tu­ally destroy a big part of the Balearic Island’s veg­e­ta­tion.

These erad­i­ca­tion actions are dif­fi­cult to imple­ment. We try, but we have 400 infec­tion areas. And we have to elim­i­nate all veg­e­tal life in a 100 radius around them. This means burn­ing it all. Just imag­ine in terms of area what we are talk­ing about. And it is increas­ing,” Omar Beidas, sec­tion chief offi­cer of Plant Health at the Balearic Government told Olive Oil Times.

As it has hap­pened in Italy and Corsica, we are also hav­ing prob­lems strictly imple­ment­ing the European deci­sion. It would mean to dev­as­tate the islands. Because this is hap­pen­ing every­where: in wood­lands, crop­lands, urban areas… If you find a case in a pot in the city of Palma, you have to imple­ment the very same pro­to­col. We are talk­ing about any kind of plants: from olive trees to rose­mary,” he explained.

The Xylella fas­tidiosa bac­terium not only affects olive trees. It can be hosted by almost 400 species of plants. So far, in the Balearic Islands, it has been detected in fif­teen of them.

We have found the bac­te­ria in wild olive trees, olive trees, almond trees, prune trees, cherry trees, rose­mary, ole­an­ders, grape vines, fig trees…” Beidas pointed out.

It is impor­tant to high­light the hugely genet­i­cally diverse bac­te­ria we have here. In all of Italy, which is 10 times the size of the Balearic Islands, they have found just one kind of Xylella in five years. We have found five strains in six months,” he added.

When asked what alter­na­tives there are to stop the dis­ease instead of elim­i­nat­ing all veg­e­ta­tion around infected spec­i­mens, the expert sug­gested a con­tention plan rather than an erad­i­ca­tion one: a set of mea­sures that would allow local author­i­ties to elim­i­nate not all but only cer­tain plants.

The Balearic regional gov­ern­ment has already asked the Spanish gov­ern­ment and the EU to change the pro­to­col to allow this less dras­tic approach.

That would allow us a bit more mar­gin to work. But this won’t hap­pen until mid-2018. The EU doesn’t grant con­tention plans until you can prove that you have tried erad­i­ca­tion unsuc­cess­fully for two years,” Beidas said.

Although the dis­ease has spread through­out all three main Balearic Islands, the grav­ity of the sit­u­a­tion varies from one to another.


In Mallorca, as Beidas pointed out, most of the 50 – 60 detected cases in olive trees belong to a sub­species of the Xylella fas­tidiosa called Multiplex, a strain that does not kill the trees. Thus, the efforts to erad­i­cate it from this island are focused on almond trees, worse hit by the bac­te­ria.

Farmers on the largest and most pop­u­lated island of this Mediterranean arch­i­pel­ago are wor­ried about the advance of the dis­ease.

The sit­u­a­tion is no doubt wors­en­ing. We demand the author­i­ties to get together with the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the agri­cul­tural sec­tor, as we are the most dam­aged ones, to dis­cuss the sit­u­a­tion so they can con­firm that it is as bad as we are see­ing,” said Gabriel Biel, gen­eral sec­re­tary of the Farmers Union (Unió de Pagesos) of Mallorca.

We need to imple­ment pro­tec­tion mech­a­nisms: what can we do in order to stop the dis­ease and cure the trees and what pre­ven­tive actions we must take. It is also impor­tant to know how many trees we need to uproot and how. We don’t know that yet. We sit alto­gether to draw solu­tions,” he told Olive Oil Times.

Compared to Mallorca, the sit­u­a­tion in Ibiza, the sec­ond most pop­u­lated island, is much more dra­matic.

The strain in Ibiza has been able to move for­ward very quickly and, even cen­te­nary or mil­lenary olive trees have been dev­as­tated and have died,” Beidas said.

Although there is a ban of any veg­e­tal mate­r­ial to go out of the Balearic Islands since the begin­ning of 2017 in order to pre­vent the spread of the bac­te­ria, the first cases of Xylella fas­tidiosa were already detected in July in almond trees in the Valencia region, in Eastern Spain.

The jump from the islands to the Spanish main­land is regarded as inevitable.”


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