As tourists return, Italy loses valuable olive trees to bacteria

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Italy’s tourism industry, hit hard by COVID-related travel restrictions, now faces 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 the Monumental Olives, in Puglia, a southern Italian region that attracts millions of tourists and celebrities like Madonna and George Clooney. The felled trees were infected with Xylella fastidiosa, a bacterium that slowly suffocates trees. It has already infected 20 million of Italy’s 150 million olive trees, mostly in the Puglia region, which used to account for up to 50 percent of Italy’s total annual olive oil production.

The infected trees were uprooted because they were found in a buffer zone: the Italian government is building a firewall to try to prevent the disease from spreading further north. But even with its removal, the disease will kill the Piana’s 250,000 monumental olive trees, estimated to be up to 2,000 years old. The mature trees cover the region’s stunning red soil, caress the blue Mediterranean Sea and frame the characteristic masserie (farmhouses).

Xylella came to Italy from Latin America in the early 2010s. According to Ettore Prandini, president of Coldiretti, Italy’s leading farmers’ association, the bacterium has caused more than $1.2 billion in damage to Puglia’s economy over the past decade. The spread has halted olive production, shuttered olive mills and driven out tourists.

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

There is no cure for Xylella; Most trees, once infected by an insect bite, die within a few years. The government is trying – after a long delay – to contain the disease while researchers look for solutions.

Visitors to the Piana experience the majestic olive forest on organized tours, tastings or sunset walks, and fuel a local high-end hospitality industry that includes famous hotels such as Masseria Torre Coccaro, Borgo Egnazia and Masseria San Domenico. The disease is spreading throughout the area amid fears that if these majestic trees disappear, the lucrative tourism industry could follow. A 2021 study on the impact of Xylella in Puglia says tourist services will fall by 52 percent in the short term and 32 percent in the long term if all trees are lost.

“Puglia’s appeal is related to its agricultural landscape,” says Gianfranco Ciola, an agronomist from Ostuni who owns about 100 monumental olive trees recently infected by the bacterium. “The lack of such a landscape will cripple the local economy and the blow will be felt not only for tourism but for all industries that depend on it.”

When Xylella began its run north from Salento a decade ago, the southernmost part of the region was still green and vibrant. But with widespread abandonment of agriculture in Salento — where many farming families have essentially abandoned or abandoned tending their fields — the disease spread quickly. In addition, conspiracy theories flourished. Many people refused to believe the trees were dying due to an alien bacterium, blaming scientists instead. And instead of uprooting the first few infected trees and trying to keep the disease from becoming a permanent threat, the region’s elected leaders blamed conspiracies.

Local courts even began investigating scientists studying the disease, effectively thwarting most efforts to stop the spread of the bacterium. The disease was able to spread like wildfire across 90 miles and 2 million acres of olive groves. The lower part of Puglia is now an open-air tree cemetery.

According to Boscia, the spread of Xylella in the Piana appears to have slowed. He says the region’s lower winter temperatures are hampering the bacterium’s survival, and timely application of agronomic practices like tilling the fields and mowing excess grass prevents the rampant spread of the insect that carries the disease.

“We are trying to encourage the grafting of the monumental plants with the Leccino olive variety,” said Boscia. His research team discovered that two varieties of olives, Leccino and Favolosa, are resistant to the disease and, if grafted properly, can preserve the olive stems. The technique is relatively simple: cut off the top of the tree and insert fresh shoots of Leccino or Favolosa 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 government established a $5 million fund to support such a technique, but according to Boscia, it came with so much bureaucracy that few people applied.

Carmela Ricciardi, president of the association Libero Comitato Anti-Xylella (The Free Anti-Xylella Committee) has called on local tourism entrepreneurs with ancient olive mills and thousand-year-old trees in their masserie to lead the grafting effort; According to her, there was no answer.

“You don’t know how much of our identity we’re going to lose when our ultra-century trees are gone,” says Ricciardi.

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

“I see a brighter future ahead of us because we’re more careful and inclined to protect (our trees) from this virus,” Muolo says of the anti-bacterial effort.

“To those who want to see these plants, I can say, even if I sound like a curse, come now,” urges the agronomist Ciola. “Otherwise you won’t see them anymore.”

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