Saving Italy’s Ancient Olive Trees
A deadly epidemic has been wiping out olive trees in the south of Italy. While farmers struggle to rebound, one enterprising agronomist is fighting to preserve the country’s oldest and largest trees.
Photos—Jean-Marc Caimi & Valentina Piccinni
“Don’t make me cry,” implores Rocco Massimo, an Italian farmer, looking out over his barren olive groves in the province of Lecce. “I made many sacrifices to buy this land, with pride and passion, but now I am on my knees. This used to be a jewel, but not anymore.”
Up until a few years ago, a tourist visiting the Puglia Region in the southeastern part of Italy overlooking the Mediterranean Sea would see wide stretches of land covered with majestic olive trees. Today, that landscape has been transformed.
Most of the once-thriving olive fields owned by small farmers like Massimo are now a desolate wasteland dotted only by dry scrub and withered trees.
“Our land is unrecognizable; it looks like Chernobyl after the reactor incident,” says Antonio Manni, an agriculturalist who operates an old olive oil mill in Gemini, a hamlet of just a thousand people on the tip of Italy’s heel. Manni restored the mill himself, fulfilling a lifelong dream. Today, the mill is quiet, for there are no olives to press.
The villain behind this disaster is a plant disease caused by a bacterium called Xylella fastidiosa. It first appeared more than a decade ago, and in the span of a few years, the disease infected the whole of Salento, a part of Puglia. The Xylella epidemic has dealt a nearly fatal blow to the ancient culture of olive farming in the region. More hot spots have been recorded elsewhere, too, in the Netherlands, Corsica, and on the coast of Kosovo.
An ancient tradition
In Puglia and in the Mediterranean area, working with olive trees is a thousand-year-old tradition, still animated today by legends passed down from the region’s ancient inhabitants.
According to one story, a group of farmers challenged the nymphs to a dance competition. As a punishment for their arrogance, they were transformed into olive trees. There are still those today who swear they can spot the farmers’ faces in the tree trunks.
Apart from myths and fables, the trees themselves can be astonishingly old, some as much as six or seven hundred years, or even more than a thousand. The most famous of these giants is “The Queen,” an olive tree in the Salento Region of southern Italy that’s estimated to be 1,400 years old. Its trunk measures 14 m around, and every year it yields more than 600 kg of olives, 10 times the amount produced by a typical olive tree. The seed that produced this legendary tree first put down roots in the time of the prophet Muhammad. It survived wars and empires and lived long enough to be bequeathed to Michelle Obama in 2012 for her advocacy of the Mediterranean diet. But the Queen, too, is infected by Xylella and may soon die.
“How does a farmer feel, knowing that he is nurturing plants that belonged to his ancestor and that are now dying? We Apulians were accustomed to thinking that we men were temporary, but the olive trees were not,” says Manni.
A novel foe
The Xylella epidemic has badly damaged Italy’s economy. According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), five years after its first appearance, Xylella had severely injured or killed more than 10 million olive trees in Puglia. Coldiretti, the largest union representing the Italian agricultural sector, has evaluated the damages at €1.6 billion and estimates that number could grow up to €5 billion. Lacking an industrial economy like other parts of Italy, the region faces a steep and difficult recovery.
“I am devastated,” says Massimo. “I can’t do anything anymore, except ask for the Lord to give me strength and courage.”
While some Apulian farmers seek God’s help, they are also turning to science. The presence of Xylella in the region was first identified by a group of scientists from Italy’s most important public research center, the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR), who identified the strain of the bacterium responsible: Xylella fastidiosa subspecies pauca. First recorded in Costa Rica on oleanders, mango trees, coffee plants, and macadamia nut trees, this particular aggressive variant probably arrived in Italy with the import of decorative plants.
Xylella affects plants much in the same way that blood clots block arteries. Plants possess a vascular system composed of vessels for transporting nutrients and water.
And yet, he explains, with nearly every family operating a small olive farm, decisions about interventions are harder to coordinate. And since the olive farms are typically managed by family elders, who often lack higher education, he’s found that conspiracy theories about the disease have been quick to spread.
Rocco Massimo, for example, believes that the epidemic was “caused by someone who then lost control of it. This disease was introduced by those who wanted to destroy the world, and now they have.”
In truth, Massimo’s world has been crumbling for years. Young people are increasingly disinclined to farm olive trees. The pandemic has accelerated this process, practically erasing the old traditions of olive farming.
For Antonio Manni, there is no going back to the old ways. “As of today, we are planting new olive trees that are more resistant to the disease, thanks to financial help provided by the European Union. But it is a process that only big businesses that rely on intensive farming can afford. They already cut their trees and plant them again every 10 years. We will never again see the centuries-old trees that embodied the history and culture of Puglia.”
Saving the giants
Not everyone has given up on Puglia’s monumental olive trees, however. The agronomist Giovanni Melcarne, president of the consortium DOP Terra d’Otranto and owner of the oil production plant Forestaforte in Gagliano del Capo, believes he can make a difference.
Melcarne quickly grasped the gravity of the situation back in 2013, before most were ready to confront the epidemic. He was even able to guess the identity of the disease before the scientific evidence came in. “You only needed to look at what was happening all around us,” he says. “Different kinds of fields, worked with different techniques, were hit in the same way.”
To mount a response, Melcarne began experimenting with plant grafting. He has tried grafting olives that appear resistant to the disease onto others that have been infected, in order to identify the most resilient varieties. The results are promising. So far, he has grafted over 440 different types of olive tree plants on other trees of the same species.
Melcarne is realistic that he can’t save the whole industry this way, but he hopes to save at least the biggest, centuries-old olive trees.
“It’s unthinkable to use them to recreate the productive fabric of olive trees, because of its high cost. In other words, we will not save Salento with grafts, but the goal is to save our monumental olive trees,” he says.
When asked if and when we will get back what was lost over these last 10 years, Melcarne shakes his head. “For half of Puglia’s landscape to go back to the way we were used to seeing it before Xylella, it will take half a century.”
Lorenzo Fargnoli is an independent journalist and a member of the Permanent Journalism Centre, a consortium of freelance journalists. He has collaborated with publications such as L’Espresso, Left, Fanpage, the Caravan, and El salto.
Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni are a photographic duo focusing on contemporary stories. Their work is regularly featured in the press worldwide. Their personal involvement and unfiltered approach to documentary photography has resulted in their work being recognized internationally. Awards received include the Sony World Photography Award in the category “Discovery,” the Gomma Grant for best B&W story, the PHmuseum of Humanity Grant, and many others. Six of their projects have been published as books. These include a trilogy on cities in transition focusing on Naples, Rome, and Istanbul. Their work is exhibited at festivals and galleries, including the Biennale für aktuelle Fotografie, FotoLeggendo, and Voies Off.