A harsh, northeasterly wind whipped through the fields, covering us in fine, red dirt. We climbed into the car and drove through small towns full of ancient baroque churches and low-rise stone houses. Along the way, some fields were lush, full of wildflowers or thick vineyards. Others were graveyards. In these, husks of hollowed-out trees stood like wilted sentinels, dead at their posts. Though it was August, looking at the leafless trees, you’d think it was winter. Those trees were dead or sick and would soon die, devastated by Xylella Fadistiosa, a plague without a cure. Xylella may sound like some kind of ancient deity, but it is, in fact, an existential threat to the economy and environment of Italy and, by extension, Europe.
Finally, we reached our destination, a small field with row after row of healthy, green saplings. This is the work of OlivaMi, a local Southern Italian start-up, working to reverse Xylella’s damage. OlivaMi is the only non-profit association that allows you to adopt a tree to respond to Xylella. On that warm, windy day, I met with Stefano Pressicce, agrotechnic at OlivaMi, to explain OlivaMi, its history and mission and to show me the olive grove I adopted late last year.
What is Xyelella?
Xylella is a bacterium that infects and kills more than 600 species of plants. Originally native to the Americas, the first case of Xylella was detected in southern Italy in 2013. Scientists believe the origin was an imported plant (possibly coffee) from South America. The bacterium is spread via insects, leading to leaf scorch, wilt, dieback and eventually death.
The bacterium kills infected plants by preventing water movement in trees, causing leaves to turn yellow and brown before falling off, their branches following soon after. The further south you go in Puglia, the worse the disease is.
Impact on Italy
Over the last ten years, Xylella has devastated Italy. The disease has killed more than 21 million trees. 5,000 farmers have lost their jobs. Until Xylella, Puglia was Italy's primary producer of extra virgin olive oil (EVO). Since the disease arrived, olive oil production in Italy has dropped 50% (in the Salento region, it’s 80%). Italy was once a net exporter of olive oil; now it must import. In the Salento region (the southernmost part of Puglia), the landscape has transformed from endless waves of green groves to several large patches of dead, grey-brown olive tree skeletons.
The infestation has also had environmental consequences: The olive tree is a plant species with the greatest ability to absorb CO2 (according to a study, it can capture up to 600 kg/year). Air pollution has increased by 8%.
But those are things that can be counted. What’s immeasurable is the loss of culture and tradition, the psychological toll the disease has exacted on farmers and residents. Many farmers have abandoned their fields, and though they can receive subsidies to clear the dead trees and replant resistant ones, many have given up hope.
Regenerating the groves
But all is not lost. Through hard work, perseverance and a passion for their homeland, OlivaMi is dedicated to restoring what Xylella has taken.
The idea for OlivaMi came from a few English tourists and friends of the president of OlivaMi, who, as proud natives of Salento (from villages near the city of Lecce), saw the landscape become increasingly sadder and more "dead" due to Xylella. Fundraising was the only way to intervene and try to rebuild the Salento territory as soon as possible.
Stefano giving a tour of OlivaMi’s groves.
In January 2022, OlivaMi was officially born. The association promotes the adoption of olive varieties known to be resistant to Xylella: Leccino and Favolosa. The organisation recognises the adopters with 1 litre of oil for each tree adopted. You can also have a sign made (as I did) to identify your tree or grove.
So far, the organisation has planted more than 30,000 trees. There’s more work to do, but as a nonprofit, OlivaMi needs help. If you love Italy, Italian food, olive oil or care about the environment, consider adopting a tree.
Each hectare of olive trees removes 9.5 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere each year. Adopting a grove not only helps Salento but also helps to offset your own carbon emissions. And did I mention the olive oil! After two years, the newly planted trees can start producing olive oil.
You can learn more about OlivaMi and their work here: https://www.olivami.com/en/