Growers despair as disease ravages Italy’s olive groves

Italian olive grower Federico Manni is at the end of his tether.

Growers despair as disease ravages Italy's olive groves
Pantaleo Piccinno checks an olive tree partly infected by xylella fastidiosa at the Caprarica di Lecce estate. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

“You see this one,” he says, waving in the direction of a majestic but diseased olive tree on his property near Gallipoli on the Salento peninsula on Italy's heel.

“It is over one thousand years old. Fires and wars failed to kill it, but that's what xylella is doing.”

Manni's wedding pictures were taken underneath this particular tree. And he is filled with dread at the prospect of its imminent demise at the hands of a bacterial infection thought to be behind an outbreak of dessication ravaging the olive groves of this fertile corner of southern Italy.

“I am very pessimistic,” the young spokesman for producers organization “La Voce dell'Ulivo” (The Olive's Voice), said. “I feel like we have no weapons with which to fight back.”

The reason for Manni's despair is xylella fastidiosa, a deadly bacterial pathogen that has no known cure and, for reasons experts have so far been unable to explain, began infesting olive trees in Salento at the end of 2013.

More than a million trees, 10 percent of Salento's total, are estimated to have been infected in a a region where abundant olive groves are synonomous with the timeless landscape.

Most of those that have been infected have or will soon become stunted, leafless and ultimately lifeless.

How many trees will ultimately suffer that fate is unclear, as is the extent to which the bacteria has spread to other parts of Italy.

What is clear is that the potential damage is huge: xylella does not harm humans but can kill over 200 types of plant, including fruit trees and grape vines. “It is an environmental disaster,” says Manni.

Under pressure from the European Union, the Italian government last year approved the felling of some 3,000 trees under a plan to create a sanitary buffer zone between affected and non-affected areas, thereby hopefully containing the problem in Salento.

'Very worrying situation'

But a legal challenge from producers succeeded in halting the implementation of the scheme.

“Our expert told us that there it was not absolutely sure that xylella was the only reason for the dessication of the trees,” explained Cattaldo Mota, a magistrate in the city of Lecce who ordered the halt.

“The identity of the landscape of the Salento is linked to the olive tree, we wanted to prevent it from being destroyed without an opportunity to look into the problem more deeply,” Mota added.

To complicate matters further, 10 officials involved in tackling the disease have been placed under investigation on suspicion of misrepresenting the scientific evidence and acting in a way that threatened the environment in an area of outstanding natural beauty.

The local ruling was revised last week by Italy's Council of State. The culling of trees is once again authorized but it has to be done in agreement with growers who must be allowed time to carry out their own tests and evaluations.

The Italian authorities have also lifted a “xylella state of emergency” which gave them powers to enforce felling.

The situation, however, remains “very worrying”, according to Gianni Cantele, regional president of the national farmers' organization Coldiretti.

“The (insect-born) disease is continuing to spread,” he said.

Pantaleo Piccinno's 270-hectare estate at Caprarica di Lecce is among those to have been infected. But he said he was still able to produce his oil.

“The progressive nature of the disease means an affected tree can continue to produce olives from the parts of it where the leaves are still green and there is no impact on the quality of the oil,” he says.

Production also continues in parts of Puglia that are little or not at all affected by the epidemic.

But lost output has already had an impact on wholesale oil prices. A recent study in seven EU countries attributed a 20 percent hike over 2015 to the impact of the xylella crisis.

Coldiretti's Gianni Cantele warns that the disease could spread across olive growing areas across the northern Mediterranean with cases of xylella having already been detected on the island of Corsica and in southeastern France.

“The problem is that once xylella gets a foothold in an environment, it is very difficult to eradicate,” he said. That's why, he explains, replanting in contaminated areas is currently banned.

Cantele said he was hopeful a compromise could be agreed with the European Commission under which older trees would be reprieved, younger diseased ones culled and producers authorized to replant.

But above all the Salento's olive growers are hoping that science will come up with a treatment for xylella sooner rather than later.

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UPDATED: These are the Italian regions that now require tourists to register in advance

Anyone hoping to visit Sardinia, Sicily Puglia or Calabria this summer must remember to fill out a form stating where they'll stay and when they'll leave as part of efforts to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

UPDATED: These are the Italian regions that now require tourists to register in advance
Anyone arriving in Sardinia must now register with local authorities. Photo: Pascal Pochard-Casabianca/AFP

*Please note that this article from 2020 is no longer being updated. See the latest Italian travel news here.*

Since the beginning of June, when Italy allowed travel between regions again and reopened to European tourists, most journeys in Italy no longer involve paperwork – with a few exceptions.

While tourism is allowed and you don’t need to justify your reasons for travelling, some of Italy’s most popular summer destinations now ask visitors to register with the regional authorities in order to track and trace anyone potentially bringing the virus with them from elsewhere.

The process is separate from showing your ID when you check into tourist accommodation, which is standard practice all over Italy; now it is travellers’ responsibility to give their contact details directly to regional authorities by filling in a designated form.

The requirement aims to help protect regions that have so far had fewer cases as people beginning returning home from other parts of Italy, or heading south for a beach break.

The rules apply to everyone arriving, regardless of their nationality. Here are the parts of Italy where they’re in force.


Italy’s second-biggest island requires anyone arriving by plane or boat to complete its ‘Sardegna Sicura’ registration form, which is available online here.

The form asks travellers for their contact details, the flights or ferries they’re arriving and departing on, their address(es) in Sardinia and a piece of ID. Visitors must also agree to follow coronavirus prevention rules such as wearing a face mask, to inform local health authorities is they develop symptoms, and to submit to tests if necessary.

READ ALSO: Ajò! Handy local words to use on your next trip to Sardinia

While you can fill out most information up to a month before your trip, you’ll also be required to declare that you don’t have any symptoms no more than 48 hours before you travel.

Airlines and ferry companies will ask passengers to show their completed forms before boarding, and will also be checking travellers’ temperature.

Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP


Until September 30th, all visitors should register on the Sicilia Si Cura website (also available as an app). 

READ ALSO: Can Sicily’s plan to subsidise your holidays save its tourism industry?

The portal allows non-residents to log their presence and health status and to alert authorities if they develop symptoms. All information is available in English.

Tourists can also call the toll-free number 800 458 787 for assistance in Italian or English.


Anyone entering Puglia from another part of Italy or overseas must complete a form online (available here) and email it to their doctor if they’re a resident of the region, or to the local health authorities in the province where they’ll be staying if they live elsewhere (find a list here).

Visitors should also keep a record of everywhere they visit and everyone they come into contact with for 30 days following their arrival in Puglia, which they may be asked to produce in the event of an outbreak.

While the region says the requirement applies to everyone arriving by public or private transport, it’s unclear how tightly it is being policed. Meanwhile people travelling for work, health reasons, emergencies or to transport goods are exempt.

Incomers are also encouraged to download Italy’s contact-tracing app Immuni

For further advice, you can call the region’s hotline on 800 713 931 within Italy or 0039 080 337 3398 from overseas.


The southern region requires visitors to register online here

READ ALSO: Seven crowd-free alternatives to Italy’s tourist hotspots

You should complete the form before you arrive, listing where you’re departing from, where you’re staying and how long for. You must also agree to inform the local health authorities if you develop symptoms.

The form is available in Italian and English.