Death by many cuts

La Notte wanted the same kind of cooperation to happen in Puglia and spent countless days educating Puglia on the threats of Xylella when it was first discovered there. He was not alone. As soon as Xylella emerged, the European Union has given Italy guidelines to prevent its spread. In 2015, the Italian government gave full powers to a military police general, Giuseppe Silletti, to act, calling for the creation of a national emergency plan (usually designed for earthquakes) and tasking him with diagnosing , seize and remove 3000 infected trees.

The international community was worried, but not Puglia. “It’s a strange phenomenon of presbyopia (the loss of the eye’s ability to focus on nearby objects). From the outside, people see the situation more clearly than here, ”La Notte told me recently.

INSTEAD OF ASKING SCIENTISTS to intervene, a distinctly anti-science movement has taken root in southern Italy. Groups from Puglia warned Purcell, whom they accused of spreading lies, never to return to the region. A group known as Popolo degli Ulivi (People of Olives) staged protests against the emergency Xylella plan and disseminate misinformation about diseased trees on the web. In 2015, the newly elected governor of Puglia, Michele Emiliano, along with several members of the populist Five Star Movement, attempted to gain political support by propagating conspiracy theories about the causes of the death of olive trees.

The theories went far. Cristian Casilli, regional advisor to the Five Star Movement, blamed multinationals for the death of olive trees. Nandu Popu, frontman of popular music group Sud Sound System, appeared in a video accusing Monsanto of the disaster. “Some politicians want to eradicate our olive trees and they want to replace them with Monsanto GMOs,” Popu said. He added that the new GMO trees were in Israel and ready to be shipped to Puglia, despite the fact that there are no genetically modified olives and Israel does not have such trees. Longtime politician Adriana Poli Bortone has gone so far as to say that chemtrails have caused the disease to spread.

Various fantastic theories about the disease have flooded social media and national newspapers.

Marilù Mastrogiovanni, a local journalist, attributed the disappearance of the trees to common pests like worms and wood-boring fungi. She wrote about how local politicians were pushing for tree eradication in order to allow the Mafia and real estate companies to develop the land and let the big food companies plant patented trees. “I would call it land grabbing,” she told me.

These varied fantastic theories have flooded social media and found a platform in national newspapers like Il Fatto Quotidiano.

The intense spread of this disinformation has pushed people onto the streets. The panic spread when General Silletti began to enforce the removal of infected trees. Rabies is on the rise, and local farmers and environmentalists have formed human chains around infected trees to stop eradications. The anti-science movement has grown so much that in early 2016 Governor Emiliano rejected the Xylella task force created by Silletti, calling his plan “devastating”.

“The olive tree is a special plant for us,” he said at a conference. “You can’t uproot it and push it back in 20 years. The cycle of this plant is several hundred years.

He argued that cutting down trees was unnecessary to contain the disease, and opposed the EU and the Italian government, saying they couldn’t tell Puglia what to do. The movement reached its peak when prosecutors in the Lecce city government in December 2015 opened an investigation into more than a dozen prominent scientists and government figures, including General Silletti, who were working to resolve the issue. . They were accused of spreading the disease in Puglia.

“Crazy! It’s like shooting yourself in the foot,” Purcell said of the investigation. Laptops, computers and research equipment have been seized, and search and containment efforts have been seized. are arrested at a critical time when there was still hope to stop the spread of the disease Governor Emiliano hailed the lawsuit against the scientists as a release.

“Once you have chosen your belief, it is difficult, if not impossible, to change it. “

The investigation was dismissed in 2019 and all charges were dropped. But by then it was too late for the south of Puglia. Authorities declared the area lost and eradication efforts ceased. Xylella extended north.

It is difficult to understand why such far-fetched theories have taken root. Some, like Gian Andrea Pagnoni, professor of environmental sciences at the University of Ferrara, suggest that this is because Puglia has always been a land of conquest. Several invaders exploited southern Italy over the centuries: Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Swabians, Bourbons, Saracens, as well as the Savois – who in 1861 unified Italy, incorporating the south into the servitude of a monarchy of the North. As a result, Puglia feels alone and has the right to defend itself. “An etched memory of distrust of institutions played a crucial role” in the uncontrolled spread of the bacteria, Professor Pagnoni told me.

Others point to the deep tradition of olive growing in the region. Some locals may simply not have come to terms with the idea that their culture was in danger and that the solution was to uproot ancient trees.

“No one could have expected a cultural reaction to this disease,” Purcell added. “People believe in what they want to believe. Once you have chosen your belief, it is difficult, if not impossible, to change it.

THE DISEASE IS NOW spreading rapidly northward to the plains of Ostuni and Savelletri, where millions of monumental olive trees are at risk of death. My father started grafting his old trees to prepare for the disease, which is currently about 60 km away.

Researchers, meanwhile, are continuing their fight to save the trees. Some are struggling to find resistant olive varieties that could be used to replant areas where all is lost. The governments of Italy and the European Union are continuing efforts to control the bacteria, which endangers the multibillion-dollar olive oil industry in southern Europe. While they no longer hope to eradicate Xylella in southern Puglia, they hope to contain it. They are expanding surveillance operations to detect the bacteria before trees show any outward signs of poor health and are working to eliminate infected trees more quickly to maintain a buffer zone between infected and uninfected territories. Fortunately, many Puglia conspiracy theorists have since been convinced by the science, making these containment efforts easier.

But all of this work takes time and resources. Which, unfortunately, means that many centuries-old olive trees in the region, including some that have been around for over a thousand years, will be impossible to save.

LAST YEAR I asked Stefano why he was so obsessed with saving the church tree. “I couldn’t stand the thought that the church tree might die,” he replied, bursting into tears. To him, the old tree looked like a being with whom he had a personal connection. “It had become like my grandparents,” he explained. Indeed, he was so involved in the idea of ​​saving the tree at the time that after the attempted transplant, he had tattooed an image, a tree half dead and half alive, on his sternum: A plant skeleton extends on its left side; strong limbs extend to its right. He had believed that if he acted quickly he could save him. “I had seen the results of the transplant technique and thought there was hope,” he told me.

Stefano was inspired by the work of Giovanni Melcarne, an agronomist from the Apulian town of Gagliano del Capo. In partnership with the CNR, Melcarne is conducting field research to find Xylella-resistant local olive varieties. He believes he has found a promising candidate to complement the other two known resistant varieties.

Melcarne realized early on that grafting could save old trees: if the branches of a vulnerable or diseased tree were replaced by those of a resistant variety, the tree could live. Because grafting is not an exact science, the technique was not an instant success when Melcarne began experimenting with it: Grafted trees suffered attacks from pests and needed monitoring and control. constant humidity. Melcarne quickly understood that the healthier the plant was to begin with, the better the transplants would be. Today, he is the man of choice for desperate olive growers and receives countless requests to help save old trees. He’s also the man my brother turned to for advice.

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