Rome: The ancient olive groves of southern Italy, which provide much of the oil the country exports, are being destroyed by deadly, insect-borne bacterium that has already infected nearly half a million trees and has no known cure.

The Xylella Fastidiosa, which comes from the Americas, has infected trees across 74,000 acres of the region of Puglia in Italy’s heel and is spreading rapidly. “Eight months ago it was spread across just 20,000 acres, which gives you an idea of how fast it travels,” Roland Manfredini, an expert with Italian farmers’ lobby group Coldiretti said. “The trees just dry out and die, looking like they have been burnt.”

Bold plan

Now, as the bacteria spread across the bottom half of Puglia, experts have developed a bold plan to create a mile-wide cordon, stretching from the Adriatic coast on the east to the Ionian coast on the west of Puglia, to seal off the area. Inside the cordon, grass will be cut back and pesticides will be used to halt the insects that spread the bacteria.

“We are counting on this because Puglia is one large olive grove, and with no cure, this cordon may be around for a long time,” said Antonio Guario, a health official with the regional government.

The area below the planned cordon, centred around the baroque town of Lecce, contains about nine million olive trees, some of which are 600 years old and renowned for their gnarled, twisting trunks. Of the roughly 800,000 trees inside the area known to be contaminated, more than half were likely to be infected, said Guario.

Italy exports 480,000 tons of olive oil annually, the world’s second largest total after Spain. With Puglia accounting for 180,000 tons of, Italy’s business could be devastated if the bacteria spread. Puglia’s olive groves have helped to draw British expatriates to the region, which has been dubbed “Trullishire” after the traditional local houses known as trullis. Wealthy Italians pay up to euros 5,000 (Dh24,348) to uproot ancient trees to replant in their gardens in northern Italy.

“These trees are monuments and produce one of the key ingredients of the Mediterranean diet,” said Manfredini. Magistrates are investigating how the bacterium, which has also plagued vines in California, crossed the Atlantic, and are reportedly looking at allegations that it was brought to a scientific conference in Puglia in 2010 and inadvertently released. Manfredini played down the theory. “It is far more likely is it came on an imported plant such as oleander,” he said.

Manfredini pointed out Italy’s motorways were often lined with oleanders, which could also make them deadly conduits for the disease to spread. One Puglian producer complained that it was already too late for him. “They said that we were crazy to talk of a disease,” Antonio Leone told La Repubblica. “And while they were talking, we had already become like these trees — dead.”

— Daily Telegraph