La Notte wanted the same kind of cooperation to happen in Puglia and spent countless days educating Puglians on the threats of Xylella when it was first discovered there. He wasn’t alone. As soon as Xylella appeared, the European Union gave Italy directives to prevent its spread. In 2015 the Italian government gave full powers to a military-police general, Giuseppe Silletti, to act, calling for creation of a national emergency plan (usually crafted for earthquakes), and charging him to diagnose, seize, and remove 3,000 infected trees.
The international community was worried, yet Puglians were not. “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 took root in Southern Italy. Groups of Puglians warned Purcell, whom they accused of spreading lies, never to come back to the region. A group known as Popolo degli Ulivi (People of the Olives) organized protests against the emergency Xylella plan and spread misinformation about the diseased trees on the web. In 2015, Puglia’s newly elected governor, Michele Emiliano, along with several members of the populist Five Star Movement party, attempted to garner political support by propagating conspiracy theories about what was causing olive tree deaths.
The theories were far ranging. Cristian Casilli, a Five Star Movement regional counselor, blamed multinationals for the death of the olive trees. Nandu Popu, leader of the popular music band Sud Sound System, appeared in a video blaming Monsanto for 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 engineered olives, and Israel had no such trees. Longtime politician Adriana Poli Bortone went as far as saying that chemtrails caused the disease’s spread.
Varied fantastical theories about the disease inundated social media and national newspapers.
Marilù Mastrogiovanni, a local journalist, attributed the trees’ demise to common pests like wood-eating worms and fungi. She wrote about how local politicians were pushing for the tree’s eradication to let the Mafia and real estate businesses develop the land, and to let large agribusinesses plant patented trees. “I would call this land-grabbing,” she told me.
These varied fantastical theories inundated social media and found a platform in national newspapers like Il Fatto Quotidiano.
The intense propagation of this misinformation drove people to the street. Panic spread when General Silletti started enforcing the removal of infected trees. Rage mounted, and local farmers and environmentalists formed human chains around infected trees to stop eradications. The anti-science movement gained so much momentum that in early 2016 Governor Emiliano dismissed the Xylella task force created by Silletti outright, calling his plan “devastating.”
“The olive is a particular plant for us,” he said at a conference. “You cannot uproot it and regrow it in 20 years. The cycle of this plant is hundreds of years.”
He maintained that it was useless to cut the trees to contain the disease, and pushed back against the EU and the Italian government, stating that they could not tell Puglians what to do. The movement reached its peak when government prosecutors from the city of Lecce, in December 2015, started an investigation into more than a dozen prominent scientists and governmental figures, including General Silletti, who had been working to address the issue. They stood accused of spreading the disease across Puglia.
“Crazy! It’s like shooting yourself in the foot,” Purcell said of the investigation. Notebooks, computers, and research material were seized, and research and containment efforts stopped at a critical moment when there was still some hope to stop the spread of the disease. Governor Emiliano hailed the trial against the scientists as a liberation.
“Once you choose your belief, it’s difficult, almost impossible, to change it.”
The investigation was dismissed in 2019, and all accusations were dropped. But by then it was too late for southern Puglia. Officials had declared the region lost and the eradication efforts there had stopped. Xylella was spreading north.
It’s hard to understand why such far-fetched theories took root. Some, like Gian Andrea Pagnoni, an environmental science professor at Ferrara University, suggest it’s 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 Savoia — who in 1861 unified Italy, incorporating the south at the servitude of a northern monarchy. As a result, Puglians feel they are on their own and are entitled to defend themselves. “An engraved memory of distrust towards institutions played a crucial role” in the unchecked spread of the bacteria, Professor Pagnoni told me.
Others point to the deep tradition of olive growing in the region. Some locals may simply have been unable to come to terms with the idea that their culture was at risk, and that the solution was uprooting centuries-old trees.
“Nobody could expect the cultural reaction to this disease,” Purcell added. “People believe in what they want to believe. Once you choose your belief, it’s difficult, almost impossible, to change it.”
THE DISEASE IS NOW fast spreading north in the flatlands of Ostuni and Savelletri, where millions of monumental olive trees face possible death. My father has started to graft his older trees to prepare for the illness, which is currently some 60 km away.
Researchers, meanwhile, continue with their battle to save the trees. Some are working to find resistant olive varieties that could be used to replant areas where everything is lost. The Italian and European Union governments continue the push to control the bacteria, which endangers Southern Europe’s multibillion dollar olive oil industry. While they no longer hope to eradicate Xylella in southern Puglia, they hope to contain it. They are expanding monitoring operations to detect the bacteria before trees show outward signs of ill health and working to remove infected trees more quickly to maintain a buffer between infected and uninfected territories. Thankfully, many conspiracy theorists in Puglia have since been persuaded by the science, which facilitates these containment efforts.
But all this work takes time and resources. Which, unfortunately, means that many of the region’s ancient olive trees, including some that have stood for more than a thousand years, will be impossible to save.
LAST YEAR, I asked Stefano why he had been so fixated on saving the Church Tree. “I couldn’t stand the idea that the Church Tree could die,” he replied, breaking into tears. To him, the old tree felt like a being he had a personal connection with. “It had become like my grandparent,” he explained. Indeed, he had become so involved with the idea of saving the tree back then that after the grafting attempt he had tattooed a likeness, a tree half-dead and half-alive, on his sternum: A plant skeleton spreads over his left side; robust limbs reach out on his right. He had believed that if he acted fast, he could save it. “I had seen the results of the grafting technique, and I thought there was hope,” he told me.
Stefano had been inspired by the work of Giovanni Melcarne, an agronomist from the Puglian town of Gagliano del Capo. In partnership with the CNR, Melcarne leads the field research to find Xylella-resistant, local olive varieties. He believes he has found a promising candidate that would add to the two other known resistant varieties.
Melcarne realized early on that grafting could save the ancient trees: If the branches of a vulnerable or diseased tree were replaced with those of a resistant variety, the tree might live. Because grafting is not an exact science, the technique was not an instant success when Melcarne began experimenting with it: Grafted trees suffered parasite attacks and needed constant supervision and humidity. Melcarne soon understood that the healthier the plant at the start, the better grafts would work. Today, he’s the go-to man for desperate olive growers and receives countless requests to help save old trees. He’s also the man my brother went to for advice.