The Salento region, located in the heel of Italy's boot, is widely known for its olive oil. But since 2013, a plant bacterium, Xylella fastidiosa, has been responsible for a disease that is killing millions of olive trees in what is considered the world's worst phytosanitary emergency. This epidemic, for which there is still no remedy, has devastated the landscape and caused massive economic and environmental damage: many people have lost their livelihoods and a huge green lung has been wiped out along with its carbon-fixing capacity. But another, more intimate loss affects the lives of local people: the loss of their own identity. Some 60 million olive trees in the region, many of them centuries old, are deeply rooted in local culture, as symbols of ancient traditions and legacies of past generations. With the spread of this plague, people have lost not only the roots of their trees but also the roots that emotionally connect them to their past.
Lost Roots: the Olive Tree Apocalypse in Italy
85-year-old farmer, Gino Schiavano looks at his dead olive trees. Casarano, southern Salento, Italy, July 31, 2020.
Aerial view of a large olive grove affected by Xylella fastidiosa bacterium. The dry trees are uprooted to be resold as wood. Casarano, southern Salento, Italy, December 17, 2020.
An olive tree trunk burns in the countryside near Felline. Casarano, southern Salento, Italy, July 23, 2020.
A specimen of Philaenus spumarius under the fluorescence optical microscope of the laboratory of the SNR (National Research Council) of Bari. This spittlebug is the main vector of the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa, it feeds on the xylem of olive leaves and spreads the infection among the trees. Bari, Italy, December 15, 2021.
A field of felled olive trees. The presence of the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa has often given the landscape a ghostly appearance. The immobile trunks remain standing like tombstones in memory of the past. Casarano, southern Salento, December 19, 2020.
Young designer, Roberta Di Cosmo, during her performance in front of "The Giant". This olive tree with an estimated age of more than 1,500 years, is now definitely dead. Alliste, southern Salento, Italy, July 31, 2020.
Gino Schiavano looks through the window of his Apecar at an abandoned olive grove. The sense of confusion caused by the epidemic meant that these people had lost not only the roots of their trees but also those that emotionally connected them to their past. Supersano, southern Salento, Italy, September 24, 2021.
Angelo De Stradis, microscopist at the Institute for Sustainable Plant Protection, looks at a sample of Xylella fastidiosa through the transmission electron microscope. Bari, Italy, December 15, 2021.
My grandmother points to herself in a photo from 1937, where she is pictured with her four sisters and her parents. Her father, like many others at that time, was responsible for managing a large number of olive groves on behalf of some landowners. The economy of the Salento region has relied on olive cultivation for centuries, so the locals are deeply connected with these trees. Casarano, southern Salento, Italy, December 29, 2021.
Olive pruner, Valentino Toma cuts branches from some newly felled trees. Casarano, southern Salento, Italy, December 18, 2020.
Detail of the hand of Gino Schiavano. Witnessing the death of hundreds of trees, inherited from their grandparents, is experienced by these people as a great defeat and source of deep pain. Supersano, southern Salento, Italy, August 7, 2020.
Olive tree burning during a night fire. Felline, southern Salento, Italy, July 23, 2020.