Across the stony heel of Italy, a peninsula ringed by the blue-green waters of the Mediterranean, olive trees have existed for centuries, shaping the landscape and producing some of the nation's finest olive oils. Except now many of the trees are dying.
Sprinkled among the healthy trees are clusters of sick ones, denuded of leaves and standing like skeletons, their desiccated branches bereft of olives. The trees are succumbing to a bacterial outbreak that is sweeping across one of Italy's most famous olive regions, as families that have manufactured olive oil for generations now fear ruin, even as officials in the rest of Europe fear a broader outbreak.
"It is devastating," said Enzo Manni, director of ACLI-Racale, an olive cooperative in the heart of the outbreak area. "It is apocalyptic. I compare it to an earthquake."
Today, scientists estimate that one million olive trees in the peninsula, known as the Salento, are infected with the bacterium, Xylella fastidiosa, a figure that could rise rapidly.
For Italy, which trails only Spain in annual olive oil production, the outbreak has forced a bitter bargain: To prevent the bacterium from spreading north, officials are trying to quarantine the outbreak in the lower half of the Salento, where most of the contaminated trees are, by carving a buffer zone that would serve as a sort of biological firebreak.