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HomeWorldOlive oil price surge prompts theft of ancient trees

Olive oil price surge prompts theft of ancient trees

Grower Konstantinos Markou removes the young shoots of growth from an olive grove situated on the outskirts of Athens to expose the stump of a tree. According to him, this tree is around 150 years old and was among 15 that had been felled on his neighbor’s property by opportunistic criminals seeking financial gain.

Olive Oil Crimes Surge

Due in part to the two years of drought that have gripped Spain, the escalating cost of olive oil has created an opening for offenders throughout the Mediterranean. An increase in incidents of warehouse break-ins, blending of premium oil with substandard product, and manipulation of shipping data can be observed in the olive-growing regions of Spain, Greece, and Italy. Worse yet, gangs break into unguarded groves with chainsaws in order to pilfer heavily loaded branches and even entire trees.

Impact on Producers

Olive producers are already grappling with high production costs, climate change-induced warmer winters, major flooding, and more intense forest fires; the crimes will reduce the quantity of olives produced. Growers in the southern Puglia region of Italy beg the police to establish an agricultural division. Greek farmers advocate for the reinstatement of a rural police division that was discontinued in 2010. To apprehend criminals, a Spanish company has developed tracking devices that resemble olives.

Cultural and Economic Loss

Olive plantations that now encircle the international airport of Athens are situated on plains where an ancient tradition has been practised. Certain plants date back centuries. The majority of robberies involve branches.

Typically, after felling an entire tree, the thieves dismantle its components and load them onto a pickup vehicle. They then transport the olives to an oil mill while selling the wood to lumber yards or firewood vendors.

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Severe Consequences for Farmers

“They cut heavily loaded branches,” said Neilos Papachristou, whose olive mill and grove are operated in a nearby location as part of a fourth-generation family business. “Therefore, they not only pilfer our olives but also inflict severe damage on the tree.” It requires four to five years to return to normal. Certain cultivators are compelled to harvest earlier due to the burglaries, resulting in diminished yields as a precaution against permanent tree damage.

Global Impact of Drought

A drought spanning nearly two years in Spain, which furnishes approximately 40% of the world’s olive oil, has disrupted the global olive oil market after decades of expansion. This crop year, global production is anticipated to decrease to 2.5 million metric tonnes, from 3.4 million the previous year. September benchmark prices for extra virgin oil in Spain, Greece, and Italy amounted to 9 euros ($4.35 per pound), which is over three times the price observed in 2019. This results in increased costs for consumers. Greece charged $15 for a 1-liter bottle of extra virgin oil, up from $8 to $9 last year.

Law Enforcement Challenges

In October, the Spanish police reported recovering 91 tonnes of stolen olives recovered in recent weeks. Six arrests followed weeks of warehouse break-ins in southern Greece that seized eight tonnes of olive oil in February. Farmers near Bari, southwestern Italy, say thieves are more bold in stealing expensive equipment, tractors, and olives.

The regional agricultural group requested police assistance last month after 100 olive trees were destroyed or seriously damaged. The chief of the association, Gennaro Sicolo, described the economic damage as “huge” and stated that “farmers must be protected.” “This is a felony,” the cultivator from Greece, Markou, declared regarding the tree-cutting. “Here, you destroy your own history.”

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