Biodiversity Burns in Sicily

Sicily was devastated last Thursday by 500 wildfires. A strong scirocco wind and torrid heat accelerated the spread of hundreds of fires, which started at the same time in different places across the island. Palermo, Trapani and Agrigento are the worst-hit provinces, particularly the area along the gully that leads from the town of Collesano to Lascari and continues towards Cefalù, near Palermo.

The situation seems to be under control today, though as we write on Friday there are still 32 active fires. As the damage begins to be assessed, suspicions are starting to develop as to the origins of the fires. Their huge number, the favourable conditions in which they started (wind and high temperatures) and the unnatural spontaneous combustion (the wind blows but it doesn’t ignite) all suggest that there could have been criminal interests behind their start. The Palermo prefecture and the Italian Interior Minister, Angelino Alfano, are currently investigating.

Along with houses, hotels, restaurants and public spaces, a biodiversity unique in the world was also burned yesterday. One of the areas that was particularly affected was the Madonie Park (part of the 21.2% of Sicily protected as sites of community interest, parks and nature and marine reserves). The park is home to over half of Sicily’s plant species, around 2,600, including some very rare ones, like the Madonie fir, of which only 30 trees remain, as well as olive trees and forests of cork oak, downy oak and beech, rendered impenetrable by extensive heather scrub.

“It’s a tragedy,” Carmelo Giunta tells us on the phone. The leader of the Slow Food Alte Madonie Convivium continues: “The fires have devastated a vast area from the lower Madonie up to Monreale, and the strong wind yesterday made it impossible for the fire-fighting planes to intervene, increasing the damage. Entire agricultural areas have been lost, particularly around Collesano, where there are many livestock farms. Luckily, the heart of the park is safe, but the coastal zone, with its pine woods and Mediterranean maquis, has been devastated. I want to make an appeal: We have to save the environment, we have to take care of it, we have to protect our biodiversity. We have to act to safeguard this immense and unique asset.”

There are 15 municipalities in the Madonie area, with agriculture their main activity. Ancient varieties of wheat (Timilìa, Russello, Perciasacchi) are still cultivated, as well as heritage fruits like apricots and oranges and legumes, like Badda beans. Cows and sheep are reared in a semi-wild state. And food products unique in the world are made here, including a number of Slow Food Presidia (manna, cheeses like provola and Canestrato pecorino, breads, sweets like Polizzi sfoglia, Sicula bee honey).

While the ash woods where manna is extracted and the apricot orchards have been saved, the provola producers and beekeepers are today counting their losses. Sandra Invidiata, who makes Madonie provola cheeses, was particularly badly hit. Since 1995, she has been farming dairy cows on her family’s 50-hectare farm in the Collesano mountains. As well as making cheese, she also hosts educational visits and offers accommodation to tourists. “The fire started in Collesano on Wednesday night, when the public pine forest next to the town caught fire,” says Sandra. “Until Thursday evening, though, the situation seemed under control. Then the wind changed and, all of a sudden, it was an inferno. The barn caught fire, the mixer-wagon exploded, the tractor was burned and so was a roof and all of the hay. We had just collected more than 200 bales. It was all the feed for our animals. We managed to save most of the calves and all of the cows, by letting them free. We only lost four. Everything is out here: water, electricity, the telephone pole fell down. But there’s plenty of solidarity. Two farmers brought me hay for my animals because I don’t have a blade of grass left, and another three brought tanks of water. And lots of local kids showed up, some quite young. I don’t even know them, I don’t know who many of them are, but they came to give us a hand. It’s important to see the solidarity of the young people.”

“The situation is serious,” confirms Mario Cirrito, a beekeeper who keeps Sicilian black bees, a native breed at risk of extinction. “So far, in the Lascari area, I’ve lost six stations with 50 hives each and two supers. I still need to find out what happened to the hives I have in Collesano. Given the immensity of the affected area, the emergency services—who weren’t prepared for the scale of the fires—went to the towns and villages first, so we did everything ourselves, together with my brothers and our workers. Now we have lost the production. Already this year we had problems with the orange blossom and sainfoin flowerings due to the violent temperature swings, from hot to cold in a very short time, as well as the rain, the hail and the strong scirocco wind. Now it was time for the mixed-flower and cardoon honeys, and we have lost everything. What can we do? It’s brought a whole area to its knees in terms of both agriculture and tourism.”

Beekeeper Carlo Amodeo also lost around 20 hives. “It’s not just a question of the loss of the bees, which alone is already very serious. These fires have destroyed all of the flora, the shrubs and the bushes, which take a very long time to regrow. It’s basically environmental devastation. The immediate damage now is one thing, but we will be paying for the after-effects well into the future. We have lost animals, insects, herbs, plants and also soil, and all of its microfauna. We are alive, we can rebuild. But the environment?”

One response to “Biodiversity Burns in Sicily

  1. What interests would “criminal interests” have in causing such destruction to their own terra?

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