Tales of fire - PhMuseum

Tales of fire

Veronica Andrea Sauchelli

2021 - Ongoing

"Tales of fire" is a photographic project that addresses the complex phenomenon of fires in Salento, a sub-region of southern Italy.

Until the beginning of the XXI century, the Salento territory was characterized by a flourishing monoculture of olive trees. Since 2013, due to the spread of the Xylella fastidiosa bacterium, which appeared under unclear circumstances, olive trees began to suffer from a disease called Rapid Desiccation Complex. To date, it is estimated that the infected plants in the area are more than 21 million. The most obvious consequence is a landscape that has turned from green and lush into an endless expanse of dead trees.

In a territory in progressive depopulation and withering, fires have found their sustenance: dry olive trees burn like incandescent torches, as do the few remaining wooded areas, generating an unprecedented environmental disaster.

Although fires have always been there, in the last twenty years their frequency and intensity has increased dramatically. As a matter of fact, almost all fires are arsons. However, the reasons given are many: abandonment of the land by new generations; use of fire as an cheap method to free land from dried up olive trees. Yet, these factors alone are not enough to explain a phenomenon of such vastness.

The real reasons may have much deeper economic roots, and would be linked to the public funding for agriculture and to the public funding for the uprooting and replanting of diseased olive trees with more productive varieties. Furthermore, according to several testimonies collected, in many cases fire is a way to depreciate a land that is already on sale or, worse, the tool used to force the owners to sell their land.

Behind Salento there seem to be different interests, from those related to new projects of super-intensive olive oil production, which would make Italy able to compete again on the international market by holding up the competition with other countries (such as Spain or Tunisia), to those related to bioeconomy and energy transition, and especially solar and wind power.

In conclusion, the point is that Salento is burning, and to go up in smoke is not just the territory but also a centuries-old agricultural tradition where the small owner was the guardian of the land.

Veronica Andrea Sauchelli and Valentina Borgato

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  • Galatina, Soleto -
    Lecce, Italy

    A forest fire, extended for 400 hectares.

  • Wildlife Rescue Center of Calimera, Lecce, Italy

    An owl saved from the fires. At the time of rescue, it had completely blackened plumage.

  • Seclì, Lecce, Italy

    An olive tree in flames. Generally, being hollow inside, burning olive trees produce the characteristic "chimney effect", continuing to burn from the inside and becoming impossible to extinguish.

  • Lecce, Italy

    An old sickle used for cleaning the fields. Nowadays these tools have been replaced by very powerful and harmful chemical herbicides, such as Round-Up, now illegal but still widely used, responsible for the impoverishment of the soil and closely connected to the proliferation of Xylella.

  • Supersano, Lecce, Italy

    Stacks of olive trees explanted. After a summer in which the fires have tripled, it has begun to believe that the olive trees were burned to create political pressure to release public funding for the removal of dead trees. The president of the Apulia region, Emiliano, has declared that "Fire is not a method", but has increased funding from 6 to 60 million.

  • Sannicola, Lecce

    Chiara Idrusa Scrimieri, 46 years old, activist. After seeing the flames enter her land twice, Chiara launched the petition "Save the olive trees of Salento", collecting more than 37 thousand signatures.

  • Sannicola, Lecce, Italy

    A lamp from Chiara's biodynamic forest, regenerated after the fires.

  • Seclì, Lecce, Italy

    Roberta Bruno, 38 years old, one of the founding members of Karadrà: an innovative agricultural cooperative whose fields were set on fire. According to Roberta, the fire was set for intimidation purposes.

  • Copertino, Lecce

    An olive tree in flames during a fire that involved more than a thousand trees.

  • Carpignano, Lecce

    A window of an abandoned "masseria".

    The window of an abandoned farmhouse. The masserias in Apulia are rural buildings that were used by the agricultural activities to store objects and tools for daily use of work in the countryside, but were also used as warehouses for food (such as fodder) or used as stables for livestock. Finally, they were often used as houses from shepherds and farmers during the period of major agricultural work. For this reason the name "masseria" derives from "masserizie" that is a place where various things were contained.
    Today most of the masserias are being abandoned, along with the traditions they symbolized.

  • Aradeo, Lecce, Italy

    Luigi, 28 years old, Civil Protection volunteer, after extinguishing a fire.

  • Lecce, Italy

    Explanted olive tree, detail.

  • Lecce, Italy

    The fumes of a large fire in a private property. The owners claim to know who set it, in fact they believe that the authors were people who came the day before to bargain to buy the land.

  • Copertino, Lecce, Italy
    Angelo, 52 years old, singer of popular music from Salento, sings under an olive tree during a typical farmer's feast in a private masseria.


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