In an olive grove on the outskirts of Greece’s capital, Athens, grower Konstantinos Markou pushes aside the shoots of new growth to reveal the stump of a tree – a roughly 150-year-old specimen, he said, that was among 15 cut down on his neighbour’s land by thieves eager to turn it into money.
Surging olive oil prices, driven in part by two years of drought in Spain, has meant opportunity for criminals across the Mediterranean.
Warehouse break-ins, dilution of premium oil with inferior product, and falsification of shipping data are on the rise in olive-growing heartlands of Greece, Spain and Italy. And perhaps worst of all: Gangs using chainsaws to steal heavily laden branches and even entire trees from unguarded groves.
“The olive robbers can sometimes produce more oil than the owners themselves – seriously,” Markou said, before heading off to patrol his own grove at nightfall. The crimes mean fewer olives for growers already contending with high production costs and climate change that has brought warmer winters, major flooding and more intense forest fires.
In Italy’s southern Puglia region, growers are pleading with police to form an agriculture division. Greek farmers want to bring back a rural police division that was phased out in 2010. In Spain, a company has developed tracking devices that look like olives to try and catch thieves.