SPATA, Greece (AP) — In an olive grove on the outskirts of Athens, grower Konstantinos Markou pushes aside shoots of new growth to reveal the stump of a tree — a specimen about 150 years old, he said, was part of 15 of his neighbor’s land was cut down by thieves who wanted to make money from it.

Rising olive oil prices, driven in part by Spain’s two-year drought, are creating opportunities for criminals across the Mediterranean. In the olive-growing regions of Greece, Spain and Italy, inventory collapses, the dilution of premium oil with inferior products and the falsification of shipping data are increasing. And perhaps worst of all, gangs use 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 setting off to patrol his own grove as night fell.

The crimes mean fewer olives for growers, who are already struggling with high production costs and climate change that has led to warmer winters, greater floods and more intense wildfires. In the southern Italian region of Puglia, farmers are begging police to set up an agriculture department. Greek farmers want to reintroduce a rural police force abolished in 2010. In Spain, a company has developed tracking devices that look like olives to catch thieves.

The olive groves outside Athens are part of a tradition that dates back to ancient times, on plains that now surround the city’s international airport. Some trees are centuries old.

Most of the thefts involve branches. When a whole tree is cut down, the thieves typically cut it into pieces, load the pieces onto a pickup truck, sell the wood to lumber yards or firewood sellers, and take the olives to an oil mill.

“The (robbers) look for heavily burdened branches and cut them off,” said Neilos Papachristou, a fourth-generation family businessman who runs an olive mill and a nearby grove. “So not only are they stealing our olives, but they are also causing serious damage to the tree. “It will take 4-5 years for it to go back to normal.”

The thefts are prompting some farmers to harvest earlier, meaning they accept lower yields to avoid long-term damage to their trees. That includes Christos Bekas, who was among the farmers at Papachristou’s mill who poured their harvest into stainless steel loading bins, tied up sacks and tipped tall wicker baskets from the back of their pickup trucks.

Bekas, who owns 5,000 olive trees, was repeatedly attacked by thieves before opting for an early harvest. To produce one kilogram of oil, more than two and a half times as many olives are required as last year, he said.

“And all this after spending nights guarding our fields,” he said. “The situation is appalling.”

After decades of growth, the global olive oil market was disrupted by a nearly two-year drought in Spain, which normally accounts for about 40% of the world’s supply. Global production is expected to fall to 2.5 million tonnes this crop year, down from 3.4 million last year.

In Spain, Greece and Italy, reference prices for extra virgin oil reached 9 euros ($4.35 per pound) in September, more than tripling compared to 2019 levels.

This leads to higher prices for consumers. In Greece, the price of a 1-liter bottle of extra virgin oil rose from $8 to $9 last year to as much as $15 this year.

Spanish police said in October they had seized 91 tons of stolen olives in recent weeks. In February, six people were arrested in southern Greece for stealing eight tons of olive oil in a series of warehouse burglaries lasting several weeks.

Farmers in the southwestern port city of Bari report that thieves have become increasingly bold, stealing tractors and expensive equipment as well as olives.

The regional agricultural association has appealed for police help after reports said 100 olive trees were destroyed or seriously damaged in a single incident last month. Gennaro Sicolo, the association’s chairman, described the economic damage as “enormous” and said: “Farmers must be protected.”

“This is a crime,” Markou, the Greek farmer, said of the tree felling. “This is where you kill your own story.”


AP journalists Ciaran Giles in Madrid, Colleen Barry in Milan and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.


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