British supermarkets are selling thousands of tons of avocados produced in a Chilean region where villagers claim vast amounts of water are being diverted, resulting in a drought.
Major UK supermarkets including Tesco, Morrisons, Waitrose, Aldi and Lidl source avocados from Chile’s largest avocado-producing province, Petorca, where water rights have been violated.
Photo by Procsilas Moscas
In Petorca, many avocado plantations install illegal pipes and wells in order to divert water from rivers to irrigate their crops. As a result, villagers say rivers have dried up and groundwater levels have fallen, causing a regional drought. Residents are now obliged to use often contaminated water delivered by truck.
Veronica Vilches, an activist who is responsible for one of the Rural Potable Water systems, says: “People get sick because of the drought – we find ourselves having to choose between cooking and washing, going to the bathroom in holes in the ground or in plastic bags, while big agri-businesses earn more and more.”
In 2011, Chile’s water authority, the Dirección General de Aguas, published an investigation conducted by satellite that showed at least 65 illegal underground channels bringing water from the rivers to the private plantations. Some of the big agribusinesses have been convicted for unauthorized water use and water misappropriation.
The British Retail Consortium, which represents the major supermarkets, said the stores had been made aware of the allegations. A spokesperson said: “Our members have been made aware of the allegations made regarding production practices of avocados in the Petorca region of Chile. Retailers will work with their suppliers to investigate this.
“Safeguarding the welfare of people and communities in supply chains is fundamental to our sourcing practices as a responsible industry.”
Lidl said most of its avocados came from a supplier whose practices they trusted. But the store said it would investigate to see if any of its fruits came from Petorca.
A spokesman said: “While not all of our avocados are sourced from the Chilean province of Petorca, those that do come from this region are sourced from Rainforest Alliance-certified producers. Nevertheless, we were concerned to learn of these allegations and will therefore be investigating the matter with both our supplier and the Rainforest Alliance.”
Two thousand liters of water are needed to produce just one kilo of avocados – four times the amount needed to produce a kilo of oranges, and 10 times what is needed to produce a kilo of tomatoes, according to the Water Footprint Network.
In Petorca, the required amount is even larger. “This is a very dry region, where it almost never rains, so every cultivated hectare requires 100,000 liters of water per day, an amount equivalent to what a thousand people would use in a day,” says Rodrigo Mundaca, an agronomist and activist with the environmental organisation Modatima.
More than 17,000 tonnes of avocados were imported to the UK from Chile in 2016 and the demand for avocados in the United Kingdom has gone up 27 percent in just the last year, figures show. Some 67% of those avocados come from the Valparaiso region where Petorca is located.
Both Vilches and Mundaca have received death threats in response to their water rights activism. “We have suffered various forms of intimidation and in some cases people have lost their jobs for having protested against illegal water extraction,” says Mundaca. Amnesty International has taken on the case and has launched an appeal to support them.
The impact of the drought on villagers is clear from a visit to Vilches’ home. Vilches doesn’t allow herself to use the little clean water she has, so she opens the cistern where the run-off from the sink and shower end up, fills up a bucket and empties it at the base of her lemon trees, making big bubbles that continually pop into a rainbow-colored puddle.
“For years, avocado plantations have used up all the water that should be used for everything else,” she says. “And now the rivers have dried up, just like the aquifers.”
Three hours north of Santiago, the Petorca province is completely covered by avocado plantations, mostly growing the Hass variety. The immense expanses of trees climb from the valley to the surrounding slopes, making them shine with green on what would otherwise be rugged mountain terrain. The emerald color contrasts with the dust from the now dry river bed that was once full of water.
“Here there are more avocados than people, but only people are lacking water, never the avocados,” Vilches says while continuing to water her trees. She is director of theRural Potable Water system (APR, in its Spanish initials) of San José and is responsible for the distribution of water to approximately a thousand households.
Aside from damaging the environment and causing irreversible damage to local ecosystems, activists say enormous avocado plantations in Petorca are also destroying the social fabric and cultural identity of the area. It has become impossible for smaller farmers to cultivate their land or raise animals, so people are leaving in an attempt to remake their lives elsewhere.
“Our province is ageing, the young are moving to the cities and many of the men are going to look for work in the mines in the North,” says Rodrigo Mundaca, activist with the environmental organization Modatima. He insists that he doesn’t want to leave his land, but now he is forced to admit that “life is becoming unbearable.”
Many residents have been obliged to use water transported by cistern trucks. Each individual has the right to 50 liters per day, “often not enough to take care of our needs,” says Mundaca. “The quality is terrible. The water is often yellow or has dirt in it, other times it smells strongly of chlorine. They say it’s potable, but people get sick when they drink it, so we are forced to boil it or buy bottled water.”
In 2014 the APR of San José commissioned a study of the water brought in by truck. The study demonstrated that the levels of coliform (bacteria found in feces) were much higher than the legal limit. “Coliform is an indication of the pollution levels in the water,” Vilches explains, “in order to send good avocados to Europeans, we end up drinking water with shit in it.”
Aside from intimidation, some companies make sure that people keep their mouths shut by giving “aid” to the community. “There are many people who support the boss because he gives them work,” continues Mundaca, “and there are also poor areas where avocado business owners have built churches, community centers, football pitches… in order to earn people’s support. When people complain about the lack of water, they threaten to cut these benefits, and everything goes back to normal in short order.”
Despite having received threats, Vilches remains steadfast. “They pulled up in front of my house in a car with tinted windows and insulted me. Then they said if I didn’t stop they would kill me. They have also offered me money to remain quiet. But I will continue on my path. They can’t buy my dignity.”