British Appetite for Avocados is Draining Region Dry, Say Chilean Villagers

Growers accused of illegally diverting rivers and leaving locals without water

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.

avocadoPhoto by Procsilas Moscas Demand for avocados in the UK has soared in recent years, and 67 percent of those avocados come from the Valparaiso region in Chile.

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.

Village voices

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.”

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Donate
Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our monthly newsletter.

The Latest

Bill to Ban Wildlife Killing Contests on Public Lands Needs Support

The Prohibit Wildlife Killing Contests Act of 2022 would save thousands of animals from cruel bloodsport.

Camilla Fox and Michelle Lute of Project Coyote

Supreme Court Rules against EPA, Hobbles Government Power to Limit Emissions

Court sides with Republican states as ruling represents landmark moment in rightwing effort to dismantle ‘regulatory state.’

Oliver Milman The Guardian

Feeding Insects to Cattle Could Make Meat and Milk Production More Sustainable

Adding black soldier fly larvae to cattle feed can reduce the amount of methane cows produce, research shows.

Merritt Drewery

Avocado Farms Dry Up Water Resources in Mexico

Rich tradition of cultivating and collecting medicinal plants in Michoacán state is at risk as Indigenous community loses access to water.

Monica Pelliccia

Satellites Zoom in on Cities’ Hottest Neighborhoods

Local governments can use data to help combat the urban heat island effect.

Daniel P. Johnson

Maasai Leaders ​Arrested in Protests over​ ​Tanzanian Game Reserve

Dozens wounded in clashes with police over eviction from ancestral lands to make way for hunting and safaris.

Katie McQue and Mattha Busby The Guardian