Avocados are the trendiest food in the United States, where the presence of this product in large supermarkets has tripled in 20 years. Its export from Mexico leaves a spill of more than 3,000 million dollars (about 51,000 million pesos) to the sector. The cost is borne by the ecosystem of the states of Michoacán and Jalisco: massive logging and fires to plant avocado trees, theft of water from rivers and streams, and violence against environmental leaders. A report presented on Tuesday by the NGO Climate Rights International (CRI) quantifies the damage caused to these two regions by exporting green gold, which is often sold under the label of "sustainable".
Jalisco and Michoacán export all the avocados that leave Mexico to the United States. These are two regions where most of the avocado fields in the country are concentrated. The report has quantified that the hectares deforested for these plantations are between 16,000 and 28,000 hectares, which would be equivalent to the area of 2,532 times the size of the Azteca Stadium. The figure was obtained thanks to environmental geographers, satellite imagery and estimates from the Mexican government.
The deforestation of these forested areas was carried out against Mexico's laws, which prohibit "land-use change," according to the report. "Where there's a fire, it's for avocados. They are all provoked," said one of the 200 residents interviewed for the study.
The methods the farmers used to remove many of the trees were forest fires, a method that, despite carrying penalties of between six months and nine years in prison, in practice has no criminal consequences. Michoacán's Secretary of the Environment, Alejandro Méndez, stated for the report that these activities put "at risk the biodiversity" of the state. The director of Michoacán's Forestry Commission, Alejandro Ochoa, was more blunt about the criminals: "They mock us for uselessness."
Inaction in Mexico is replicated in the United States, according to the NGO. The incorporation of Jalisco as an avocado exporter in 2022 by Joe Biden's administration "aggravated the problem." There were even internal government reports that warned that the approval of the Mexican state as a producer "would probably increase deforestation" in the area.
The other major environmental impact is the uncontrolled use of water. Avocado trees, one of the fruit trees that consume the most liquid, are being irrigated with the flow diverted from rivers and streams in the area. The receivers are illegal wells, which a former Michoacán water official estimates are more than 50% of those in his territory. A community leader in Mexico's avocado-growing region defines the theft of the resource very succinctly: "They export our water in the form of fruit."
A community police officer during a patrol to detect clandestine avocado plantations or illegal logging, in Cherán, in 2022.Fernando Llano (AP)
Violence around the avocado sector is the other major issue denounced by the NGO. Michoacán and Jalisco are two areas where criminal groups have great influence and are linked to businesses dedicated to plantations. The cartels are engaged in extortion to obtain other people's land and deforest areas with fires or logging to establish plantations, the report denounces.
The most worrying thing is the more than 30 threats, kidnappings and armed attacks that the NGO has registered against climate activists and indigenous communities in the area. In February of this year, Alfredo Cisneros, an indigenous leader and defender of the Purépecha forests of Michoacán, was shot dead after denouncing illegal logging in forest areas.
The "sustainable" brand
Mexico is the country in the world that produces and exports the most avocados. Most of it to the United States. In the Super Bowl, the quintessential American football event, Mexican farmers brought up to 100,000 tons of the fruit in February. The marketing agency Avocados From Mexico sells them as "the most sustainable on the market."
The study singles out several large U.S. companies for being a "key part" of the supply chain for these avocados that favor environmental problems. Mainly, to large exporters such as Aztecavo or Calavo, which supply large supermarkets such as Walmart or Costco. The investigation reveals that these companies would be receiving avocados from up to 75 orchards with deforested soils.
CRI's study is based on more than 200 personal interviews in 18 municipalities in the states of Michoacán and Jalisco, analysis of satellite maps of more than 50,000 orchards, and analysis of records from the governments of Mexico and the United States. One of the most ambitious so far, which reflects the magnitude of the environmental damage caused by agriculture in Mexican territory to meet the needs of the U.S. market.
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