By Pieter De Wit
Remarkably, I can still remember the exact moment my sister introduced me to my very first avocado. I spooned out one half and savoured the full taste and unusual texture. Since then, I have had my share of avocados in salads, on bread, in smoothies, and of course in the best dip of all: guacamole.
My friends know me as the healthy one, some of them use the word freak, so upon discovering the health benefits of this green fruit, they became a staple of my diet. Mostly known for its healthy monounsaturated fats, associated with reduced inflammation and having a beneficial effect on genes linked to cancer, avocados also have a wide variety of nutrients with 20 different vitamins and minerals. They even beat bananas in the richness of potassium, a mineral known to reduce blood pressure.
But this “green gold”, native to central Mexico and the Michoacán state particularly, is unfortunately not so healthy for the wellbeing of the local workers and the environment. In South America, the avocado industry is ruled by the mafia groups afflicting the region. The fruit needs tons of water during the growing process, leading to serious droughts. Such is its value, many forests have been cleared illegally to pave the way for avocado farms. People are now rethinking their consumption, and some restaurants have even stopped serving this forbidden fruit.
The New Mafia
The export of Michoacán avocados reached a turnover of over $2.8 billion USD in 2019. And the criminal groups want their share. One of the main cartels ruling the farms are the Viagras. In March 2019 they imposed a tax on residents who own avocado trees, charging $250 USD a hectare in exchange for so-called protection. But of course, the Viagras are not alone and are fighting bloody wars for local power.
One of their rivals is the Caballeros Templarios cartel, who are not shy to torture or kill anyone who refuses to pay their taxes. The term ‘blood avocados’ refers to the violation of human rights by these cartels who rule in the region.
For decades the cartels have used avocado farms to launder money, and now they clear protected woodlands to plant their own groves of the green gold.
Additionally, state officials record an average of four avocado transport trucks being hijacked each day, but President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is failing to protect transporters, farm owners and fruit pickers. In response to the lack of action by the authorities, avocado producers took drastic measures and set up their own civilian police force, which has had a modicum of success in creating a safer environment.
Environmental Effects Of Avocado Farming
- Water Shortage
One report estimates that on average, you need approximately 283 litres of water to produce about half a kilogram of avocados. In regions like Chile, it takes up to 320 litres of water to grow one single avocado. In contrast, for tomatoes, this can be as little as 5 litres. In the search for more water, private plantations installed illegal pipes and wells to divert water from rivers to irrigate their crops.
The consequential water shortage forces locals to choose between cooking and washing, and sometimes the only option is for them to use contaminated water, leading to sickness. While the avocado trees are flourishing in a green oasis, riverbeds are dry, wild animals are dying, and many villagers rely on water delivered by trucks twice a week.
To yield more crops, farmers and cartels are illegally thinning pine trees in the region on a large scale. Estimates show that in the Michoacán region of Mexico a shocking 30 to 40% of the forest is lost annually to pave the way for avocado farming, corresponding to an average of 17,000 acres.
Although it is illegal to fell trees to grow avocado crops, a change of land use is permitted if the land is burned through fires. Of course, this led to intentionally burned trees, converting them into farms. Slowly but steadily rivers are running dry, and wildlife depending on the forest are becoming extinct or endangered.
I try to live as conscious as possible. I get my fruit and vegetables from an organic store and buy plastic-free products as far as possible. But now, knowing that one of my favourite fruits is funding the Mexican mafia, threatening the safety of farmers and fruit pickers and having an incredible ecological impact, I am ready to reconsider my consumer behaviour.
While I don’t think the long term solution is to stop eating avocados altogether, I hope labels will be added to indicate responsible, sustainable farming allowing us to enjoy this delicious fruit guiltfree.