PETORCA, Chile – Avocados, the superfood touted by nutritionists and beloved by foodies, are less popular with farmers and ranchers in drought-stricken central Chile who say cultivation of the “green gold” consumes so much water that they are left with too little to sustain their crops and livestock.
Marta Puente surveys the small plot of land where she used to keep bees that produced “stupendous” honey.
She once had 100 hives, but the drought that has plagued Petorca province, 220 kilometers (137 miles) north of Santiago, for the last decade wiped out the vegetation that supported the bees, leaving her with only a dozen egg-laying chickens and a miserly pension to keep body and soul together.
Puente and the 14 other beekeepers in the area “lost everything for the lack of water,” the septuagenarian tells EFE.
The water shortage is also an issue for her rancher neighbors, who have taken to mounting the skulls of dead sheep and cows on the fence as a kind of silent protest.
Following Chile’s driest year on record in 2019, the drought killed more than 50,000 head of livestock in Petorca and nearby San Felipe de Aconcagua in the first three months of 2020, environmentalists say.
Overlooking the now desolate valley are hills covered with groves of avocado trees.
“The avocados take what little water there is,” Marta Puente says with a note of resignation.
The fever for green gold arrived here at the end of the 1990s, when dozens of agribusiness firms bought hilltop land at bargain prices, chopped down the existing forests and planted avocado trees.
Covering nearly 40,000 hectares (98,000 acres), avocado is now Chile’s third-most-important crop and the Valparaiso region, which includes Petorca, accounts for more than half of the national output.
Chile is a leading producer of the most favored variety of avocado, the Hass, and close to 70 percent of Chilean avocados are grown for export, mainly to Europe.
It takes 400 liters (106 gallons) of water to produce a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of avocados.
“To plant trees in desert zones makes no sense,” Rodrigo Mundaca, leader of the Movement for Defense of Water and Land and Protection of the Environment (Modatima), tells EFE.
An opinion shared by Claudio Fuentes, a field hand at a plantation next to the much-diminished Ligua River.
“I bathed here as a little boy, but look at it now … the entire channel is taken over,” he says, referring to the pipes installed by the plantations to tap underground aquifers more than 100 meters (328 feet) below the surface.
“Petorca is the national epicenter of the violation of the human right to water,” Mundaca says, calling it “criminal” that 40,000 residents in the province lack running water and have to rely on tanker trucks.
The issue is not drought (“sequia”), but looting (“saqueo”), he says.
Chile is among the world leaders in the privatization of water, with an estimated 80 percent of the country’s water under the effective control of private entities.
While the agribusiness, mining and energy companies don’t own rivers as such, they have an entitlement to the water.
“In a situation of climate emergency such as the present one, not even those great holders of water rights can satisfy their demand because many rivers are empty,” Greenpeace spokesman Mauricio Ceballos tells EFE.
Chile’s water crisis is the most acute in the Western Hemisphere, according to Greenpeace, with drought conditions affecting 76 percent of Chilean territory.
“We will probably never again have levels of precipitation like those that existed when this model was created,” Ceballos says, alluding to the water privatization implemented during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of the late Augusto Pinochet.
Attempts in Congress to reform water legislation have been blocked by the powerful political and economic interests who benefit from the current arrangements.
But Chileans will have the chance in October to begin a process leading to a revamped constitution that would establish access to water as a human right.
Modatima’s Mundaca suggests that the coronavirus pandemic has made consumers more concerned about the environmental implications of how their food is produced.
“The avocado has great nutritional virtues. We’re not against its consumption, but it’s very important that traceability be very rigorous. If I lived in Europe, I wouldn’t buy avocados from producers who steal water from communities,” he says.