The socio-environmental impact of the avocado industry in Petorca Province

The socio-environmental impact of the avocado industry in Petorca Province

Portal of information for journalists, responsible consumers, and supermarket chains concerned about compliance with human and environmental rights standards throughout the supply chain

In light of the recent media campaign carried out by the Chilean avocado exporting lobby, we have decided to summarize and present information from reliable sources about the socio-environmental context of avocado production in Petorca Province, located in the fifth region in Chile.

The selected information comes from public organizations in Chile (The National Human Rights Institute, the Department of Water, and other Ministries), academic research papers, and both national and international journalism focused on human and environmental rights.

This material is available in three languages (Spanish, English, and German) and will be updated regularly.

The portal contains information about:

1) Violations to the human right to water in Petorca Province

2) Threats and repression against civil society organizations who have denounced the situation in Petorca Province

3) Agribusiness, climate change, and ecological disaster in Petorca Province

1) Violations to the basic human right to water in Petorca Province

Chile against the global movement: The (near complete) privatization of water

Chile is the only country in the world whose water services and sources are nearly completely privatized. Although water is defined as a national asset for public use, Art. 19, No. 24 of the Constitution and the Water Code (both authored during the civic-military dictatorship in the 1980s) allow the Chilean state to transfer water rights to private entities with no restriction on its duration, its form, or the priorities for its use. Because of this period, the Chilean government has thus transferred the rights to its water to private entities on a perpetual and free basis. Owners of those water rights have then been able to profit, without much limit, in a market with little official regulation by the governing body, the Department of Water (DGA for its Spanish acronym). This has led to a growing concentration of water rights in the hands of a few large business owners in the agribusiness, foresting, and mining sectors.[1]

Approximately 80% of potable water in Chile is currently used by agribusiness, especially in the exporting of fruits, with drastic consequences for the local population. An investigation by Ciper Chile showed that the Chilean state spends around 25 million Euros annually to provide water by tanker trucks to half a million people. This is due in part to problems of water shortages, and in part to a lack of investment by the government and sanitation companies in rural and semi-urbanized, vulnerable areas.

Although the World Resource Institute classified Chile as one of the 30 countries most affected by water stress, the Chilean government no longer has control over its water. For this reason, the OCDE Environmental Performance Review (2016) criticizes the lack of access to water as a guaranteed human right in Chile, the high degree of fragmenting of public organizations in charge of public policy related to the provision of water, and the high concentration of water rights and lack of investment in necessary infrastructure. However, the fragmenting of institutions in charge of water policy and planning is not the only problem. The DGA does not possess the relevant information in order to carry out a planning process for public water policy and a generous distribution of water rights, even in zones with declared water shortages. In the majority of Chile’s 101 water basins, both surface water and groundwater rights have been over-granted. Many rivers have dried up and the groundwater supply is being depleted.[2]  To summarize, the problem facing Petorca Province is not an isolated one, but rather one of national importance.

The situation in Petorca Province

The two rivers that supply Petorca Province dried up years ago and only carry water during a few days in winter. The Petorca River was declared depleted in 1997 and the Ligua River in 2004. Although the rivers in the region had already been stressed since the 1990s, the DGA continued to grant rights based on a water assessment published in May 2002 (SIT Technical Report No. 80)  ) that utilized methodologies questions by academics.[3] According to a study by the Chile Foundation on the Ligua River, water rights have been over-granted by 29%; the Petorca River is under stress because nearly 90% of its available water rights have been granted, leaving it without the most minimal ecological watercourse and at risk of depleting its groundwater supply. Another investigation conducted by the Center for Studies of National Resources [c4]  (CIREN for its Spanish acronym) shows that a large portion of avocado plantations are on land that is not suitable for farming, thus increasing the risk of soil deterioration. According to a study by Paola Bolados (academic at the University of Valparaíso) and published by Ciper Chile, the majority of water rights in the Province belong to a mere four families, who have rights to more than 2,323.32 liters/second.

Apart from the problem of over-granting and the monopolization of water rights into the hands of few families, there is also the persistent problem of illegal drains and wells throughout the Province. In 2011, a study carried out by remote sensing aerospace technology identified the existence of 456 wells and 65 drains in the aquifers of the Ligua and Petorca Rivers. With the DGA Technical Audit Reports Nos. 48/2011 and 49/2011 in Valparaíso Province, the auditing process began.[4] However, the lack of resources made available for the process, low fines for the offense of unlawful appropriation of water,[5] and political pressures that led to the resignation of the then Governor Gonzalo Miquel Wenke,[6] all impeded an efficient auditing.

Violations to the human right to water in the Province were also investigated by the National Human Rights Institute during a land mission in 2014, however the recommendations made by the mission have as of this writing been only partially implemented. Furthermore, the previous year, the Annual Report on Human Rights by Diego Portales University had dedicated a chapter to human rights violations in Petorca Province.

Only when the European press expose the issue of unlawful appropriation of water in Petorca Province is there any revitalization of the auditing process. In an auditing mission by the DGA in Petorca in June 2018, 27 irregular situations were detected in 54 wells.[7]  Previously, Report No. 254/2017 from July 6, 2017 by the Provincial Government of Petorca had summarized information about the black market in the Province and the population’s dependence on tanker trucks for water provision.[8]

Violations to the human right to water are currently under investigation by the DGA and Parliamentary committees. The National Human Rights Institute returned to the Province in July 2018 with another observation mission to update its assessment and verify that the human use of water in the Province was being prioritized.[9]   

To summarize, there is ample reliable evidence that the rural population of Petorca Province, declared once again on July 5, 2018 as an area of water scarcity, is suffering violations to the human right to water.

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2) The history of repression against the MODATIMA organization

The Heinrich Böll Foundation Regional Office of the Southern Cone in Chile has worked since the end of last year with MODATIMA (Movimiento de Defensa del Agua, la Tierra y la Protección del Medio Ambiente: Movement for the Defense of Water, Land and the Protection of the Environment), an organization founded in 2010 in Petorca Province as a response to the gravity of the water crisis. Members of MODATIMA have received death threats as well as other forms of aggression, which intensified when the first reports were published in Europe on the socio-ecological impact of avocado plantations.

In 2017, for the first time on a Chilean case, Amnesty International initiated an urgent action to protect the lives of Rodrigo Mundaca, Verónica Vilches, and other members of MODATIMA who had received death threats for exposing the illegal water extraction in Petorca Province to international media.  In April 2017 the National Human Rights Institute issued protection measures; in June 2018 the Regional Prosecutor reiterated the necessity for police protection of Rodrigo Mundaca and Verónica Vilches. Inspections by the Ministry of Public Works and the DGA, as well as investigations by the Parliamentary Committees on Water and Agricultural Resources of both houses in the Chilean Parliament, have validated the truthfulness of these allegations.

In other words, assertions by the lobby of avocado exporters for Europe that there is no history of threats against members of MODATIMA are completely false.

The following links are reliable sources of information on the criminalization of members of MODATIMA:

https://danwatch.dk/en/activist-receives-death-threats-following-danwatch-avocado-investigation/

https://www.raconteur.net/sustainability/human-rights-are-now-part-of-business

https://www.amnesty.org/en/get-involved/take-action/protect-chile-human-rights-defender-rodrigo-mundaca-and-modatima-members/

https://www.business-humanrights.org/en/rodrigo-mundaca-modatima

https://www.amnesty.org/en/press-releases/2018/06/chile-authorities-must-protect-rodrigo-mundaca-and-other-environmental-defenders/

http://www.terram.cl/2018/05/escala-conflicto-en-petorca-y-senadores-piden-citar-a-jorge-abbott/

In addition to death threats, members of MODATIMA have also been victims of other forms of repression, such as a wave of lawsuits aimed at intimidation. Between July 2012 and August 2014, the representative spokesperson for MODATIMA was forced appear 24 times in four different courts. Although recent investigations clearly demonstrate that the illegal extraction of water in the context of avocado production for exportation is a continuing problem in Petorca Province, in November 2014 Rodrigo Mundaca was sentenced to 61 days in jail for alleged slander. The sentence was later commuted for a fine and presenting and signing monthly before the gendarmerie (November 2014 to November 2015) fine was paid with one peso coins through the campaign "sácate un peso de encima" (“take a load off”) gathered by a country wide solidarity. While Rodrigo Mundaca paid his fine, the measures ordered by Chilean courts against avocado exporters have still not been met. Among others, the former Minister of the Interior, Pérez-Yoma, has not to this day met the conditions of the May 2017 Supreme Court ruling that ordered he return provisional water rights.[10]

3) Agribusiness, climate change, and ecological disaster in Petorca Province: the denial of the avocado lobby

Until now the communication strategy of the avocado producers unions has focused on the following points: 1) defame advocates of the human right to water as eco-terrorists or hyper-idealogized extremists who damage the country’s image; 2) minimize their own responsibility in the water crisis in Petorca, emphasizing factors such as climate change and rainfall shortage, as well as problems of water governance by the DGA, the regional sanitation company (ESVAL), or both; and 3) accuse members of MODATIMA of being unreliable sources and the European press of exaggerating the water footprint of avocado production and presenting false information.

In June 2018 a delegation from the avocado lobby, which included, among others, the President of the Fruit Exporters Association (ASOEX for its Spanish acronym) and the President of the Hass Avocado Committee, went on a European tour to refute claims and information reported by the European media regarding human rights and the water crisis in Petorca Province. They insisted that the water shortage is the result of climate change and denied that large producers have any responsibility in the socio-environmental crisis the Province is currently facing.

Climate change has clearly had an impact on the dramatic situation in the Province. Petorca has always been characterized by large variations in rainfall, and over the last decade annual rainfall measurements have been below the average of 309 mm/year. However, climate change only forms part of the equation. What bothered avocado exporters was that European news reports covered not only climate change, but also the political factors behind the tragedy in Petorca. Art. 10, No. 24 of the Constitution and the Water Code converted water into a commodity and promoted the concentration of water rights into the hands of a few private entities. Furthermore, as already mentioned, current legislation does not determine priorities for use, and the government is lacking information and the capacity for assessment to ensure the human right of access to water. In a context of increasing water shortage, access to water in Petorca Province has become a privilege. The rural population has to compete with the avocado exporting industry in order to satisfy their basic needs. The question “How many liters of water is really needed to grow an avocado?” remains unanswered. Estimates vary between 1000 and 369 liters, published respectively by the Water Footprint Network and the avocado producers union.  Without a detailed water assessment, which has until recently been vetoed by the big exporters, it is not possible to establish an exact number. According to research by Roberto Castro and Marión Espinoza, “each avocado tree may use up to 187.4 liters of water a day during the watering period of January, February, and March. The entirety of avocado plantations on hillsides is found in highly fragile areas, which inevitably leads to conflicts with the zones of valleys around the use of water, as has already been occurring.

Nonetheless, it can be confirmed that although the land used for avocado planting was reduced after the long water shortage and periods of frost of 2007 and 2008, the over-granting of rights and the demands for water by agribusiness continue to put the fragile balance of ecosystems in the Province at risk.[11]

In summary, apart from the undeniable influence of climate change, there are political factors that contribute to the water shortage in the Province, a problem that requires serious political attention and dialogue to resolve. Until now the agro-exporters have defamed our counterparts at MODATIMA as “extremists” and “eco-terrorists,” and have accused the Regional Office of the Southern Cone of providing false information to the international press.

The big avocado exporters have apparently not understood that international investigative journalism is rigorous and independent. Furthermore, as we are all aware, European law governing the media is strict; if a media outlet publishes false information it is required to correct the error and inform readers. Despite claims by the lobby of avocado exporters that they will take legal measures against the media, to this date no European media outlet has been required to correct any information published.
 

The following articles remain published in full and without errors:

Danwatch “Avocados and Stolen Water

Weltspiegel/Deutsche Welle: “El aguacate, el lado oscuro del superalimento

The Guardian “Chilean Villagers claim British appetite for avocados is draining village dry

Although the avocado producers union, with support of the national Chilean press (which is not exactly independent of corporate interests) made a quixotic attempt to spin an undoubted failure as a success, the result of a marketing tour was disastrous for the union. Instead of responding to the concerns of European consumers and retail chains and showing themselves open to dialogue with the local population of Petorca, they presented themselves as large landowners and attacked numerous prestigious European media, labeling them liars without presenting any information to prove their accusations.

To summarize, the message that has still not reached the large avocado exporting enterprises is that in a world ever more connected by international trade, human rights standards have also globalized and are a part of business now (article by Jim McClelland in the “Responsible Business” supplement of The Times, London). The central message of the article in The Guardian, communicated by a spokesperson for the British Retail Consortium, the organization that represents the main supermarket chains in Great Britain, was simple: “Safeguarding the well-being of the people and communities in the supply chain is fundamental for our sourcing practices as a responsible industry.” What the Chilean business contingent did not realize is that global markets are not only composed of flows of capital and products, but also of consumers who are increasingly concerned about compliance with human and environmental rights standards. In other words, for many European customers, the value of a given product is not only expressed in its price and quality, but also in the producer’s responsibility towards the rights of those involved along the chain of production and supply. The commercial success of a company in Europe is increasingly dependent on its reputation for responsibility towards human and environmental rights. “When it comes to reputation, a company is only as good as its supply chain” (article by Jim McClelland in the “Responsible Business” supplement in The Times, London). As a response to ever more conscious consumers, international businesses and global brands have begun to publish their own reports on human rights issues, in order to demonstrate their compliance with a broad array of responsibilities and strict standards of transparency. Part of their business now is an extensive mapping of potential ethical and ecological implications throughout the production and supply chains. “Extending the remit to factor in events and externalities beyond direct impacts takes business into the arena of human rights. As well as forced and child labour, this might mean looking at wider community and societal issues, such as water abstraction in drought areas, polluting emissions in countries with weak regulation, bribery and corruption, or even trade indirectly funding conflict or terrorism.”[12]

The Heinrich Böll Foundation Regional Office of the Southern Cone will continue to work with human rights organizations in Europe to inform critical consumers about compliance with social, environmental, and human rights standards throughout the avocado supply chain. It will also encourage a debate about processes of certification that include social and environmental standards, as well as factors that must be upheld, such as the human right to water, that are fundamental in responding to the needs of small producers.

 

 

[1] See the book by Carl Bauer, “The Call of the Sirens,” downloadable at: http://www.eldesconcierto.cl/2015/11/09/canto-de-sirenas/; see also Sustainable Chile (2010) Conflicts over water: downloadable at: https://cl.boell.org/es/2010/03/28/conflictos-por-el-agua-en-chile

 

[2] See: Chile Foundation: A Snapshot of Water, summary downloadable at: https://fch.cl/recurso/alimentos-y-acuicultura/resumen-radiografia-del-agua/.

[3] See: Budds, Jessica: “Demand, evaluation and allocation of water in the context of scarcity: an analysis of the hydro-social cycle in the valley of the Ligua River, Chile” Rev. geogr. Norte Gd. [online]. 2012, n.52, pp.167-184. ISSN 0718-3402.  http://dx.doi.org/10.4067/S0718-34022012000200010, downloadable at: https://scielo.conicyt.cl/scielo.php?script=sci_abstract&pid=S0718-34022012000200010&lng=es&nrm=iso

[4] The documents referenced may be downloaded online in the documents section of the Report by Danwatch: “Stolen Water” https://old.danwatch.dk/en/undersogelse/avocados-and-stolen-water/ published March 2017.

[5] See Marcos Contreras Enos, Water Misappropriation: Water, Criminal Justice and Memory, to qualify for the Masters in Business Criminal Law, University of Chile, downloadable at: http://repositorio.uchile.cl/handle/2250/112994

[8] In many parts of the country, municipalities (although without the necessary resources or legal powers) have assumed the humanitarian task of providing their population with potable water through tanker trucks. See Carla Victoria Riveros Pérez (2015): “The municipal response to the potable water shortage: A Political Ecology perspective,” thesis presented at the Urban and Territorial Studies Institute of the Pontific Catholic University of Chile to qualify for a Masters in Human Settlement and the Environment.

 

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