Photo: WBUR

By JESSICA GUERRERO

MORELIA, Michoacán —  The overexploitation of soil in Mexico’s wester central state of Michoacán, caused by the cultivation of avocados, has produced drastic effects on the environment and the endemic ecosystems of that state.

Mexico is the center of global avocado production, specifically the central region of the country. Today, at least 135,000 hectares of Michoacán — Mexico’s main avocado producer — are used for avocado cultivation.

Most of the avocados produced in Michoacán are destined for export, mainly to the United States, its main importer, followed by Canada, Japan, France, El Salvador, Spain, Honduras, Netherlands, China and South Korea.

Michoacán avocados exports to the world went from 41,118 tons in 1999 to 1 million 102,719 tons in 2020, while the current year is expected to show an export increase of 1.5 percent.

Avocado production generates at least 400,000 jobs for Michoácan and is second-largest source of income for the state, with an approximate annual income of $2.5 billion, surpassed only by the income from international remittances to the state.

There are 44 municipalities in the state that have been endorsed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to export avocados to the United States, which accounts for 85 percent of overseas sales of the fruit.

Michoacán is the only state in Mexico with a certification to send shipments of this product to that country.

As a result of Michoacán’s prolific and profitable avocado industry, local farmers have given up their traditional crops to make way for the so-called “green gold” business, leading to an over-exploitation of the soil which has generated a tremendous environmental concerns.

According to recent environmental research, in the last 21 years, approximately 100,000 hectares of state forests have been lost, mainly due to avocado cultivation and livestock grazing. That is equivalent to 42.5 percent of the total surface of Mexico City.

Although much of this deforestation has been carried out clandestinely, not all of it has been illegal, given that previous governments (local and federal) have granted concessions and licenses to change land use in the state.

Despite the poor sustainability of this agricultural activity in the state, local authorities have turned a blind eye, given the economic benefits it brings to Michoacán.

The disappearance of forests has had a direct impact on the survival of large ecosystems within Michoacán.

Such is the case of the Monarch butterfly nature reserve in the northeast of the state, which has been significantly affected due to the immoderate felling of trees in this wooded area, where year-after-year these butterflies come to spend the winter months, seeking shelter from the freezing temperatures of the forests of the United States and Canada.

The boom in the avocado growing business in Michoacán has also caused farmers from various regions in the state to give up their lands, where local vegetation is removed and replaced by avocado tree, seemingly overnight, without authorities supervising or taking action against this ecocide.

However, local organizations from various indigenous communities around of the Monarch butterfly sanctuary region, such as, El Rosario community, have formed surveillance groups to stop the felling of trees in the region, highlighting the importance that this natural wonder represents to them, since they consider the reserves a legacy that they need to preserve for the future of their communities.

Some residents have also claimed that there has been participation by organized crime in the massive deforestation around this region with the purpose of transforming land use.

As a result, many activists have suffered intimidation, such as Homero Gómez, also known as the King of the Butterflies, who was kidnapped and murdered in early 2020. This crime remains unsolved.

The shortage of water is a secondary effect generated by the increase in avocado crops in Michoacán, since this plant requires large amounts of water to grow.

The state’s natural springs and aquifers have been overexploited to the point of water shortages. By some accounts, water production in the sate has decreased by 50 percent in the last few years.

The excessive use of agrochemicals and pesticides in avocado crops located in the state of Michoacán has also contributed to water contamination, since avocado orchards are regularly connected to underground water wells and streams from which the general population also receives water.

The toxicity of these substances has not only affected the quality of the water in the state, but has also led to changes in the local ecosystems, destroying biodiversity and native species.

Despite the negative potential that avocado growing represents for the environment, this activity continues to boom, not only in the state of Michoacán, but has also inthe neighboring states of Jalisco and the State of Mexico.

It is estimated that the illegal cultivation of avocado increases by 500 hectares per year, just in the state of Michoacán. 

As a result, Michoacán’s avocado boom is a time bomb that sooner or later will cause a generalized environmental crisis in the region.

Michoacán’s green gold dream could soon turn into an environmental nightmare.

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