Michoacán’s Forest Fires: Guacamole’s Sour Aftertaste

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MORELIA, Michoacán — The natural wealth of Mexico makes it a mega-diverse country, with nearly 200,000 species, equivalent to 10 percent of the total flora and fauna that exists on the planet. Of those species, 7,472 are endemic to Mexico.

But despite the foregoing, the sustainable management of Mexico’s biodiversity is currently at risk due to the overexploitation of natural resources, pollution, excessive felling of forests and, in recent months, forest fires.

These massive fires have consumed hundreds of kilometers of forests, annihilating large natural ecosystems. Although most of these fires have been accidentally caused by humans, in recent years, a pattern has been observed with the fires in central Mexico.

It is especially in the state of Michoacán where the incidence of forest fires has increased considerably. So far this year alone, 535 forest fires have been recorded in the state, affecting 14,452 hectares. This represents an average of more than three forest fires per day.

Morelia, the state capital, heads the list of forest fires with a total of 72, followed by other municipalities such as Uruapan with 59 and Paracho with 47. However, it is the Uruapan region where the effects have been greatest in size, with a total of 2,153 hectares of forests burned to ashes.

According to the state forestry authorities, about 40 percent of the fires in Michoacán were caused by illegal activities, while the rest originated from unintentional causes. These illegal activities are presumably linked to illicit land-use changes due primarily to conversion of natural forests into avocado plantations.

The importance of avocado production in the state of Michoacán (linked to a very large and growing market demand in the United States) has been on the rise in recent years due to the profitability, leaving a billion-dollar economic spill for the state’s economy.

Because the felling of trees and protected forest areas is severely punished by law, some farmers and alleged members of organized crime have resorted to intentionally burning large areas of forest to extend their (often-illegal) avocado orchards.

Estimates vary, but it is thought that around 50 percent of avocado farming in Michoacán is illegal as the change in land use in some of those orchards has never been officially approved.

Nonetheless, numerous Purépecha indigenous communities native to west-central Michoacán have raised their voices to defend the forests that have historically been their home and their source of livelihood. They have reported the intervention of local cartels and some avocado farmers in the clearing of the forested areas, either by felling or burning, to make way for avocado cultivation, which is an unlawful activity.

However, the government of the state of Michoacán has responded lukewarmly to such complaints and instead has argued that, although organized crime is indeed involved in the significant number of forest fires in recent years, its motivation is none other than “to divert attention from authority.”

Given the facts and the agricultural-economic context that prevails in this region of Michoacán that coincidentally also happens to be the most affected area by these large human-caused fires, it is impossible not to infer that this natural disaster may have a different and greater purpose than what is presumed by the local authorities.

The environmental impact of the avocado production in Mexico is an inconvenient truth to many and an open secret for everyone. While it’s a billion-dollar industry that generates a huge revenue to the country’s economy and creates hundreds of thousands of jobs, the lack of long-term sustainability for this activity has turned it into a ticking time bomb that may have severe consequences in the near future for the people of Michoacán, and in turn, the entire country.

According to environmental researchers, some of the first-hand effects of the extensive avocado production can be: water shortages, biodiversity loss and extensive soil degradation.

And then, of course, there is the human toll, with thousands of local farmers and indigenous people being forced to migrate because their land has been taken from them.

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