America's Avocado Habit Is Wreaking Havoc in Mexico

As demand for the lucrative fruit grows, so do land seizures, deforestation, and violence
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 2, 2023 3:10 PM CST
America's Avocado Habit Is Wreaking Havoc in Mexico
Men harvest avocados at an orchard in Santa Ana Zirosto, Michoacan state, Mexico.   (AP Photo/Armando Solis)

The evils of avocado toast are back for more scrutiny—only this time because of an environmental nightmare. Illegal deforestation in avocado-growing regions of Mexico is on the rise, the New York Times reports, as chunks of forests are being burnt to make room for the profitable plant. Along with the loss of trees in two avocado-growing states, Michoacán and Jalisco, there's a rise in violence as people try to stop illegal land seizure. "My people should not die to satiate the world's appetite for guacamole," photographer and filmmaker Axel Javier Sulzbacher writes in an op-ed for the Washington Post. He notes that once cartels saw dollar signs in the avocado industry, violence over farmlands erupted, eventually making Michoacán's once docile Uruapan the third-ranked deadliest city in the world in 2020.

Those who come forward say they've been intimidated, and in some cases, beaten or kidnapped. Landowner Donaciano Arévalo told the Times he was threatened by armed men after he reported squatters on his land. "I felt my heart pounding in my chest," he recalls. "And I said, 'These guys are going to kill me or they're going to disappear me or they're going to hand me over to the criminals.'" Climate Rights International notes that the Mexican government prohibits forest "land-use change" to agricultural production without express authorization, but a mix of local corruption, criminal influence, and the incentive of the cash the crop brings have slowed down action.

While Mexico's forests, essential for mitigating climate change, are being razed to grow more avocados, the crop is creating a water crisis for local farmers. Illegal growers divert water sources to feed the thirsty plants. Not long after a forest catches fire, wells pop up, connected to an elaborate setup of underground piping that redirects water to a new orchard. In order to thrive, one mature avocado tree sucks as much water as 14 mature pines. "You're putting in deciduous forests of a very water hungry tree and tearing out conifer forests of not so very water hungry trees," Jeff Miller, author of Avocado: A Global History, said. "It's just wrecking the environment."

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Meanwhile in the US, where 90% of Mexico's avocados are exported, officials have dragged their feet over the American role in the issue. The demand for avocados has shot up stateside as the fruit has gone from a seasonal Super Bowl food to eaten year-round in our burritos, California rolls, and avocado toast. Americans are consuming three times as many avocados as they did 20 years ago, growing into a $2.7 billion annual trade with Mexico. Daniel Wilkinson of Climate Rights International claims a letter asking the US Department of Agriculture to resist buying avocados from sellers growing them on illegally deforested land was "ignored," but a department spokesperson said the lack of response was a "ministerial oversight, and not an indication of policy intent." (More avocado stories.)

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