The Dark Side of the Aguacate
By Mariah Lomeli
Markets are constantly influenced by what society thinks of consumer products. As corporations and other business interests play a role in deciding what commercials, ads and programs to run, society soaks them in and manifests them into what could be destructive behaviors. These commercials, ads and programs eventually run their course around the world through globalized efforts, ultimately affecting people in every country. As more people around the world gain access to Internet connections, they are constantly exposed to these consumer pressures. Social media is key in influencing today’s generation and products that make a major debut on such platforms become widely accepted and desired. One such product includes the beloved avocado. Health conscious social media accounts promote healthy diets with this super-food that’s packed with healthy fats and vitamins.This however is not the only type of influence. NAFTA created a large market for the U.S that has steadily increased since. As wonderful as it is to get ahold of such a tasty, nutritious fruit at any supermarket, we cannot disregard the fact that this increase in this market creates many negative consequences. This should not be the norm. People should not have to suffer at the hands of capitalistic gain. However, this is almost always the case and in regards to the avocado the destruction is no different. The food that becomes part of a person’s diet does more then give them nutrients. It tells a story of cultural values, globalized trade, social injustice, environmental degradation and our political economy.
When did the avocado become a precarious object of concern? The increased consumption and demand of avocados began in 1994 as NAFTA lifted the ban on avocado imports from Mexico. This meant that most tariffs were eliminated or reduced considerably, allowing it to infiltrate the North American market completely. In less than a decade, consumption doubled in America (Huacuja, F. E. 2008). However, issues surrounding this demand have mounted to a national concern. The avocado is native to Central Mexico and has ties to much of the ancient history of the land. It can be traced back some 12,000 years ago has spread all over the Americas since. The main geographic location for avocado production is in Michoacan, a central state in Mexico, and grows 50% of all the avocados being exported from Mexico. With approximately 106,000 hectares, Michoacan yields 4- 8 metric tons of this silky fruit per hectare (Haofeng Chen, et al. 2009). During 2001 to 2011 avocado production steadily increased as Mexico supplied 45% of the international avocado market. The United States had always been dependent on the avocados produced by California, however the California drought had strained production enormously.Usually this meant that Mexico would continue supplying the avocado demands of it’s northern neighbor, however a battle against unethical treatment of farm workers was steadily picking up steam in Mexico. This resulted in massive strikes from Mexican farm workers as they occupied offices of the Association of Producers and Exporters of Avocados from Mexico. As negotiations failed to be reached, a total shutdown of the Mexican avocado supply to the US Market was inevitable. This caused an increase of avocado prices all around the world, with some establishments increasing prices 100% (Jeansonne, Brent. 2011). Increased avocado prices have not curbed our appetite for the fruit, and interestingly enough, effective marketing has created an Internet frenzy around the avocado. Today we can’t scroll through our social media feed without seeing an avocado. Consumer demand in the U.S has increased overtime as a result of increased consumer income, population growth and industry advertising and promotion. This created a need to match this demand from Mexico, especially in places like Michoacan.
The avocado can be seen as an object of concern for many reasons. Such reasons include, its high water demands in water strained areas, the politics surrounding it’s production, its influence in communities and the impact it has on the environment. Although these impacts may not reach everyone directly, it is ignorant not to realize the dangerous situations that the avocado has brought upon the people in Mexico. It has become so popular that America is now importing 80% of the avocados produced by Mexico, thus creating a lucrative market for capitalistic interests (Lamb, R. 2006). Most of these avocados come from the state of Michoacan, a place many associate with cartels such as La Familia Michoacana and more recently the Caballeros Templarios, or Knights Templar. Cartels feed on successful and lucrative businesses in many part of Mexico, most often those associated with agricultural production, by charging a tax. They tax almost every business in Michoacan, for example butchers would be taxed $70-$100 USD a day. Cartels have realized that extortion was more profitable than selling drugs and charge avocado growers $60 and packaging facilities about $2,200 a month. Resistance is always met with threats, kidnappings and murder. The Mexican government has done little if nothing at all to intervene on behalf of the communities in Mexico and as a result, the same communities are forming armed vigilante groups to protect their livelihood and families. One Cheran local explains it in a story covered by FusionTV, “We’ve armed ourselves to defend our rights. Officials no longer carry out justice here.” An avocado production manager from Michoacan stated, "Many of them give money, others don't. If you don't give it, well, you are putting yourself in danger". In another instance, a preacher and avocado grower from the city of Tancitaro, had his daughter kidnapped, raped and brutally killed. This all happened right before her father prepared to transfer title of his grove to the cartel after failing to raise a $600,000 ransom. Although vigilante groups have successfully fought off the Templars in Tancitaro, they remain with a heavy presence in Urapan, Michoacan, the states largest avocado growing region after Tancitaro and where most avocado packing facilities are certified for U.S exports (Paley, D. 2014). Many growers, packers, families and individuals fear retaliation by the Caballeros Templarios, including those linked to the Association of Avocado Producers and Export Packers of Mexico. The last president of the APEAM, Alejandro Alvarez, was shot in his car by unknown men in 2012 and ended up leaving Mexico with his family (Rucker, P. 2010). Working to produce agricultural commodities increases the chance of cartels interfering in the lives of many farmers living in rural parts of Mexico. Avocados are known as “green gold” in Mexico, because of the fortune to be made from such crops. Generations of Mexicans have provided for their families and brought food into our kitchens by directly and quite literally spilling blood, sweat and tears. As we sit down for breakfast and spread avocado on our toast, we can’t hide from the fact that their are real people feeling the heavy impacts of the avocado production near their communities.
Acts of physical violence aren’t the only detrimental consequences felt by the communities associated with avocado production and handling. As more and more people seek to profit off of global demand, avocado production continues to expand.Thus, all of the effects imposed by avocado groves become multiplied at an increasing rate. This includes, increased pesticide use, increased water usage, increased greenhouse gas emissions and increased exposure to violence. Pesticide use has always been controversial in regards to the negative ways they affect humans and other living organisms. Since the release of “Silent Spring” the harmful side effects of pesticide use have been brought to light. Illnesses and deformities are all too common in those that have suffered exposure. Chemicals used in orchards to treat fungus, pest and other plant diseases are no different. An article written for PBS by a lecturer at Harvard, Vikram Mansharamani, explained the health concerns for those related to avocado production. The people in Jujucato, the heart of avocado land, have come down with more and more breathing and stomach problems from the wind that blows the chemicals into many family homes (Vikram Mansharamani, 2016). Pest problems in public health, agriculture, and commerce are unsteady because pests develop resistance to widely used pesticides and are introduced to new locations without effective natural controls (Alavanja, M. C. R., Ross, M. K. and Bonner, M. R. 2013). Field workers in Mexico are subject to more lenient laws against pesticides and other chemicals. Such form of leniency includes little or no protective gear against the harsh chemicals. These are the people that are the most vulnerable to illnesses. On top of illegal deforestation through the use of fires to clear areas for more avocado groves, chemical residue is left behind in the wake of the fires. SinEmbargo, a liberal media outlet in Mexico that is backed by NGO’s and environmentalist, has challenged this notion of illegal deforestation. Social media and news outlets are often times the only way to voice the concerns and opinions of the people in rural town within Mexico. An environmentalist wrote on the Michoacan Food Sovereignty Defense Front facebook page saying, “Flames devoured the hills in plain view of all the citizens of Uruapan, just like the fields of avocados have decimated entire forests, leaving in their wake highly toxic green wastelands and aquifers contaminated by pesticides, as well as sickness and death for the laborers and their families.” The Secretary of Commission for the Environment, Natural Resources and Climate Change of The State of Michoacan, Ricardo Luna Garcia, claimed that the forest fire in the town of Uruapan was started by the “ambitions of avocado businesses”.
The controversy surrounding avocado groves mirrors similar environmental concerns as those around the palm oil plantations in Indonesia. Avocado trees thrive in the same environment as fir forests in the mountains of Michoacan. This has led farmers and corrupt cartel members to take drastic measures in order to avoid authorities. Activities such as thinning out of forests, planting young avocado trees under the forest canopy, and then cutting back the forest as the trees grow to let in more sunlight on the forest floors have increased since the avocado boom. Occurrences of avocado trees growing in various areas outside of the designated land is all too common. Farmers have even taken to cutting down protected areas to establish avocado groves. This protected area contains much of the wintering grounds of the monarch butterfly. These groves are created with little input from local communities and have only increased conflict between communities and government actors. Locals feel that the cartel and greedy capitalistic entities are trying to drive the people out in order take up the fertile land ( Barsimantov, J. 2009).
When a seemingly innocent product is the culprit to environmental issues and community destruction, it is almost inevitable not to feel compelled to act in a way that would reverse the negative consequences. It is easy to say “well I just won’t buy avocados from Mexico” but this isn’t the correct response at all. The livelihoods of many innocent people are dependent on agriculture production to live another day. There are laws and regulations that force big agriculture corporations to treat produce at an ethical standard in regards to pesticide and chemical use, yet the ethical treatment of migrant workers trails far behind and is only exacerbated through the greed caused by explosive avocado market.
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