PETORCA, Chile (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Walking along a cracked earth path in Chile’s Petorca province, Catalina Espinoza points to a barren hill littered with dried shrubs and cacti - and to a nearby dry waterway.
The city of Petorca, a three-hour drive north of the capital Santiago, sits in the heart of Chile’s booming avocado industry, surrounded by rows of thousands of avocado trees.
Its abundant produce helps make Chile the world’s third largest exporter of the popular fruit. But the bounty has come at a price, residents say - the drying of local water supplies.
About 70% of freshwater used each year goes to agriculture, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Finding ways to reduce farming’s share of the world’s water, while still growing enough food to feed a rising population, will be crucial to preventing worsening hunger, particularly in the face of climate change, food experts say.
But global trade in food - which is effectively trade in the water used to produce it - may also need reconsideration in an era of increasing water shortages, they say.
In Petorca, in Chile’s Valparaiso region, local people and small avocado farmers say the arrival of big commercial avocado companies more than a decade ago has led to increasingly severe water shortfalls.
That is fueling tensions locally - and even led to death threats.
“People here don’t want our avocados to be exported because when they export our fruit they are exporting our water,” said Espinoza, who lives on the edge of thousands of hectares of avocado orchards watered from reservoirs.
With local water sources drying as a result of intensifying droughts and avocado irrigation, many villagers rely on water delivered by trucks twice a week.
Graffiti on Petorca’s streets reads: “Don’t rob water.”
“There are people here who water their avocado plants every day, and we have to drink water from trucks that we don’t even know is safe,” Espinoza said.
Gerardo Orrego, a small-scale farmer of walnuts and olives, said some farm families have been forced to abandon the area because of water shortages.
“Small farmers cannot survive here,” he said. “There’s nothing for people to do. Many families have left.”
Rising global demand for avocados in Europe, the United States and China has led to worsening tensions between Petorca’s residents and big avocado producers over water rights, including how water is managed and how access to it is regulated.
None of the region’s big avocado producers, apart from one local grower, agreed to be interviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation about the situation in Petorca.
But globally, fights over scarce water are on the rise, with the California-based Pacific Institute, which tracks water security issues, recording a surge in water-related conflicts from roughly 16 in the 1990s to about 73 in just the past five years.
Under Chile’s 1981 Water Code, water in the country can be owned and traded as a commodity.
The law allows individuals and private companies - including avocado producers - to request water rights that are then allocated by the government.
Those granted rights are allowed to extract and use a certain volume of water.
Lucas Palacios, Chile’s vice minister for public works, stressed that water for human consumption is free in Chile, and guaranteed under the law.
“Water isn’t privatized” but instead is regulated, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in his office in Santiago.
He said he recognized that what was happening in Petorca was “rather an inhumane situation” and said the government was working to improve the region’s drinking water system so residents did not need to rely on trucked-in water.
“But this will take time. It will take years,” he said.
And “it’s important to note that the situation in Petorca is quite extreme” compared to others parts of the country, he said.
According to the mayor of Petorca, Gustavo Valdenegro, avocado trees have been planted “indiscriminately” in the region, with few limits and controls.
Meanwhile, climate change has brought lower rainfall, exacerbating drought.
When the big avocado firms appeared, starting around 2006, the “green gold” they cultivated initially was seen as a potential boom for Petorca, the three-time mayor said.
“It was going to be the panacea. We were going to have a better life and better jobs,” he said.
But “at the same time, we had a tremendous drought and from then on conflict between the community and the big companies began”, he said.
Daniel Bosch, a big avocado producer and resident in Petorca, pointed out that the region was one of Chile’s poorest before large-scale avocado farming arrived more than a decade ago.
The avocado industry has brought much-needed economic growth and jobs to the former backwater, Bosch said, noting that, with avocado investment, “this area has improved considerably”.
But residents in the region’s hard-scrabble towns said it is mainly the avocado producers who have grown richer, and that many of the jobs they have created are short-term employment, not the steady work locals had hoped for.
As water resources in Petorca have come under increasing pressure, accusations of water theft by big growers have emerged.
According to Chilean environmental group MODATIMA, big producers are using greater amounts of water than their allocations allow.
Rodrigo Mundaca, an agronomist at MODATIMA, the Movement for the Protection of Water, Land Rights and the Environment, said some farms are quietly expanding their plantations ever closer to riverbeds, illegally draining river water.
Others are drilling unauthorized groundwater wells, reaching deeper and deeper for scarce water, as wells owned by residents - who cannot afford to dig as deep - run dry, he said.
Some big avocado companies also are building illegal water pipes to ensure they have enough water for irrigation, according to MODATIMA.
A 2011 study by Chile’s water authority, Direccion General de Aguas, using satellite imagery, showed at least 65 illegal underground pipes and systems delivering water from rivers to avocado orchards run by private firms in Petorca.
“In Chile, water is not safeguarded as a human right,” Mundaca said.
Once he could swim in the local rivers, but for 12 years water has barely flowed in them, he said.
Meanwhile, “the hills have been turned into orchards. The hills don’t have water shortages,” he pointed out.
The campaign group has denounced water thefts and shortages in Petorca, including before a local court and in the international media.
In 2017, that led to death threats, Mundaca said.
“I’ve been threatened by phone twice,” he said, noting that he no longer goes out alone, to try to protect himself.
Human rights groups Amnesty International and Front Line Defenders have documented the threats.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation contacted Cabilfrut, the largest exporter of Hass avocados in Petorca, and Chile’s Hass Avocado Board, but both declined to be interviewed about the situation in Petorca.
Chilean avocado grower Baika S.A. did not respond to email requests for comment.
Bosch, the large-scale local avocado grower, said the government should build big reservoirs in Petorca, to catch and store more water to address local water shortages, particularly during the dry summer months.
Similar private reservoirs on avocado farms are what keeps water flowing to the trees in dry times, he said.
“I have reservoirs of around 50,000 cubic meters (13 million U.S. gallons),” said Bosch. “In winter, I fill them up. I retain the extra water, and I use it now in summer when I need it.”
Farmers in the area have been asking the government to build additional reservoirs for the past 50 years for the community’s benefit, he added.
Chile’s new government, which came to office in March 2018, says it has stepped up efforts to monitor and regulate the use of water, including by using satellite imagery and drones.
That has helped curb unauthorized water use, said Palacios, the national public works vice minister.
“Never before have mass inspections been carried out on the scale that we have done in the Petorca region,” Palacios said.
“What that has done is precisely to discourage and prevent illegal (water) extraction, and of course, illegal wells.”
Last year, the ministry conducted 167 inspections, which have so far resulted in nine fines issued against companies for illegal water use. Companies are allowed to appeal the decisions.
But Mundaca, of MODATIMA, said fines do little to stop the problem as companies see paying them as a normal cost of doing business.
“We are not against avocados. We want avocados to reach markets in Europe and the United States,” he said.
“But (those) avocados should not be as a result of the systematic violation of the human right to water,” he said.
Reporting by Nicky Milne, writing by Anastasia Moloney, editing by Laurie Goering and Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org