MICHOACÁN, Mexico — Mexico tops the list of Latin American countries that export avocado internationally. No country in the world consumes more Mexican avocado than the United States, which commands 75% of Mexico’s fresh avocado export. The industry is so lucrative that Mexican avocado farmers affectionately call their livelihood oro verde or ”green gold.” However, sustainable avocado farming in Mexico remains an elusive goal. It can have dark undertones, including deforestation, water scarcity and even violence. These realities have prompted thoughtful consumers to ask what the U.S. can do to encourage sustainable avocado farming in Mexico.
Encroaching on the Ecosystem
Michoacán and other Mexican states are home to pine-oak as well as the vulnerable oyamel fir forests. These swaths of woods stretch across 12 mountaintops to form the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. This reserve is the only remaining overwintering habitat in the world for North America’s monarch butterflies after their southward migration in the fall.
Mexico’s stunning butterfly sanctuaries are not only a source of local pride and economic security. They are a vital part of ecological stability in North America. Monarch butterflies are major pollinators that contribute to the growth of many different wildflowers during their seasonal movements. Their endangerment or extinction could destabilize the food chain and have a catastrophic impact on food access.
Xiomara Dominguez, the public policy coordinator for the environmental nonprofit organization Reforestamos Mexico, explained in an interview with The Borgen Project that farming operations threaten these essential forests. While agriculture proves profitable for laborers, it often conflicts with land conservation policies. A program run by the Ministry of Agriculture in Mexico pays about $60 to incentivize avocado farming. Meanwhile, the National Forestry Commission pays workers about half that amount to protect the land. “These subsidies are even paid for avocado farming operations that lie within the [protected]monarch reserve,” Dominguez said.
Eleven million people live in Mexico’s forested areas, many of whom fall below the poverty line. Dominguez said that this “marginalization,” together with misguided cash incentives, can lead to overfarming. When this happens, Dominguez explained, “[People] keep cutting down native trees [to access more fertile ground]and the same thing keeps happening. And to find land where they can reap a good harvest, they have to migrate.”
Illicit activities also play a role. “Since 2003, no land-use change has been officially approved [by the government], but it happens anyway,” explained Dominguez. The Mexican government frequently investigates these illegal avocado farming operations, many of which are run by violent drug cartels who threaten the local population.
In recent years, environmental agencies have estimated that avocado farming has been responsible for 30-40% of deforestation in Michoacán. That is about 6,000-8,000 hectares per year, but as Dominguez put it, “We just can’t know exact numbers of hectares that have been lost to avocado [farming].”
Water Scarcity and Contamination
Some regions of Mexico have dealt with the issues surrounding avocado farming more effectively than others. “In [the state of]Jalisco, they have identified this as more of an issue,” Dominguez explained, “but in other places, this is not the case. In Michoacán… a lot of people say, ‘It’s a tree, so it’s fine.’”
But avocado trees are not, in fact, the same as native forests. In Michoacán, native trees protect water sources like drainage basins, which provide water to people both local and far away. On the other hand, avocado trees can contaminate drainage basins with fertilizer runoff if planted too close. They are also far less effective than native trees in cycling CO₂ from the air and require twice as much water.
Fighting for Sustainable Avocado Farming in Mexico
Several organizations are working with federal and local entities in Mexico to protect and replenish forests and create transparent land-use policies. Reforestamos Mexico partners with governmental organizations like the Biocultural Corridor of Central-Western Mexico which holds sway over access to reforestation projects in eight Mexican states, including Jalisco and Michoacán. However, reforestation is just the beginning. According to Dominguez, they “reposition activities in the forest and train people who live there [to]use raw materials in the forest to help them have a solid income without hurting the land.”
Global Forest Watch uses data from satellite imaging to pinpoint where deforestation is destroying tree cover and water sources. This data proves vital for federal and local governments in tracing the sources of environmental destruction. The Rainforest Alliance also supports the region’s sustainability certification initiatives. In 2018 alone, the organization was successful in certifying 900 acres of Jalisco farmland being used for avocados.
What Else Can People Do?
Dominguez highlighted in her interview that USDA regulations do not currently require any proof of sustainable farming methods in Mexico. Policymakers on both sides of the border need to help Mexico’s avocado industry balance economic benefits with environmental protection. The U.S. could play a pivotal role in helping its trading partner as a major consumer of Mexican avocados. The World Economic Forum proposes that consumers demand evidence of agricultural fair trade and sustainability through certifications. Doing so could help ensure that every avocado is a product of sustainable avocado farming in Mexico.
American’s enduring love of avocados and the Mexican cultivation of them go hand in hand. However, only when countries achieve sustainability can oro verde endure, not only as a Superbowl snack but as a livelihood for those who depend on it.
– Andrea Kruger