Home » News: How the planting of the green gold ‘Avocados’ wiped western Mexico’s forests from the map

News: How the planting of the green gold ‘Avocados’ wiped western Mexico’s forests from the map

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In western Mexico, a forest was cleared in a couple of days. It was the early morning of a spring day in 2020. A dozen workers arrived in two trucks escorted by armed men aboard a van.

According news.mongabay.com, minutes after their arrival, the high-pitched shriek of chainsaws scared the birds into flight through the canopy of the trees. This was followed by the noise of the crane’s motor and the shouts of those who organized the handling of large trunks of pines, oaks and oyamel firs.

The episode wasn’t news for the inhabitants of that corner of the Sierra de Cacoma, municipality of Cuautla, Jalisco. The forests in the contiguous lands had been felled under the same pattern and for the same purpose: to transform those sites into avocado orchards.

“They felled trees that had not been touched for many decades, an inheritance from my father and my grandfather; it seems that there is no one who can stop them,” the ranch owner complained bitterly during a meeting of the Jalisco Regional Livestock Union, on April 29, 2022, in Guadalajara. The state’s Secretary of Agriculture and Rural Development Ana Lucía Camacho, was there. The man got only vague promises.

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The small owner, who for security reasons asks that his identity be kept anonymous, remembers what he said that day: the destruction of his forestlands happened at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. He was out of the country since he was a migrant, like a good number of the natives of Cuautla, famous in the United States for their Mexican food restaurants. The man who looks after his land called him with the news: Strangers had invaded the ranch and cut down an old-growth rodal, a term used to identify a group of tall, robust trees that were decades old. “That day, I cried with frustration, with anger. It was a heritage I loved very much, and I wanted to turn it into a space for cabins for ecotourism. It was my retirement plan.”

Cuautla is a sparsely populated municipality located to the west of Jalisco. Its coniferous forests situated in mountainous areas have been preserved for years. That changed in the last decade when avocado fever arrived in these lands, subsequently spreading through various forested regions of Mexico and, in many cases, as in this area, comes accompanied by the territorial control of mafias and organized crime — in this particular case, part of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), which emerged from a split in the Sinaloa Cartel between 2010 and 2012.

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“They are destroying everything. They have bought, by hook or crook, the wood and the ranches,” explains the migrant from Cuautla. “They set the price, and if you don’t want to sell it, they take it anyway. Then, they arrive with the avocados … it is a business that they completely control.” In his case, there was no negotiation, due to his absence, but that did not save his forest.

Avocado fever arrived from Michoacán, completely invaded the southern region of Jalisco and now grows in places like the Sierra de Cacoma, which runs parallel to the coast in western Mexico, where criminal groups control most economic activities.

More avocado orchards, less forest
Michoacán is the leading avocado (Persea americana) producer in Mexico: 70% of the entire area planted in the country with Persea americana trees is in this state, according to statistics from the Agriculture and Fisheries Information Service (SIAP). The expansion of this crop to the west placed Jalisco as the second-largest producer, with 11% of the total planted area in the country.

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The same official SIAP data allow us to observe that, in the last decade, the area planted with avocado trees has increased considerably in states such as Colima, Chiapas, Nayarit, Guerrero, the State of Mexico, Michoacán and, especially, in Jalisco.

In the case of Jalisco, the expansion of avocado orchards is notorious. In 2010, just over 8,400 hectares (about 20,750 acres) of avocado were planted in the state. By 2021, that area tripled and reached the figure of 27,779 hectares (68,643 acres), according to SIAP data. However, studies carried out by the environmental authorities of Jalisco estimate that the space occupied by avocado orchards is a little more than double that reported.

The municipalities of Jalisco, where the SIAP data show a considerable increase in the area planted with avocado during the last decade, are located in the south of the state.

Satellite images of the last 10 years and analyses carried out by the environmental authorities of Jalisco show that as areas planted with avocado are gained, the forest area decreases. These data allow us to gauge the size of that loss.

Every 75 seconds, a tree is felled illegally in the mountains of Jalisco to establish avocado plantations in its place. By the end of the day, 1,100 trees will have fallen. At this rate, per year, there will be 401,500 trees and 1,054 ha (2,604 acres, three times the size of Central Park in New York). These are some of the preliminary figures that can be extracted from the study “Analysis of land use change in the agricultural frontier of the state of Jalisco”, soon to be published and prepared by the Ministry of the Environment and Territorial Development (SEMADET), the state agency in charge of, among other things, implementing public policies for the conservation of natural resources.

The study identifies 4,439 orchards dedicated to avocado cultivation, totaling around 56,504 ha (140,000 acres) for the entire state of Jalisco (almost double what the SIAP reports), established over 20 years (2003-2022).

The analysis carried out by SEMADET found that 28,336 ha (70,000 acres) cultivated with avocado are located in areas that, until 2017, were already used as agricultural fields. The rest, 11,727 ha (about 29,000 acres, around 17 times the size of the Chapultepec Forest), corresponds to land where the forest cover was felled to introduce avocado.

The study also highlights that this forest loss accelerated from 2019; since then, at least 5,160 ha (12,750 acres) of forests have been transformed into avocado orchards, an area equivalent to the total forest areas lost in the previous 15 years across the state of Jalisco.

Those 5,160 ha of forest — just over seven times the area of the Chapultepec Forest — that were lost in the last three years contained pine-oak forest (75%), low deciduous forest (16%), oak-pine forest (8.2%), semi-deciduous forest (0.4%) and cloud forest (0.2%).

With pessimism, the SEMADET authorities acknowledge that the loss of forests could accelerate due to what happened in July 2022: The United States government authorized the marketing of avocados from Jalisco in the United States (in addition to those harvested in Michoacán).

Atoyac, Jalisco, is one of the municipalities where the forest is burned to expand avocado orchards.

Complaints in the air
Kilometer 3.5 of the El Milanés gap: This main road connects the Ciudad Guzmán-Autlán highway with the Nevado de Colima National Park entrance, a pine, oak, oyamel and alpine zacatal (grassland) forest sanctuary. Just under 7,000 ha (17,300 acres) are located on the upper part of the largest mountain in western Mexico. On one side of the dusty road, you can see a motor grader (tractor on wheels and a curved blade used to remove earth and level land) with the logo of the state program known as A toda máquina, (At full speed). These are days of repairing the gap.

When the mist dissipates, a devastating spectacle is revealed in the Nevado de Colima National Park area: a 3-hectare (7.4-acre) ravine almost completely cleared.

The change in the landscape happened in April 2020. The Easter holiday period was used to bring in machines and remove all the vegetation. Since 2010, the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) has not given authorizations to change the use of forestland to establish avocado orchards in Jalisco, according to the response given by the federal agency to a request for information made for this journalistic project. Nor is it necessary to clarify the nonexistence of permits.

“The authorizations? They don’t need them; a maña agreement [a term used in this region to refer to the CJNG] controls the territories. This was reported to the state government and PROFEPA [the Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection], but nothing has happened,” says a frightened local, who begs for anonymity.

Changing the use of forestland without authorization from SEMARNAT is a federal crime that, in theory, should be punished with six months to nine years in prison or a fine ranging from 12,000 to 370,000 pesos ($697 to $21,500). “All of this is almost always a dead letter,” says a disillusioned Gerardo Bernabé Aguayo, president of the Board of Trustees of the Nevado de Colima National Park.

In 2019, the environmental authorities of Jalisco sued PROFEPA for irregular changes in the use of forestland in 108 properties in the south of the state; the estimate of the affected area is just over 1,573 ha (3,887 acres), which is equivalent to more than four times the area occupied by Central Park in New York.

For this journalistic work, information was requested from PROFEPA on the status of the lawsuit filed by the Jalisco environmental authority and has yet to receive a response.

What PROFEPA did respond to were requests for information on the administrative procedures initiated for unauthorized changes in the use of forestland in Jalisco. Between 2015 and April 2021, 129 procedures were registered, and for only in 26 of them, there were records of sanctions, though the type was not specified.

Another piece of information reflects the impunity around the transformation of forests into avocado monocultures. In 2017, PROFEPA inspected and closed 18 properties in the south of Jalisco, where forestland use was changed without authorization. Only in four of these cases have fines been paid. There needs to be a compliance record of mitigation and restoration measures.

In addition, the Attorney General’s Office (FGR), has only opened seven investigation folders for the alleged crime of changing forestland use in Jalisco. All are ongoing; six of them started in 2020.

To these complaints is one more, which the environmental authorities of Jalisco presented on March 4, 2022, before the FGR, “against whoever is responsible,” for the change of use of forestland without authorization to plant avocado in the Salsipuedes River Basin, in the municipality of San Gabriel, in the south of Jalisco.

According to technical reports prepared by the University of Guadalajara, the forest loss in that area caused the landslides on June 2, 2019. That day, a mudslide covered part of the town of San Gabriel, leaving 3,000 homeless and five dead.

“We lived through the tragedy of my mother. Until now, we don’t even have a body to cry over,” says lawyer María Guadalupe Gómez Figueroa, daughter of Emilia Figueroa, who disappeared during the disaster. Forced to activism after the loss of her mother, the inhabitant of San Gabriel reports that the felled forests have not been restored. “And because of that, we remain at risk.”

Pay for lack of water
With 2.5% of world avocado production, Chile, among the top five exporters globally, had to reduce the area dedicated to this fruit due to the severe droughts the country is experiencing and the growing social conflicts due to the lack of water. This has caused a decline in their exports.

Michoacán and Jalisco could be on the cusp of that destination, warns Alberto Gómez Tagle, a researcher at the Michoacán University of Saint Nicolás of Hidalgo who specializes in studying the environmental effects of avocados, especially on the subject of water.

The researcher’s analyses show the great contrast between the water an avocado tree needs and the forest varieties found in a natural forest on the Purépecha plateau in Michoacán.

The scientist does not rule out that the excessive use of available water will cause political conflicts over water in the coming months, especially in states such as Michoacán, Jalisco and the State of Mexico, where up to 85% of national production is concentrated.

Agribusiness that breaks balances
For this journalistic investigation, satellite images of sites south of Jalisco where the forest was razed to install avocado monocultures were compared. In most places, the same pattern is observed: The area is cleared, avocado trees are planted and shortly after, a “pot” is built; that is, an artificial reservoir to retain water. This reduces infiltration and runoff to low-lying areas.

Localities with just over 1,000 inhabitants, such as El Jazmín and San Isidro, located on the northern slope of Nevado de Colima in San Gabriel, receive water through pipas (water tank trucks), even though they are adjacent to the forest area. In recent times they also have as neighbors the avocado orchards that are displacing the forest.
To the south of the Sierra de Tapalpa, there have also been drastic changes in land use that have replaced pine and holm oak groves with avocado trees. The town of Apango, with about 800 inhabitants, is experiencing a severe water crisis.

The lack of water is a daily chronicle in the San Andrés Apango delegation, especially for those who live on the highest slopes. “We are six families in nine houses, and we have not received water through the pipes since they built the new well about five months ago. Before, we used to drink from the spring, and they gave us one day a week, but now we depend on a pipa that the city council sends us,” says Marina Jacobo Beltrán as she walks down a steep street.

The woman hesitates to point to the avocado orchards as those responsible for the lack of water: “They have given many employments, but since the orchards began to increase, we live with very little water.”

The overexploitation of water brings other problems to the region. In the Zapotlán Valley, where Ciudad Guzmán, the primary urban center of southern Jalisco, is located, the aquifer registers an annual deficit of 21 million cubic meters, according to data from the National Water Commission. The physical loss of this water generates internal collapses in the subsoil, as well as sinking and cracking, problems already suffered by the inhabitants of Primavera II, south of Ciudad Guzmán. This, coupled with an active geological fault found in the region, increases the risks for the area.

“We need to recover the balance of the aquifer,” says the municipal president of Zapotlán El Grande, Alejandro Barragán Sánchez. “Agribusiness,” he admits, “has been very good for us, it generates jobs and wealth, but the abuse [in use] of water has caused a dramatic decline, and active fault lines crisscross this entire city.”
Barragán highlights the other damage generated by the avocado monoculture: the significant deforestation of the basin, which causes geological material to be dragged every year from the Nevado de Colima to the bed of the Zapotlán lagoon, a natural reservoir of almost 1,400 ha (3,500 acres) that is the pride of the region.

Tons of soil, rocks and wood remains come down with the rains from the deforested properties and accentuate the clogging of the lagoon. The effect is that heavy rain, typical of storms in western Mexico, overflows the reservoir and increasingly threatens agricultural properties and human settlements on the shores. “An intervention to clear the silt is urgent,” says the mayor. And at the same time, the long-term project: retaining the soil in the high mountains.

In the last decade, the municipality of Zapotlán El Grande lost 1,171 ha (2,893 acres) of tree cover. In comparison, its neighbor San Gabriel was left without 2,605 ha (6,437 acres), according to an analysis carried out by Global Forest Watch (GFW) and the World Resources Institute (WRI-Mexico), shared with Mongabay Latam for this journalistic project.

The director of the Nevado de Colima National Park, José Villa Castillo, points out that steps have been taken to recover the forest area with the creation of a high-tech nursery, where native pines of the region are grown to reforest up to 2,000 ha (4,942 acres) of ravines that have been devastated by the lack of control over avocado expansion.

“This is the last call, the last hope to recover a region on the brink of collapse,” warns Villa Castillo.

Market with the imprint of crime
“Mister President, the strategy against crime will not be viable while they dominate these markets.” The warning was given when the officers received information that the criminal group Caballeros Templarios financed the phytosanitary certification of avocado orchards in Michoacán. That was what in 2011, Francisco Mayorga Castañeda, then secretary of agriculture, told then-President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa.

“They are strongly intertwined with the business, they are real companies, and before the profits, the avocado business finances the entire chain that they control,” says Mayorga Castañeda, now retired from public service.

Researchers, producer associations and even analyses carried out by state authorities indicate that the collection of “floor rights” affects the producers of some 30,000 orchards in Michoacán and just over 4,000 in Jalisco. In some places, the control of criminal organizations is present in the entire avocado production process, from planting to marketing.

“They decide what part of the forest should be cleared and who is going to be allowed to put the avocados; they also decide on other types of crops and management, on the destination of the wood, on whom the product is sold to … and in general on all things in the life of the town,” explains an ejidatario (common land resident) from Tuxpan, a Nahua Indigenous town located at the foot of the Nevado de Colima.

In Michoacán, they have suffered from this for a long time. “They have cut down our forests and imposed the avocado on the seriously attacked communities.” This was denounced by community member Faustino Zarco, on the morning of May 27, 2022, during a protest held at a crossing on the Uruapan-Paracho highway. “The government covers them and leaves us alone. Even so, we defend ourselves as best we can with the self defense groups: We set up guards at night so they don’t cut down or burn the forests.”

The protest that day mobilized Purépecha communities at six highway crossings, demanding support from the government of Michoacán, freeing up autonomous budgets, and intervening to curb extortion and invasions of their forests to loot wood and establish avocado orchards.

In Michoacán, between 2019 and 2022, PROFEPA reports having carried out 58 closures of properties, 42 criminal complaints, and 118 various procedures on 852 ha in which the use of forestland was changed without authorization.

The director of the Interdisciplinary Group of Appropriate Rural Technology, Jaime Navia Antezana, points out that the aggression against communal (ejido) structures in Michoacán has been brutal and has had the complicity of personnel from the National Agrarian Registry and the Agrarian Attorney’s Office. “Instead of protecting social property, they facilitate business. There are cases in which they buy entire ejidos (commons).”

He often points out that not even the avocado orchard will prosper because the land is unsuitable for that crop. “These lands remain unproductive and do not require a minor investment: You must invest at least 700,000 pesos per hectare (around $40,000). I do not find the rationality of this,” he underlines. He does not rule out that it is a strategy of territorial appropriation and money laundering.

Cherán, an Indigenous community in the Purépecha plateau region of Michoacán, is a unique case in defending the forest against the interests of criminal gangs. In the early morning of April 15, 2011, its residents, led by women, stopped logger vehicles, arrested the criminals and burned the trucks. What happened that day opened the way for this Indigenous community to establish their self-government.

Today Cherán is an oasis in the desert; no avocado orchards are on their lands. In neighboring communities, the forests were lost. Now Persea americana trees stand up, the dream of quick wealth for industrious individuals, even if they have to share profits with the cartel lords in power.

Deforestation-free avocados
Javier Magaña Cárdenas is a forestry businessman from southern Jalisco who has dedicated himself to managing forests, forest plantations and nurseries. Four years ago, he viewed the rise of avocados in a forested region full of environmental values with pessimism; now, he stresses that planting avocados is good business, “and good businesses leave money to reinvest in your living.”

The businessman says he believes that geomatics (a set of geospatial analysis techniques) can help people to understand which orchard that each avocado that enters the market comes from. In the future, he assures, these tools will stop the commercialization of avocados harvested at the expense of forests.

José Luis Cortés Casillas, also an avocado producer in the Piedra Ancha area, municipality of Zapotlán El Grande, assures that most of his colleagues are small producers and that he does not know of any who have grown their orchards at the expense of the forest. Official statistics contradict it.

In his opinion, defending the avocado brand will mean distinguishing producers who work by the law from those who have violated it.

Producers know that there is a growing stigma attached to Mexican avocados due to the environmental damage that their production entails. If environmental certifications advance quickly, there is a way to demonstrate which product does not come from deforested land.

This is a task that the government of Jalisco and the Association of Avocado Producers of Jalisco promote under the signature of the Rainforest Alliance certifier, a nongovernmental organization based in the United States that supports sustainability between forests and rural economies, which has done similar work with avocado trees in Guatemala. In the woods of Jalisco, they have already been certified around 1,500 ha (3,706 acres).

Jalisco is the first entity in the country that works to achieve green certification, a process that started in 2019.

The head of SEMADET in Jalisco, Sergio Graf Montero, warns that without these certifications, and with the growing demand for deforestation-free avocados in international markets, avocado growers will close the doors to their products. “It is the markets, the consumers, who are setting the tone,” he warns.

The Association of Avocado Producers and Packers of Mexico, the most substantial organization in this area in the country and made up mostly of producers from Michoacán, has not yet incorporated forest certification but claims to have replanted 1,500 ha of forests and be aligning the instruments to respect the North American free trade agreement, known as T-Mec.

And while the certifications advance at a slow pace, in Jalisco and Michoacán, the forests are felled, the traditional peasant structures are erased and retirement projects collapse for hard-working migrants who have made the region famous in some 400 Mexican restaurants in Washington, Iowa, Oregon, Colorado, California, North Carolina, Florida and Nebraska.

And so cried the man who, in the spring of 2020, learned that his old forest had been razed. For the moment, he has managed to prevent avocado trees from being planted on his land. More than two years have passed, and on the ground, you can already see herbs, shrubs and bushes; some pines and oaks have begun to grow. In all the neighboring ranches, the only thing that dominates the landscape is rows of dozens and dozens of avocado trees.

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