Conflicts emerge over water permits and water footprint of avocado production in Mexico

3 May 2024 by The Water Diplomat

Irrigated avocados

During the week of the 15th of April, small scale farmers and activists from Villa Madero in Michoacan, Mexico started dismantling illegal irrigation equipment and breaching water pans installed in mountain springs to supply avocado orchards. These actions were taken in protest against their perceived excessive claim on limited water supplies by the large-scale avocado farms, which has prevented water from flowing down for use by the local community. The residents do not oppose the use of water for avocado production and are offering to allow 20% of the water to flow to the farms, but  wish to retain 80% of the water for use by local communities.

These events are taking place in a year in which Mexico receive less than half of its annual rainfall, and the capital Mexico City is experiencing critical shortages of water. The state of Michoacan is facing serious water shortage problems, including the reduction in the size of lakes and the reduction of river flow. Lake Cuitzeo in Michoacan, which used to support a vibrant fishing community, has faced severely declining levels since 2021, when it has only 30% of its original size. Similarly, Lake Pátzcuaro, also in Michoacan, has lost more than 50% of its volume. Both lakes are associated strongly with Mexican cultural traditions such as the ‘Día de los Muertos’ celebrations, and were popular tourism destinations, but with the current water shortages it is difficult to sustain tourism.

According to FAO, world avocado production has risen from 1.8 million tons to 8.2 million tons between 1990 and 2020. According to recent research , the production is dominated by Mexico, which accounts for 29.3% of world production. This production is highly concentrated in the Avocado Belt in the state of Michoacan, in central Mexico. Avocado production in Mexico is a lucrative industry: the annual value of avocado exports have been close to U.S. $ billion per year over the past few years, but this production is taking place in a country facing high levels of water stress, water pollution, and inequalities in access to water resources.

The production of avocados therefore comes at both an environmental and social cost, in particular through large scale deforestation and claims on local water resources by avocado farms. According to research conducted by the NGO Climate Rights International (CRI), most of the deforestation that has taken place in Michoacan and Jalisco states has violated Federal law. In addition, CRI argues that the water claims are in opposition to Mexican water law and policies.  

CRI argues that under Mexican law, the decision whether to grant a water license must take into account the mean annual availability of water, calculated at least every three years, in the watershed from which the water will be drawn. Additionally, theses licenses should take account of the already existing licensing and should consider the sustainable extraction that can be achieved from an aquifer or a watershed without putting into danger the equilibrium of ecosystems.

In addition, CRI argues that the first strategic priority in the government’s current National Water Programme is to “protect the availability of water in watersheds and aquifers for the implementation of the human right to water.” However, both local protests and upholding the rule of law are challenging in this area: according to Euronews, drug cartels often make money from illegal logging and extorting money from avocado growers in Michoacan. The activists around Villa Madero have suffered threats, kidnappings and beatings in the past.