January 19, 2015
During my annual visits to ChileFarms, I see a well-run farm that treats its workers fairly, lots of interesting local activities, including Chilean rodeos in which Ricardo excels, eat Susaan’s delicious mid day meals every day, and find loads of everyday farm goings-on that fascinate me. My blog from past years is full of stories documenting this. I have taken the weekly water flow from the Aconcagua River into local canals and through this farm for granted, unaware of the politics and infrastructure involved.
After talking with Ricardo and Susaan this year, I opened my eyes wider to discover a complex and volatile combination of politics, a faltering natural water cycle, climate change, and Chile’s cultural history.
Two recent stories and one government initiative about water consumption for avocado and other crops are startling and point to Chile’s growing water management crisis.
The first story shows a shocking graph that depicts the average amount of irrigated water, in gallons, that it takes to grow a pound of avocados in several countries.http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2014/10/avocado-drought-chile-california
Chile produced 200,00 metric tons of avocados in 2014. Do the math. Think about that next time you dive into a bowl of guacomole.
Charts for Mother Jones by Julia Lurie, who notes that the figures in this chart, and the one later in this post, include only blue water—which comes from rivers, lakes, streams, and aquifers—and not rainfall or recycled water.
Think about this next time you walk down the beautifully displayed produce in your local market.
Much of Chile’s avocado crop is exported to America. Statistics suggest that because of demand from the United States and the EU, avocado farmers in Chile have used so much water that some towns' wells have run dry.
Here are some facts from this story in Mother Jones October 2014:
• Chile's Central Valley (in which Nogales is located), like California's, lies between a snowcapped interior mountain range and a coastal mountain range.
• Chile is in the midst of a drought for the past several years.
• Chile's Southern Hemisphere location gives it a "counter-seasonal production schedule with the United States", that is, Chile's summer starts around the time that ours ends. That’s why your local market has such a range of fruits and veggies all year long.
• As in California, climate change and drought have meant less surface water flowing from mountain ranges to irrigate crops—and a shift to pumping water from underground aquifers. As a result, producers have "used so much of the region's waters that small farmers with shallow wells—and some nearby towns—are left with no water"
• Like California, Chile takes a laissez-faire approach to groundwater regulation. The results are scary.
• Large, export-minded farm operations have the wherewithal to drill larger and deeper wells, squeezing out small farms and nearby communities, author of "Civil Eats" Eilis O'Neill reports. Meanwhile, the profits from Chile's farm export boom remains pretty concentrated in the hands of large landowners.
The second story titled “Avocado farming straining Chilean water supplies” hits close to home for ChileFarms. The theme of the story is that a perfect storm of climate change, privatization of water rights dating from Augusto Pinochet’s reign from 1973-1990, and 5-year drought is leading to extreme water shortages.
A farmer near La Ligua (36 km from Nogales) stands in a dry riverbed that once fed water to his avocado trees. He says the problem began when avocado farmers who used to cultivate on the valley floor began to plant trees on hillsides and mountainsides. When water was pumped to vast tracts of avocado trees on the hillsides, it depleted his supply at ground level.
Couple this with a drought of five years, sometimes towns and small farmers get drips when they turn on their taps. Shortages this dramatic haven’t reached ChileFarms and Nogales but the issue was raised last week at a meeting Ricardo Ceriani attended in Quillota, a large city 23 km from Nogales.
An American author quoted in this story says the water problems began during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in 1973. Individuals and companies could apply for water rights. In the free market environment, the government granted water rights free and forever and those rights could be sold to others.
“There were no avocado trees planted on hillsides when Ricardo and I first arrived here in 1996,” ChileFarms Susaan Straus recalls. Now even the hillsides of the road leading to ChileFarms have avocado trees planted on them.
Avocados on hillside along road to ChileFarms about two kilometers away (January 2015)
According to the story, Adolfo Ochagavía, of the Committee of Chilean Hass Avocados, says building better infrastructure such as large reservoirs could help solve La Ligua's water problems. Both he and Felipe Martín, president of the Chilean government's National Irrigation Commission, agree that as much as 85% of snowmelt from the Andes is lost because it flows into the Pacific Ocean.
I was shocked (again) today when Ricardo and Susaan agreed that there is an accumulation problem, that huge amounts of river water flow into the Pacific especially during winter months when there’s little need for irrigation. I thought for sure that the officials claiming Chile allowed 85% of water from the Andes to flow into the Pacific was a bureaucratic ploy to play nice to wealthy landowners who have powerful connections in the government.
Rodrigo Mundaca, an agricultural engineer and the general secretary of the organization Movement for Defense of Water, Earth, and Environmental Protection, says, Chile needs to "have a deeper discussion about renationalizing the country's water, about enshrining water access as an essential, unalienable human right in the constitution." The deeper the current crisis becomes, the more traction this discussion will get.
The most promising proposal comes from the government of President Michelle Bachelet which is considering a program to spend US$1bn over four years to tackle water scarcity. The three parts of the proposal:
• Build desalination projects benefiting the country's north in particular, to build reservoirs and to bring existing storage and regulation ponds back into operation.
• Restructure the government departments to create a water resources ministry or a dedicated department within the public works ministry.
• A reform of the country's water law so that water rights can be restricted or terminated, and for an end to perpetual water rights and a Constitutional reform to prohibit ownership of water rights.
This proposal could be a Chilean version of “The New Deal”, with the familiar tag line of “job creation.” But the third part of the proposal is certain to meet strong opposition from the most wealthy and powerful ranks of corporations and landowners.
President Michelle Bachelet has had the proposal on her desk since June 2014. Ricardo Ceriani has told me “the government doesn’t do anything for the farmers, only for the people of Santiago.”
If history is any guide, he is probably right. For the sake of the farmers of the central valley, I hope he's not.
Photos by Paul A. Tamburello, Jr.