January 18, 2015
Chilefarms, Nogales, Chile
The repressive Augusto Pinochet government in the 1980s was free-market oriented, much to the benefit of large farming and mining corporations. In the decades since, water consumption by these companies has soared, particularly by gigantic avocado growing corporations. It has reached the point at which owners of small farms in this valley have seen their water supply diminishing.
Ricardo Ceriani of Chilefarms attended a meeting recently in nearby Quillota at which area farmers relayed their concerns and anger to Congresswoman Andrea Molina, a member of the Chilean Parliament from V Region (Valparaiso). Ricardo's wife Susaan Straus says that local farmers complain but rarely organize. Congresswoman Molina listened to their concerns and surprised Ricardo with her response. "Keep coming to these meetings, your attendance here sends a message I can use to help you," he recalls she said.
Chilean farmers in this region, especially ones without deep pockets, have never felt empowered to have any effect on the vested interests of wealthy landowners, some of whom are members of the Parliament themselves. Some of the wealthiest landowners and farmers live in Los Andes and San Felipe. Situated at the base of the Andes Mountains, they are the first to be supplied with the annual snowmelt that courses over land through rivers and streams and underground through subterranean rivers flowing through cave systems in the mountains.
The wealthy farmers with political clout in these two towns already control water distribution into the valleys westward toward the Pacific. They release water into the Aconcagua River from their reservoirs once a week. Farmers downstream, including Nogales, divert water from local canals into their farms.
For some small farmers, this is the only water they have to irrigate their crops. Farmers with more resources are digging reservoirs on their property along the canals to capture water to use the rest of the week. Chilefarms and several nearby farms have done so in the past year. Farmers with even deeper pockets and increasing concern about a reliable source of water have begun drilling deep wells to pump water from the aquifer. A drilled well could cost tens of thousands of dollars.
The value of farms with independent access to water immediately increases. All well and good for the near term but what about the future?
Areas of California that have supported huge avocado farms have gone through a similar series of events being played out here in Chile. The avocado farms in California are exhausting the water supply. Entire towns, let alone farms, have run dry. Informative graphs on the link that follows:
The farmers in this valley have a two-pronged uphill battle ahead of them. They fight powerful vested interests in the agricultural sector and their own belief that the government will not respond to grass roots organizing to affect change.
Without some form of regulation, water usage and management is going to become a contentious issue with dire consequences to the people of the central valley of Chile.