The Mexican attorney general’s office for environmental protection (PROFEPA) has claimed that 6,000 to 8,000 ha of forests are cleared each year to make way for avocado orchards in the Mexican state of Michoacán, amid allegations of widespread illegality.
This is a much higher rate than the 1,000 ha of deforestation previously thought to be taking place, as reported by Earthsight last month. The estimate came shortly after PROFEPA revealed in a press release, in late October, that forest conversion for avocados is routinely taking place without legally-required permits.
The head of PROFEPA, Guillermo Haro Bélchez, pledged to curb the deforestation of areas earmarked for conservation, which he described as “a more important resource than avocado exports”.
A recent article by AFP claims that since August Mexican authorities have detained dozens of people working in fields in illegally-invaded forests.
In August, the Guardian reported that avocado exports from Michoacán have become a lucrative business for organised crime as drug cartels extort about £86 million a year from producers. The article highlights the illegalities committed by several farmers, who initially grow avocado trees underneath pine boughs and then cut down the pines completely.
Pine and fir forests are the primary targets of deforestation, as avocados flourish at about the same altitude. Avocado orchards currently occupy around 150,000 ha of forest land in Michoacán.
Avocado production has increased significantly since 2000 to meet rising global demand. Avocado exports from Mexico grew from £48 million in 2003 to £1.2 billion in 2015. According to PROFEPA, Michoacán grows 80% of the avocados exported worldwide.
PROFEPA said in its press release (Spanish) that it is maintaining dialogue with producers to make the industry more sustainable and to “discuss irregularities”. The attorney general’s office highlighted that forest land conversion for avocado production is illegal and promised to increase efforts to halt deforestation. Bélchez says that the Mexican federal government aims to achieve zero deforestation by 2030.
The Mexican Association of Avocado Producers, Packers and Exporters (APEAM) has defended the industry, claiming that it is carrying out environmental impact assessments and will plant thousands of trees in 2017 and 2018 and increase productivity to combat deforestation. According to APEAM, the “vast majority” of avocado producers in Michoacán are in full compliance with the law and most deforestation takes place where avocados can’t grow.
PROFEPA admits that it is difficult to distinguish between avocados from recognised orchards and those from illegal cultivation.
In addition to the threat to Michoacán’s forests, there are concerns that chemicals used in the orchards could be causing illnesses in communities living nearby. Experts have warned that chemicals used in mountain orchards may be contaminating ground water, rivers and lakes, that are used by communities.
There are reports of residents suffering from liver and kidney problems, which may be a consequence of the use of pesticides.