The fruit of friction in Michoacán
By Heriberto Paredes
Translation by taller ahuehuete.
The Berlin Wall
The fever to cultivate avocado, at any cost, can only be explained by its demand.
The United States buys thousands of tons of this fruit native to Mesoamerica, and guacamole is a favorite snack, especially during the Super Bowl.
Michoacán, the cradle of this crop, is a territory besieged by violence, where peasants and small producers are up against intense effects of monoculture, frequent droughts, and the overexploitation of natural resources. Today the profits from this «green gold» reach into the hundreds of millions.
Within days of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, people living in East Germany found their supermarkets overflowing with bananas — people were giving away bunches for free as a gesture, welcoming them to the world. "Free."
Bananas and chocolates were, in Europe, symbols of freedom; on the other side of the world, however, in Central America and the Caribbean, they were central to a grim reality of forced labor, destruction of communities and erosion of the land. Trends and crises not only go hand in hand, they are together part of a perverse cycle.
The avocado today is experiencing a similar fashion zenith. They call it the «green gold» and to be sure, for those who collect it — who work long hours and are victims of violence that does not end — in their experience, nothing but that precious metal could compare with the violence and exploitation that comes with the avocado agribusiness. It resembles gold, whose extraction and production demands serious consequences for the environment, and puts the survival of all other local agriculture at risk.
According to official data from Michoacán —the epicenter of this extractivist kingdom in Mexico— each and every year, the avocado yields a profit of 70 billion pesos just from its direct exports to the United States.
Today there are officially around 75,000 producers, however, this figure has skyrocketed recently. According to the Association of Avocado Exporters Producers and Packers of Mexico (APEAM), 20,500 of those affiliated producers have been registered just since 2016.
This trend is not only a recent one. In the late eighties, the US market began to define the avocado as part of a healthy diet, which strengthened domestic production and demand, specifically in California. At that time, there was no Mexican export — given a seventy year prohibition. However, by the end of the nineties, this crop emigrated in the opposite direction: US production grew exponentially, after the business transfer into Mexican lands, which motivated local cultivation under «North American quality standards».
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994 was crucial, in combination with the end of the ban on Mexican avocado. The cost of production was reduced, and the climatic conditions in Michoacán (a region known for its temperate, forested and high-water levels) proved to be ideal for the business to expand successfully.
At some point, when praise of the "good fats" characteristically attributed to this fruit had spread, someone decided eating toast with avocado on top was a good idea. The ingredient combination became so popular that it quickly swept around the world. Television commercials began touting it as the new favorite breakfast of this century. In New York, where places like “Avocaderia” exist, an establishment advertising itself as an ‘avocado bar’, or the Avocado Apetit, offers innovative menus based entirely around this ingredient. The same can be found in other major cities including France and Germany. In the exclusive Whole Foods supermarket chain, the cost of one Hass avocado oscillates around $1.49 USD, with the organic option available at $1.99 each; both alternatives originate from Michoacán.
The market throughout Western Mexican state is almost exclusively tied to the millions of tons produced for the neighbor to the north.
On January 26, 2021, the newspaper Milenio found that roughly every seven minutes a truck left Michoacán to the United States in order to meet the demand for that year’s Super Bowl.
According to the figures that were published in El Economista, at the end of the sales season (June 2020) a record figure of 1,272,000 tons was reached.
Other countries, such as the Dominican Republic, Peru and Chile, compete to be among the top five producers, but the Mexican state continues to be the «kingdom» of this fruit production. A label made visible with a monument at the entrance to Tancítaro, a town with about 30,000 inhabitants, is considered to be the world capital of avocado. This minimalist sculpture represents an avocado as a bone to a global body: meant to be a tribute to the strength of this business, but also a cold reminder of the conflict and violence this monoculture production and greed has generated.
In the center of Michoacán, a territory full of surprises and splendid landscapes, there is a large forested area that surrounds the lakes of Pátzcuaro and Zirahuén, but a little further south, the climate changes and becomes «hot» land. Right on this border between the forest and this semi-desert region is the temperate climate where the avocado thrives.
At the beginning of the 1940s, and until his death, former President Lázaro Cárdenas promoted the construction of dams and irrigation systems to promote agricultural development throughout the state. The production of avocado along with other fruits, such as papaya and lemon, has been a mainstay to its economy ever since.
With more than 300 kilometers of coastline and 4.5 million inhabitants, the state of Michoacán has been and is fertile grounds for the production and transfer of natural and synthetic drugs; marijuana and methamphetamines primarily, with cocaine regularly traveling through.
Tragically, alongside «illegal» businesses, the emergence of extortion, murder, disappearances, robberies, unofficial tax collection and arms trafficking is inevitable. All these side-effects are exponentially damaging when coupled with the permissiveness and collusion of state and federal authorities.
Los Caballeros Templarios first appeared publicly in early 2011, a result of a breakup of the cartel group «La Familia Michoacana».
With a religious fervor, (sometimes adorned with tunics that replicated the clothing of the medieval Templars) its members managed, in a short time, to sow fear throughout the state of Michoacán. One of their most profitable businesses was extortion. Different sectors of the population, from sellers of pirated records to avocado and lemon producers, were subjected to the extraction of millions, in the form of tributes to the cartel with their «fees».
In early 2013, several armed uprisings in the region managed to put an end to their stranglehold, but unlicensed businesses remain, now in the hands of new organizations. Each new criminal gang but a mutation of those preceding.
«There is a disease of avocado growers», says Abelardo Alvarado, a 70-year-old farmer who walks steadily towards the back of his house, an adobe brick building covered almost entirely with small potted plants, both decorative and medicinal. This afternoon, at the end of September 2020, Abelardo wants to show me the family cornfield he cultivates. This family heirloom and family friend, this cornfield is at great risk due to the lack of rain, a crisis becoming more and more frequent.
Huatzanguío is a peasant community full of trees and the passing freight train in the municipality of Lagunillas. The rainy season is in its final stretch, however, it has been scarce once again. «Almost nothing» he says, «as you can see with the naked eye, several hills that have lost forest». In their place, sharp and unforgiving rectilinear orchards where avocados are grown.
On our way through his backyard we pass a small tomato patch: the entire crop is dried up or rotten, suffused with a blackish hue. Abelardo doesn't know why. He picks up a spoiled tomato, looks at it, passes it to his daughter next to us, rubs his hands together anxiously, and walks on to the corn he grows.
«These are no longer days to wait around for the rains. Normally, we would already be harvesting,» she says, her furrowed eyes almost hidden — they focus so hard on the fields that are their livelihood.
A little over three years ago, Huatzanguío watched as its rich farmland transformed into orchards for cultivating only avocados and various berries: strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries (all known there simply by their English name: «berries»).
«Before, a lot of corn, beans, and other vegetables were grown. We had some cattle as well... but now those hills began to peel only with the avocado and these berries. They claim they have permits but with no explanation as to how they got them» he says, proudly showing that he still has a milpa; a small plot for his own family’s growing, and a form of subsistence that does not involve monocropping.
In 1992, after the reform of article 27 of the Mexican constitution, the doors were opened wide to the privatization of land. This land was previously intended for collective and communal use, as well as for small production units known as ejidos.
Today, in Mexico, peasant communities —indigenous or mestizo— transit between these two agrarian regimes. The Article 27 was a barrier against sale to outside buyers; by removing it, the privatization of land (between 60 to 70% throughout the country) became one of the central factors of the crisis experienced by the national countryside.
As a result of this change, multiple companies (both Mexican and foreign) purchased huge tracts of land at low cost —usually through the employment of deceit and violent pressure, at highly irregular prices, dispossessing many of the previous inhabitants— to install all sorts of industrial factories; the production of vehicle parts, avocado orchards, fruit refrigerators, gentrifying housing units, and private tourist centers replaced the horizon.
Added to this panorama, the replacement of small and varied crops by avocado monocultures exhausted and eroded the soil, putting an end to the biodiversity of the dietary production. Its influence on price speculation in the market meant that local food consumption has adjusted to the capitalist supply chain, altering the consumption habits of the residents.
As avocado turned into the most valued fruit, corn — an essential and ancestral staple for the Mesoamerican diet — was left far behind. The effects of this transformation are visible: the construction of huge industrial warehouses to store or pack the coveted green gold, constant droughts across the region, the destruction of groundwater tables, and the disappearance of basic crops, leading to an increase in obesity rates.
Abelardo observes the consequences of this transformation every day. Despite the legal restrictions in the current agrarian law, to curb the purchase and sale of ejidal communal lands, it is with great annoyance that peasants like him have seen foreign people arrive, sent to «influence» them to plant crops of avocado, blueberries and strawberries.
The environmental cost of this change is enormous: one avocado tree consumes the same amount of water that eight pine trees would need.
«Fruit trees such as papaya require between 15 and 40 liters of water and are watered every three or four days. Avocados (if they have a good irrigation system) must be watered almost daily, and require cycles every two to three hours with 4 liters each time for each plant» a farmer who has spent years growing papaya on the Michoacán coast recounted by telephone.
Many municipalities are reporting the Michoacán water scarcity, a state with large rivers such as the Balsas, the Lerma, and the Cupatitzío, which flow into tributaries —both visible and underground— which, in turn, supply forests and lakes. This is a critical change in the communities, as human population of the avocado belt historically rely on the rains and springs for water.
But the profits are counted in millions. In 2020, the total export of Mexican avocado reached $3,245 million US dollars according to the Bank of Mexico (Banxico) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The real cost, however, of filling supermarkets and trendy restaurants with avocados is the destruction of wells, of climates, of nature, and of local economies.
Of all the types of avocado (Bacon, Zutano, Reed, Pinkerton, Lamb and Nabal), the two main ones for export are Hass and Fuerte. The Hass is a variant that was introduced in the late eighties and whose demand increased significantly in the early 2000s. It has a rough skin and a dark green color, and its harvest period goes from spring to summer.
In the summer-autumn season there is a variant called Hass Méndez, first cultivated in order to meet the enormous demand for the fruit. The Fuerte specie is larger, and is harvested from autumn to spring, though it has the disadvantage of aging quite quickly. There is also the criollo, a fruit that grows au natural —without grafts— and that has a very thin skin, so thin that it is usually eaten, but whose fragility makes transportation and packaging problematic.
Before the global boom in the avocado business, the criollo was the most popular among locals in the countryside and many had (or still have) these trees in their patios.
The pandemic has not reduced avocado production in Mexico. When visiting different regions of Michoacán, it is evident that this agro-industry has not even slowed down; on the contrary, it continues to expand.
Thousands of young people go each day from their homes to the orchards and complete the same long work days between eight and ten hours. Some still have energy to go for a walk with friends in the evening after they are done. This «walk» often means dressing your best, getting in a vehicle and circling the town square with loud music, light beers in hand.
This is the great labor force that moves the avocado, especially when the orchards belong to packing companies that have the permits and the capacity to export. When it comes to a family business it is different: all ages of relatives get involved.
Sometimes the producer and local buyer are direct relatives. Either way, it is never a life of luxury; this is reserved for landlords with hundreds of hectares or for the owners of packing houses. They are the ones who determine the purchase price of the fruit to later export it.
As in every business, it is these owners and intermediaries who harvest all the profits, while the workers remain struggling with their meager wages. Despite this known reality, avocado is a business with a reputation for wealth and potential and in the midst of a boom. There remains a hope here that one can strike gold.
Lagunillas is one of the 39 municipalities of this avocado territory. Although Uruapan was considered the heart of this massive agribusiness, today you can see avocados even in atypical areas such as Zitácuaro or around the capital of Morelia.
«It is impossible to even enter the avocado orchards of Lagunillas, they are fenced off and their owners are very paranoid», says a local farmer named Agustín when I ask about the possibility of visiting. «I grow my corn, beans, chili peppers, pumpkins and avocados… but it is nothing like how those who come from abroad do — those who buy up the land and start destroying the forest. I do it on my land and it is for local consumption. I do sow the Hass but also the Creole. Interested people come and buy a box or two from me and occasionally I take them to the stalls to sell in small markets».
Until 2020, the amount of land used for avocado production was 140,000 hectares, according to data from the state government. Today, everyone wants to have their own avocado orchard, regardless of whether the weather is suitable or whether the water is scarce: what really matters is getting on the bandwagon of this agricultural trend. This «infection» of avocado producers destroys every aspect of life for the region, and it is the main concern for Abelardo, Agustín, and many other inhabitants of Lagunillas.
Capital and Scarcity
To the northeast of Tancítaro lies a huge volcano, the Pico de Tancítaro, and around it what once was a vast wooded expanse of pines and oyameles is now a sea of avocados. The only variation being a slight difference in the size of these trees depending on variety, around twelve feet tall for the Hass.
In order to maintain the massive amounts of water they require, hose systems have had to be put in place, drawing water from the wells intended for human use. Huge rectangular pits are dug known as «agricultural pots», scattered across the land to capture rainwater. Once again the reality is that these containers, looking like immense swimming pools, are brimming with water for avocado, while the local population runs dry.
Zirimondiro is a community within Tancítaro that is difficult to reach by car: it has cobbled streets and is at the foot of the volcano. It protects one of the six main springs in the area. Its population, about 800 people of peasant origin, began to organize to conserve and defend its natural resources and to renew, through reforestation, their legacy for subsequent generations. They do not want to lose the few springs that remain.
More and more hectares of avocado cultivation have now dried up the aquifers, the water holes are drained to supply irrigation systems and agricultural pots. New avocado orchards popping up in the vicinity of the springs and the illicit piping of water for agricultural irrigation are constant concerns.
«There used to be a lot of water from our spring. There is only a little that remains, but you have to pay attention and protect it so that it doesn’t vanish. When we discovered that there were orchards of fresh water next to our spring, we decided to do something to defend it», says Leopoldo (we will call him that for his protection).
Leopoldo is a member of the Movement for the Defense of the Forest and Water Basins of Tancítaro (Modebocu), made up of families from this and other small neighboring communities such as Apúndaro or Agua Zarca, where there are other springs. They are in the midst of a long-term campaign to raise awareness and have recently published several videos in which they explain the different strategies they use, including direct dialogue with producers who have cut down part of the forest, as well as doing direct reforestation in the areas affected by irregular avocado production.
«Without forest there is no life,» he affirms repeatedly.
Tancítaro has experienced episodes of cartel violence — extortions from a major avocado businessman has been the most evident. One such case is that of the Bucio family, who were extorted and harassed, had one of their packing plants burned to the ground, and then several family members murdered.
The worst of this violence was concentrated between 2004 and 2013 and attacks are less widespread now with the emergence of self-defense groups. Between 2013 and 2014, more and more, the people have come together to take up arms in defense.
On many occasions these cartel organizations were directly linked to political parties and state institutions of Michoacán. The members of Modebocu have bad memories of these times:
«You couldn't go out after six or seven at night, there were trucks of armed men passing by and some were guarding large trucks. We discovered that they had avocado there» continues Jacinto, a neighbor of Zirimondiro, who also prefers to use a pseudonym.
«We found out that producers with larger volume had been kidnapped or simply killed because they did not want to hand over the extortion fee. We no longer felt safe, we locked ourselves up behind closed doors and feared even to work because we were in danger of being disappeared», recalls Lourdes, who requests anonymity.
In the house of some members of the group, we are seated in a circle. Lourdes prepares freshly ground coffee as she listens to the rain fall. This rain comes suddenly and is out of season. At that moment, when the drops on the tin roof are the only thing that breaks the silence, we can only think that here in Tancítaro water still falls from the sky, unlike Lagunillas.
To promote reforestation, Modebocu convinces orchard owners to replace some of their avocado trees with pines, ash, cedar, and other similar trees which consume far less water, allowing more of it to seep into aquifers and underground streams, keeping the entire region’s water supply sustainable.
«In the past the water ran every day» says Lourdes. «You could go bathe and didn't need to cut down a tree for food… There were mushrooms and hawthorns to eat, peaches and pears and wild blackberries. There were many birds as well: sparrows, goldfinches and woodpeckers. There have always been problems, but it wasn’t until about 30 years ago that everything changed and it was no longer possible to even go outside».
Between this severe transformation by non-native avocado producers from Tancítaro and the period from 2011 to 2013 when the Knights Templar cartel first appeared, the whole way of thinking changed for young people.
«Now you see the boys going around the plaza with their trucks, with the music at full blast, getting drunk. And everyone wants to replicate this behavior» says Martín, another local land defender hoping to return to a life where sheer ambition is not the engine that drives Michoacán.
Ricardo Luna, head of the Ministry of Environment, Climate Change, and Territorial Development (Semaccdet), answered some questions regarding the change in land use. His argument is that the state government is «acting properly to regulate the orchards and certify that they have the necessary permits».
«The Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources department (Semarnat) stopped granting permits to change land use designations for areas deemed as forestry to be allowed for agriculture. Whoever claims to have recent permits like this is lying. We are dealing with this situation» he says.
Faced with constant complaints of orchards without federal permits, in 2016 Governor Silvano Aureoles published a decree to build what he called «environmental security» for the state. As a consequence, an environmental police was created (identifiable by its green and blue patrols) to monitor the roads and prevent the «illegal» traffic of trees and plants.
«It is a security body that inspects, watches over, and protects natural resources. Environmental specialists who were trained to know how to face tense situations and how to deal with people who could represent a risk», says Luna.
In April 2020, without providing updated data as to their effectiveness, 64 additional officers were added to this police division, according to the Michoacan government and the Environmental Portal Information Agency of Mexico.
The Governor’s decree includes an agreement —which only 400 of the 75,000 producers have signed— where three fundamental aspects are established: 1. a commitment not to install orchards without the state permission. 2. a commitment to convert a percentage (from 10% to 30%) of each avocado orchard back to forest. 3. yhe creation of an environmental fund to which these producers contribute financially, (up to 7,000 pesos per hectare each year) to support the ejidos and communities that maintain and care for their forested territory.
«If this is achieved» continues Luna «of the 140 thousand hectares of avocado that exist in Michoacán, we would be talking about 60 thousand hectares that we can recover with a forestry designation».
In Michoacán they don't let it rain.
These droughts are human-made and have disrupted and prevented harvests. The change in the water cycle is one of the most visible damages, a disruption that has changed crop cycles.
It has stopped raining because several avocado and strawberry growers have brought in anti-hail cannons to protect their products. Blue or silver trumpets and similar to a rocket, these twelve foot long cannons have affected the water cycle.
It has stopped raining not only because of the destruction of forested areas and extensive monoculture, but also because several avocado and strawberry growers have introduced the use of anti-hail cannons to protect their product.
Twelve feet long, these blue or silver trumpets look like a rocket held in place by three metal bars. They supposedly help break up the hail and thus prevent it from damaging the crop. The community has complained that these avocado tree cannons severely affect the water cycle and do not allow it to rain.
Given the complaints raised by locals against the presence of external producers and their responsibility for the lack of rain, in July 2020 the state established a series of public dialogues. There was no agreement reached, though; what’s worse, the peasant families struggling affirm they knew they were discriminated, due to their level of education and class, and treated often with disdain.
«In my lifetime, I remember when everything was normal: it rained. There were heavy downpours, the water ran down the ravines, you could see the water down the street... but since the avocado and strawberry trees dominated, we began to suffer from everything. They no longer let it rain» says Ana María Reyes Domínguez, Abelardo's wife, angrily.
A strong voice in Lagunillas with a big smile, salt-and-pepper hair, and wearing her kitchen apron, she has spent her life dedicated to the fields and her family. She recalls how the government conducted interviews with the inhabitants and accused them of not knowing anything about agriculture.
The local news agencies have covered the operation of some of the anti-hail cannons, particularly in municipalities such as Acuitzio del Canje and Peribán, where avocado cultivation has a long history. In the images of such coverage, you can see how these great trumpets fire, diluting the clouds and chasing away the rain.
Anti-hail cannons emit a mixture of acetylene gas with oxygen that is compressed in a chamber and launched to the sky. The mixture rises through the air until it reaches a height between 5,000 and 10,000 meters, once above it generates a shock wave that displaces the clouds a kilometer in any direction. Large and medium-sized producers have acquired these devices from companies such as the Spanish SPAG (Anti Hail Protection Service).
There is no consensus on the actual effectiveness of these cannons to protect the fruits. The communities have filed complaints, warning that they not only delay the rain cycle, but cause a considerable decrease in its intensity. It isn’t only community growers and ejidatarios complaining but also ranchers who see this technology as a direct attack on the rain cycle, affecting the entire natural environment.
Until now, though, there is no prohibition or even regulation on their installation or operation. The state government held a forum to discuss the pros and cons but, with the Covid-19 pandemic, it was postponed.
In protest, on September 22, 2020 — despite the recommendation of social distancing— several farmers and their families blocked a section of the train tracks for the entire day. The tracks they chose to target were those that ran from Lagunillas to the United States. Cárdenas, also in Michoacán, was another target for protest, one of the crucial points in the commercial connection between Asia and America.
«We want you to listen to us!» chants Ana María, a farmer and housewife who, long with her husband, grows corn and beans — a staple of the Mexican diet. She continues, laughing: «I tell people: don't worry, we can make strawberry and avocado tortillas, instead of beans! We will add blueberries for a tasty treat because there will be no more corn left!»
María, who prefers not to give her last name for fear of retaliation, is a 35-year-old woman with two children. She participated in the protests and confirms that, after the invasion of the avocado and berry crops, the rivers and aquifers have dried up. «They take away the water, both from above and from below».
Dedicated to her housework and the planting and harvesting of corn, beans, and chili, she fears for her children, whom she is already teaching the need to fight for it to rain again.
José Gutiérrez, a 40-year-old peasant I spoke to as I traveled the avocado roads, is a resident of Lagunillas. With a worried face, he tells of the constant calls he receives, complaints of the effects of this monoculture: the threats and intimidation along water shortages and a damaged ecosystem. He looks restless, and doesn't let go of his cell phone. We sit on the edge of what looks like a ravine on the outskirts of the town. As I talk with José, the worry turns into something more like nostalgia:
«The corundasand the uchepos are scarce due to the lack of corn. The diet of inhabitants has the milpa as the fundamental base, and the lack of rain causes this to be altered», he says, telling how the traditional foods of this region are all made with corn dough.
«Everything that is happening now with the harvest of this crop has a direct impact on our diet» he insists.
Direct Action and Self-Defense
Despite the large number of calls and emails from the publication Gato Pardo to different officials of the state to arrange an interview, the doors were never opened.
The State office for this field, founded in 1997 and based in Uruapan, maintained its silence and opacity. Ever since the avocado trade became the multi-million dollar business that it is today, the fear of extortion and attacks from cartel groups has spread among producers with any significant capacity, many of them affiliated with the APEAM.
It is the most vulnerable small landowners, though, who continue to run the highest risk, and who see their families broken and devastated after one or more disappearances or murders.
Between 2010 and 2013, cases of arduous extortion threatened the livelihoods of the inhabitants of Tancítaro, but the straw that broke the camel's back was the lack of safety. Representatives from the USDA arrived to verify that the agricultural production being exported to the US complied with the standards established by NAFTA. They found the conditions there too dangerous to proceed with the process.
Throughout Tancítaro, this degree of friction brought on the formation of the first autonomous communal self-defense groups in June of 2013. From the start they had support and guidance from similar groups already serving municipalities in Tepalcatepec.
The self-defense groups were comprised of civilians who, with rudimentary weapons, began to rise up against gangs in the heart of Michoacán. It all began when, on February 24, 2013, in the Buenavista Tomatlán municipality —almost two hours from the avocado zone of Uruapan and Tancítaro— armed citizens confronted the Templarios cartel.
Quickly, ranchers, peasants and local businessmen came together to resist the cartel by confiscating a considerable amount of weapons and vehicles, taking full or partial control of various towns as they fought.
Inhabitants of almost all the municipalities of Michoacán reached out to these self-defense groups, asking for help to fight those who extorted, kidnapped, raped and murdered them. It was imperative to the State and to capital that the continuity of the agro-industry could be be guaranteed.
«We were tired of being asked for money [as a tributary expectation from the cartel members]. If the head of a gang thought he’d throw a party, we had to pay for it and bring our women; if they wanted to give their kingpin a gift, we were forced to buy it; and if we refused, we would simply turn up dead on a road. They took away the orchards I had with avocado. That is why we stood up; so that this nightmare would end», says Luis, a young worker from Tancítaro.
«Neighbors would be found every day, killed and dismembered. They would kidnap a lot of people as well, right in broad daylight. The federal police were brought in but nothing changed. It was chaos. Money directly from the municipal budget was demanded by the cartel — or as an individual, if you built a house, if you bought a car– they took everything. It wasn’t only the gangs, the police kidnapped as well. A lady came and told me that they had taken her son, as she showed me a policeman's cap» says Fray Benicio Zamora Ramírez, a former official of the Tancítaro city council, who witnessed this wave of violence.
The self-defense movement expanded, although not in a homogeneous way, not all municipalities managed to break up the cartel cells. The presence of self-defense groups also brought on a reorganization of municipal security, an agreement was reached with the state government such that a new police force would be created.
In Tancítaro, for example, they would be paid in equal parts; from the municipal budget and with the contributions of the avocado growers. This is how the Tancítaro Public Security Corps (Cusept) was born, which patrols to this day, in coordination with the Michoacán police to protect the orchards.
During the most aggressive period of organized violence —between 2010 and 2013—, the self-defense groups and the media pointed to APEAM (the Association of Avocado Exporters Producers and Packers of Mexico) as part of the financial and organizational apparatus of the Knights Templar.
In an article published by the newspaper Excelsior on May 6, 2014, it is stated that the then-president of the board of directors of the association, Sergio Roberto Guerrero, resigned from his position after a video was released in which he appears at a meal with Servando Gómez Martínez, aka La Tuta, one of the most visible leaders of the Templars cartel. In other words, the avocado administrative structure had been infiltrated to serve purposes beyond agribusiness. At least, this has been the most common narrative.
Today, violence has not gone away, the difference is that it does not affect the big avocado businessmen, but rather the small producers, with the aim of dispossessing them of their orchards.
Agustín del Río is a businessman from Uruapan who is around 60 years old and has distanced himself from export production linked to APEAM. A businessman know for his «acute intuition», he has turned to organic farming; using less agrochemicals and fertilizers and a more selective product that has been able to accommodate the European, Japanese and American markets.
«The land has to be recovered to be able to transition to improving crops, using a lot of organic matter. This way you will have better avocados, but that is not done overnight» he says.
So far there are 6 thousand hectares of avocado production considered organic of the approximately 150 thousand that are registered as traditional cultivation at the state level. These 6,000 began using fewer chemicals despite the fact that it is a bit more expensive. Within Mexico, it is difficult to even find these organic avocados, and if you can find them, they sell in packages of 1.75lbs for $3.60 (around 69 pesos).
Luis Herrera works at the National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity of the Center for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute (Cinvestav), located in Irapuato, Guanajuato. He is the first person to do transgenesis in a plant and, together with his research team, deciphered the maize genome while studying for his PhD in Belgium in 1983. Now, he is a major player in the future of the avocado. With funding from the federal government of the administration of Peña Nieto and APEAM, and after eight years of work, Herrera and his team managed to sequence the criollo avocado genome in 2019 to genetically edit it and successfully thicken its shell as well as reducing the size of trees and, with it, their high water consumption. Now they have called on the López Obrador government to lean towards these genetic technologies, so that more agricultural producers have access to this path to improve their productivity, though as of today there is not enough data to prove its effectiveness when implemented on a large scale.
In an interview for Horizontal in 2016, Herrera explained: «if we want to keep farmers competitive, we have to improve quality and have sustainable productivity; and if we don't, in 20 years... we already have Chile, we already have Peru; we will have the Chinese, the Australians, New Zealand all over us, trying to take our place in the market».
Reforestation and direct action
«If we don't have our health, what do we want money for? Health is worth more than all the gold in the world», says Guadalupe Garduño, a farmer in his early 50s from the Carpinteros municipality in Zitácuaro, an Otomi community.
Eight years ago, he opted for another way of growing avocados, without following the model of the large producers. Instead of toxic fertilizers and insecticides—many of them prohibited by legislature—in his and other orchards, they use repellents made from garlic or chili extract and a sulpho calcium (lime and sulfur) broth as fungicides.
«My garden used to be conventional, we used chemicals, but we made the decision to transform it to organic. It was not easy. The harvest dropped, and we suffered a little, but the crops have responded and we are doing well. The decision to change was to take care of the environment and get healthier fruit. We use various extracts of oil, vinegar, and natural ingredients… pure repellents. They don't kill, but they help prevent the worms from damaging the fruit,» says Garduño, who has a couple of hectares for various crops.
In Carpinteros, the forest is sacred. The community has just over 600 hectares of forest and, year after year, its trees are filled with monarch butterflies. With the naked eye you can see an adjoining community, with which they share this natural space, is cutting down its portion. That hole in the forest will be later filled with new avocado crops. Noé Bernal Ordóñez, who has just finished his term as ejidal commissioner, tells us about this situation. He lived 15 years as a migrant in the United States and, upon his return, had turned to using pesticides. He now says it was poison.
«In the community we also have reached an agreement that we will no longer sell land to anyone coming from the outside. That forest that you see, leafy and healthy, was not like that before; many people grew avocado there, but we stopped that and began to reforest. Pine, cedar and oak were added. From there, they began to impose fines on the people of the community who seized land: for every meter that someone cultivated within the forest, that same meter was taken from other lands they had».
In addition to the forest, the communities fight for their spring, which not only supplies their crops, but is also their source for drinking and cooking water.
«Money is not going to lead us to anything good» Garduño concludes. Avocado is not everything.
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