Mexican Villagers Challenge Large-Scale Avocado Producers Amidst Water Scarcity


After enduring years of drought and facing the impact of commercial avocado farming, Mexican villagers are taking matters into their own hands. In the once-green and lush state of Michoacan, rivers and even entire lakes are disappearing due to a combination of drought and increased water usage for lucrative export crops, particularly avocados. Recently, subsistence farmers and activists from the town of Villa Madero in Michoacan organized teams to dismantle illegal water pumps and breach unlicensed irrigation holding ponds in the mountains.

One group hiked into the hills to remove irrigation equipment that diverted water from mountain springs to avocado orchards carved out of the pine-covered hills. In a separate incident, another group used picks and shovels to breach the walls of an illegal containment pond that had been siphoning water from a spring that had historically supplied local residents.

Julio Santoyo, a local activist and one of the organizers, highlighted the severity of the situation: “In the last 10 years, the streams, springs, and rivers have been drying up, and the water has been captured, mainly for avocados and berries.” The proliferation of plastic-lined, earthen containment ponds—approximately 850 of them—has occurred in the hills around Villa Madero, often after illegal logging or burning of native pine forests. While avocado trees deplete water, the native pine trees help retain it.

Francisco Gómez Cortés, a resident of El Sauz, had been requesting for 15 years that the landowner allow the spring to flow downhill to their community. However, after a year with only half the normal rainfall, desperation led residents to hike up the hill and dismantle pumps and hoses used for the avocado orchard. Gómez Cortés lamented the lack of water for human consumption and the impact on the environment: “It’s sad to walk down these trails that are now dry, when they once had trees and springs. They haven’t even left any water for the (forest) animals that nest along the banks.”

The seriousness of the situation prompted the mayor of Villa Madero, Froylan Alcauter Ibarra, to accompany the group. He attributed the problem to outsiders invading the township and taking water away from the poorest residents living downhill.

Despite the risks—including threats, kidnappings, and beatings—the activists continue their efforts. They propose an agreement that would allocate 20% of local stream water to orchard owners while allowing the remaining 80% to flow freely. Meanwhile, drug cartels profit from illegal logging and extortion in Michoacan, adding to the complexity of the situation.

Historically, the government has been criticized for not taking sufficient action to restrict agricultural expansion and address deforestation and water appropriation issues. However, there appears to be a newfound governmental interest in averting an impending conflict over water resources.

Government Measures to Mitigate Water Conflict

In response to the crisis, activists convened in March at Lake Patzcuaro to urge the government to address the rapidly declining water levels. Lake Patzcuaro, known for its shallow waters and picturesque colonial town, along with the iconic fishermen of Janitzio Island, has long been a cultural emblem of Mexico. Yet, the lake has shrunk to nearly half its original size due to drought, deforestation, sediment accumulation, and the water demands from avocado and berry cultivation. The situation has become so dire that Janitzio Island can now be accessed by foot, and according to activist Juan Manuel Valenzuela, about 90% of the boats once used for fishing and tourism are no longer operational.

Lake Cuitzeo, another significant freshwater body in the region, is on the brink of complete desiccation.

Valenzuela emphasizes the urgency of the situation: “We must prevent the demise of our lakes. It would be a catastrophe for Michoacan.” Acknowledging the severity of the problem, Alejandro Méndez, Michoacan’s state environment secretary, admits that the situation has escalated beyond control.

Water scarcity has reached such critical levels that orchard owners have resorted to extracting vast quantities of water from the lakes to irrigate their crops. Méndez reported that in March, up to 100 trucks were observed daily, extracting water from Lake Patzcuaro.

In an effort to regulate this, state police have initiated patrols along the lake’s perimeter, detaining truck drivers caught in the act of water extraction. Additionally, the state has started to monitor agricultural holding ponds to ensure they are not being replenished from the lake’s reserves.

The fluctuating levels of Lake Patzcuaro are not unprecedented, but the current reduction may be irreversible. Farmers have begun using the dried lake bed for grazing and agriculture. Gómez Cortés reflects on the grim reality: “Survival will be a struggle for humans and livestock, but the wildlife and flora are facing total eradication.”

Source: EuroNews