Avocado farming is threatening Colombia’s natural water factory

Avocado farming is threatening Colombia’s natural water factory

  • To satisfy the world’s ever-increasing appetite for the popular fruit, Colombia is risking the páramo, one of its key ecosystems.
  • These rare environments provide fresh water to tens of millions of people — the majority of the Colombian population.
  • The country is now second to Mexico as the world’s top avocado producer, with a significant uptick in production in the last year, resulting in socioeconomic and environmental impacts for communities downstream.

“We always grew native products that come from here, like corn, beans, potatoes or lulos,” says Don Danilo, a longtime farmer near Sonsón, a small municipality in the Colombian state of Antioquia. But since losing the land he was cultivating, he has switched to beekeeping and fish farming. Don Danilo is just one of the many farmers in the region who have been pushed out by big agribusiness companies that have arrived there to focus on one of Colombia’s blooming cash crops: avocados.

Sonsón and other nearby municipalities in Antioquia have ideal conditions for growing avocados. At the same time, they are also neighboring some of the world’s rarest biomes, the páramos, which provide essential ecosystem services to local communities and Colombia more widely. Now the rapid expansion of avocado trees toward the uphill páramos could be threatening the frail ecological stability of these ecosystems and the country’s water security.

A plant that fuels rivers

Mainly concentrated in four Latin American countries, and with more than half of their surface in Colombia, the páramos are high-altitude ecosystems found between 3,200 meters and 5,000 meters (10,500 feet and 16,400 feet) that play a critical role in water production. Although they occupy just 1.7% of Colombia’s territory, páramos are responsible for generating 85% of its drinking water.

The frailejón plant which makes up the paramos is key for water production. Image by Sebastian Montoya.

The páramos’ capacity to harness water relies on the frailejón plant, which captures humidity from the air through its fleshy, hairy leaves and sends it into the ground via its trunk. The ground itself works like a sponge, as the volcanic soils that host the frailejones are shallow, porous and rich in organic matter, easily holding and circulating water. The source of humidity comes from the Andean forests just below the páramos, which wrangle much of the moist air that moves west from the Amazon rainforests.

“Páramos are incredibly well-structured and complex environments with intrinsic value, but without a doubt, the greatest service they provide is water retention, regulation and supply,” says Daniel Moreno Soto, a biologist whose family has owned part of a páramo for many years and has worked to protect it in the last half-century.

Many of Colombia’s major rivers have their headwaters in the páramos.

“Páramo waters are the springs where a lot of rivers originate, including the Magdalena and Cauca rivers — two of the most important rivers in central Colombia,” Moreno Soto tells Mongabay.

With 70-80% of the Colombian population relying on páramos for water, almost every major city in the country has a páramo serving its water supply. The páramo owned by Moreno Soto’s family is a source of water and clean air for the city of Medellín. “It is impossible to overstate the importance of páramos since everything depends on water,” explains Moreno Soto. “Particularly big urban centers in the Andes, including cities as big as Bogotá and Quito, depend almost exclusively on water from the páramos since these regions are relatively poor in underground waters.”

Avocado production is encroaching on the páramos

Colombia has trailed behind Mexico as the world’s second-largest avocado producer for the last 30 years, and in 2021 nearly doubled its avocado exports over just five months.

One of the leading agricultural production regions in Colombia, Antioquia has seen a boom in avocado yields, with Hass avocados, the most sought-after by global markets, concentrated in more than six properties: five in the municipality of Sonsón and one in Urrao. In the past year, production has increased by 8% in Sonsón and by 43% in Urrao, according to information provided to Mongabay by the Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA).

Local communities are feeling the impact. In Sonsón, Don Danilo says that by buying all the land surrounding farms, multinationals have cut off farmers from their traditional farming routes and blocked their access to resources, eventually forcing them to give up their fields.

paramos
Avocado crops are undermining the Andean forests below, which means less humidity can reach the páramos for water production. Image by Sebastian Montoya.

“Now, all of these lands have been sold, and the only thing being planted is avocados,” Don Danilo tells Mongabay. Lacking other alternatives, many farmers have chosen to work for the avocado-producing companies, with 95% of the local community in Sonsón depending on salaries from the multinationals.

The threat to the páramos ecosystem is complex. “In the past, the main source of páramo degradation was gold mining,” says Moreno Soto. He explains that while legislation and regulation have drastically reduced that threat, agriculture is now the new risk factor.

According to Moreno Soto, the main source of páramo destruction is the expansion of farming land, further accelerated by avocado trees taking over land that was traditionally used for livestock and other crops.

While avocados are not replacing the páramos’ native vegetation, they are indirectly threatening it by affecting the Andean forests below, which supply the moist air to the frailejones. “Were these forests to disappear, that would directly shake the stability of páramos. These forests are the ones that could be destroyed and replaced by avocado crops in the Colombian Andes. The threat, in that case, is clear and direct,” says Moreno Soto.

Avocados are already problematic in Colombia. In 2020, more than 800 avocado trees were removed in the municipality of Pijao, in the department of Quindío, after it was shown that they were affecting the reproduction cycle of the wax palm (Ceroxylon quindiuense), the country’s national tree, which is part of the páramo ecosystem.

In municipalities neighboring páramos, such as Sonsón and Urrao, avocados cause water scarcity in two ways: by undermining the Andean forests and through the expansion of farming for avocados, which requires higher water demand for crops.

“There are two movements that producers are making: Replace coffee trees with other crops, with the spaces left by coffee cultivation being replaced by avocados, or climb a few meters in altitude to improve yields,” says Cristo Perez, agricultural engineer at Stockholm Environment Institute in Latin America who supports planning and decision-making for water resources.

“In all cases, it will be a threat not only to the páramo but especially to those sectors that are downstream from the crop. Coffee does not require irrigation, while avocado demands water. And a lot of it,” says Perez.

Changes already happening below the páramos

In July 2018, Colombia’s government issued a law covering the páramos’ integrated management, declaring them strategic ecosystems, guiding authorities on how to define páramos boundaries, and banning mining and other extractive activities on their territory. Legislation remains unclear when it comes to agriculture, as it prohibits “high-impact” practices but not “low-impact” ones, without defining what low-impact means.

But according to a 2016 report, páramo conservation has not been secured yet, even though 21 páramo areas have been defined. “Páramos must be integrated into the surrounding territory, and they should be understood as interdependent ecosystems that are not self-sustainable biogeographical islands,” the report states.

Below the páramos in Antioquia, communities are already struggling with the environmental impacts of avocados. Last year, the environmental conservation organization CORPOURABA had to intervene with avocado growers in Urrao as the construction of roads for producing the fruit was breaking environmental regulations.

“It is estimated that more than 500 km [310 miles] of road was opened without any planning. Pockets of erosion have been generated, which have damaged crops, flora, fauna, other main roads, aqueducts, and caused water pollution,” says a member of CORPOURABA in an official response for Mongabay. “The roads built were part of the avocado farms, but even though they are on private land, compliance with environmental management and the processing of some associated permits, licenses, and titles is necessary.” As a result, more than 20 environmental sanctioning processes of noncompliance for environmental damage were issued by CORPOURABA to the farms that participated in the construction of the roads.

CORPOURABA has also taken initiatives to help avocado growers in the region learn how to sustainably expand their crops. One study has shown that helping to educate local communities on sustainable practices or having financial incentives to protect the environment will be vital for preserving the value of natural Colombian ecosystems that make agriculture possible, as well as for the páramos that are intrinsically tied to them.

“It is a matter of social justice to be able to provide sound strategies, economic incentives and tax exemptions for the protection of the areas that provide such valuable environmental services,” says Moreno Soto. “The government is still severely underperforming in this regard.”

Green versus blue gold

“The biggest threat is that the avocado is just too profitable,” says Moreno Soto. In January 2021, avocado consumption worldwide reached an all-time high, 33% higher than in 2020.

It seems as though the Colombian economy has woken up to the smell of “green gold” that is growing on its doorstep, as current President Gustavo Petro put it many years ago. But the country already has a treasure trove in the form of blue gold — natural, clean, fresh water. “The key element to mitigate these threats and not fully hinder the economic benefits of avocado crops is good legislation and the guarantees for it to be respected,” says Moreno Soto.

avocado tree
Colombia is the world’s runner up in avocado production, but its efforts to satisfy demand are threatening some of its key ecosystem. Image by Marita Mones on Unsplash,

“With the largest extension of the páramos, Colombia’s wealth is immense,” If nothing is done to protect these transcendental ecosystems, much is lost for Colombia, for its citizens, and for their well-being,” Julia Miranda Londoño, congresswoman and the former director of Colombia’s national park authority, tells Mongabay.

“Having the páramos is a privilege, but it requires great management on the part of state institutions and great responsibility from civil society. We must understand the importance of having this ecosystem and of all the goods and services it provides us,“ says Londoño. “If we affect it, if we alter it, if we modify it, we lose that natural wealth, and only a mountain of inert rock remains.”

“The whole “green gold” trend is potentially very dangerous if left unregulated. It is very important to see what the new government is going to do regarding avocados since it will definitely be a big element in the plans for agricultural reactivation,” says Moreno Soto. According to him, the problem does not lie in already deforested terrain being repurposed for avocados, as long as companies follow appropriate guidelines and are regularly monitored for environmental impact. The real problem is when the intact native Andean forests are steadily removed to be replaced by avocado or any other monoculture, destroying the natural biological bounty connected to the páramos.

“It is important to issue laws based on technical parameters and not at the service of some lobby,” says Moreno Soto. “It is also fundamental to assure that the farming communities will obtain proportional retribution for their work and not just the leftovers from the multinationals’ feast.”

Banner image: Colombia’s páramos are essential ecosystems for the country’s water security. But growing demand for avocados is putting them at risk. Image by Sebastian Montoya.

Citations:

Corzo , G., Córdoba, D., Ciontescu, N., García, H., Isaacs, P. (2016). From Paramo Delimitation to Zoning and Monitoring the High Mountain. Available here.

Molina Benavides, R. A., Campos Gaona, R., Sánchez Guerrero, H., Giraldo Patiño, L., & Atzori, A. S. (2019). Sustainable feedbacks of colombian páramos involving livestock, agricultural activities, and sustainable development goals of the agenda 2030. Systems, 7(4), 52. doi:10.3390/systems7040052

See related: 

Indigenous agroforestry dying of thirst amid a sea of avocados in Mexico

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