America’s demand for avocados is causing Mexican farmers to destroy forests for farming, according to researchers working with the Mexican government.
Avocados grow particularly well in the pine forests of the Michoacán state, which is to the west of Mexico City. Because U.S. demand for avocados is so high, farmers will risk fines and imprisonment to clear pine forests for orchards, reports the Associated Press.
“Even where they aren’t visibly cutting down forest, there are avocados growing underneath (the pine boughs), and sooner or later they’ll cut down the pines completely,” Mario Tapia Vargas, a researcher at Mexico’s National Institute for Forestry, Farming and Fisheries Research, told the AP.
One concern is that deforestation could affect a butterfly reserve in the area. The reserve covers 139,000 acres in Michoacán, and it’s where most Monarch butterflies spend the winter. Although about one-third of the area is highly protected, the rest of the land is owned by local farmers, many of whom earned income by logging until authorities stepped in to protect the butterfly habitat.
It’s hard to make the case that the Michoacán farmers should stop growing avocados when they’re such a cash-crop. “Avocado farming is very attractive, because of the prices being the way they are,” Vargas admitted.
Increased avocado production resulted in deforestation covering 1,700 acres in Michoacán between 2000 and 2010, Vargas said.
“We think that it (deforestation) is less, because there is more enforcement now than in previous years,” Ignacio Vidales, a government researcher focused on avocados, told the AP.
Mexican federal police arrested 13 people for deforestation July 31, the AP reported.
Authorities said the farmers arrested had chopped down 260 pine trees and 87 fir trees to make room for an avocado orchard. The value of the orchard, when plants mature, would be around $500,000, according to the AP.
“More than anything else, it is economic pressure,” Vidales said. “They have seen that planting avocados is more profitable than planting corn, or other crops, or even the forest.”
Greenpeace Mexico weighed in as well, claiming that chemicals used in avocado farming could damage the environment.
“Beyond the displacement of forests and the effects on water retention, the high use of agricultural chemicals and the large volumes of wood needed to pack and ship avocados are other factors that could have negative effects on the area’s environment and the well-being of its inhabitants,” Greenpeace said in a statement.
U.S. consumption of avocados has doubled in the past decade, and the market relies on imports to keep up with demand. American farms produce roughly the same amount of avocados today as 20 years ago, meaning that imports now account for more than 80 percent of all avocados consumed in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Mexico could send as much as 3.6 billion pounds of avocados in the next 12 months, USDA estimates.
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