Because avocados have become so lucrative, forests in the state of Michoacán are being felled for avocado plantations. Bad actors are stealing land from local communities and murdering people who try to protect the forests. As of 2018 nearly 2,400 acres of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve had been converted into avocado plantations, with nearby logging for avocados making the remaining habitat more vulnerable to fires and severe storms.
JM: What is the impact on biodiversity and local communities?
TC: Avocado expansion imperils not just monarchs but also migratory songbirds, as well as the unique wildlife that live in the forests year-round. Habitat loss and intensive pesticide use threaten 10 species of threatened pollinators in Mexico, fragment migratory corridors for many species, and burn and fell forests that store vast amounts of carbon.
Plus it takes 70 liters of water to grow a single avocado, and Michoacán is in the throes of severe drought. Criminal gangs are stealing water from human communities and wildlife by diverting streams and causing wells to run dry. There are heartbreaking accounts from local people who no longer have access to water to meet their basic needs because it’s all going into growing avocados to ship to the United States. Much of the existing agricultural land that provided food for local communities is now only growing avocados for export.
JM: Is there a climate impact to this deforestation?
TC: We’re at such a crucial moment in the fight to keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius, and every single additional unit of warming will push countless species to extinction and cost tens of thousands of human lives. Protecting existing forests is one of the most feasible and effective ways to help keep global temperatures in check.
Converting forests to avocado plantations contributes to climate change, and climate change in turn is causing producers to move upslope into forested areas. The massive water use for avocados is also depleting the water table, making forests more vulnerable to fire.
JM: How are the big grocery stores contributing to the problem?
TC: This is a tough issue, but there are solutions. A monitoring and compliance program could track the specific areas where avocados are currently grown, map any new deforestation, and reject avocados from these places. Some companies already have programs like this in place for other products.
Local laws are poorly enforced, so it’s imperative that importers and retailers adopt a zero-deforestation policy, including specific target dates and mechanisms for monitoring and enforcement. This includes a zero-tolerance policy for human rights violations and violence toward Indigenous and local communities and land defenders. Increased sourcing of fair trade, organic, and domestic avocados would also help.
JM: How can people avoid avocados from deforested regions and help protect monarchs?
TC: People can choose to buy only domestic, fair trade, or organic avocados and pressure grocery stores to commit to selling only deforestation-free avocados.
At this point the revenue from 3 billion pounds of annual avocado consumption is making corporations richer, not sustaining local livelihoods. Every mainstream avocado we buy is contributing to the problem. On the other hand, buying fair trade and organic avocados would bolster sustainable sourcing.
Because our avocado consumption is so high, eating fewer avocados and encouraging friends and family to do the same would also help. I’m not suggesting people forsake avocados forever, but in the short term, until good policies are in place, reducing demand would save lives, trees, water, and help save monarchs.
How You Can Help
Here’s one thing you can do: Ask major grocery companies and importers to commit to sourcing deforestation-free avocados.
Learn more about this campaign in our most recent issue of Pop X. Write to me with questions or comments at EarthFriendlyDiet@biologicaldiversity.org.
For the wild,