Tucked between the steep folds of the Cordillera, South America’s jagged Andean backbone, lies the quiet town of Petorca. The silence in the valley is disturbed only by the wind hurrying through a thin ribbon of wilting greenery and cracked earth where the Petorca River once flowed past the town.
However, further up the valley the story is very different. An emerald carpet of avocado trees reaches up the hills on either side, interrupted occasionally by small reservoirs that serve to irrigate the lucrative crops.
“Large businesses came and started to plant what they were calling ‘green gold’, but it turned into a nightmare for our valley. We lost our local agriculture, streams and rivers,” remembers the town’s mayor, Gustavo Valdenegro. “Our valley was a good place to grow avocados as low humidity levels produce excellent fruit, but there has not been anywhere near enough regulation and they started to plant indiscriminately, brutally destroying the ecosystem.”
An unsuitable crop
Beginning in the early 1990s, intensive agriculture crept along the Petorca Valley, three hours north of the capital, Santiago. By the middle of the decade, the potential for avocado plantations – mainly the Hass variety – had dawned on large businesses, and swathes of barren hillsides were bought up for agriculture, placing strain on the water basin and replacing native vegetation with monoculture avocado crops.
According to Rodrigo Mundaca, the spokesperson for the Movement to Defend Water and Land Rights and the Protection of the Environment (MODATIMA), a nationwide organization born from Petorca’s struggle to enshrine residents’ water rights, the area of the valley dedicated to avocado plantations has gone from 2,000 hectares in the second half of the 1990s to more than 16,000 today. Nowadays, he says, 30.5% of all the avocados exported by Chile are grown in Petorca.
Estimates vary on the amount of water subtropical avocado trees need to grow. Depending on who you consult, the answer for the number of gallons consumed by a plant over its lifetime varies wildly from the Chilean avocado growers union’s estimate of 97.5 to the Water Footprint Network’s 264. In any case, avocados are a substantial burden on the resources of the valley, where rainfall is scarce.
Mundaca notes that Chile has the highest rate of fresh water consumption of any country in Latin America. “From now until 2040, Chile is the country that will suffer most from water scarcity in the region. There is a culture of ‘capturing’ water for private use – 81% of the country’s water is used for agriculture, 9% goes to the mining sector, and we are left fighting over the remaining 10%.”
Chile’s unique political context is an important factor. The country’s water resources are the most privatized in the world, with more than 95% in private hands. This is the consequence of the 1981 ‘Water Code’ which, drafted under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), defined water as a ‘commodity’. Although water is constitutionally enshrined as a national asset for public use, the Chilean state has retained the ability to transfer water rights to private entities without restriction on the duration, form, or priorities of its use.
The government of President Sebastián Piñera is now mulling changes to the Water Code that would introduce new legislation for groundwater, but could also make rights to water ‘perpetual’.
For hydrologist Roberto Pizarro from the University of Talca, Chile’s economic model has exacerbated the problem. “Water use has increased threefold in Chile since 1990 – the same rate at which the country’s GDP has grown.” For Pizarro, this is no coincidence. “Chile’s per capita income is the highest in Latin America, and this is sustained through water use. Mining, forestry and agriculture (three pillars of the Chilean economy) all require large amounts of water… so the country will continue to suffer while its economy maintains its dependence on these sectors.”
According to Valdenegro, the political response to his town’s crisis has been underwhelming. In May last year he travelled to Chile’s congress in the city of Valparaíso for a two-hour meeting with the Senate’s water resources committee. “Since 2009 we’ve been to La Moneda [the seat of the Chilean government] 10 times. We’ve been to parliament. We’ve sat in on environmental and water resource committees. But we haven’t even had a response. If we go again it’s going to be the same as always – I’m not interested anymore.”
As residents demands have not been met, many have been forced to rely on water brought to them in cistern trucks twice a week. Each individual has the right to 13 gallons per day, and according to Mundaca more than 60% of the population of Petorca relies on such deliveries – which are often dirty or heavily chlorinated. Carolina Vilches, who manages the water resources division of Petorca’s municipal government, believes the answer lies in addressing the root of the issue rather than allaying it further with short-term measures: “It is important to monitor water levels, democratize resource management and prioritize its uses.”
However, the problem is not going away. On Feb. 4, footage emerged of Valdenegro and representatives of MODATIMA unearthing a hidden pipeline syphoning water away under a private road near the town at Hierro Viejo, allegedly destined for Agrícola El Peñón de Zapallar, a large plantation nearby. Far from being an isolated incident, a 2011 study by Chile’s water authority, the Department of Water (DGA), conducted remote satellite imaging of the area that identified 456 wells and 65 drains in the aquifers of the Ligua and Petorca rivers bringing water from the rivers to private plantations.
Some of the agribusinesses responsible have been charged with unauthorized water use, but the issue has not yet been tackled with any conviction. “The water problem in Chile requires structural change,” concludes Mundaca. “The DGA lacks the necessary resources to address the problem and the penalties for stealing water are laughable.”
In response to Valdenegro’s discovery, the DGA sent a team to survey the company’s estate and determined that as the tube did not come directly from the river, it was not ‘stealing’ water as Valdenegro had claimed. Daniel Bosch, the owner of Agrícola El Peñón, said he had been the victim of a ‘vile lie’ as the tube “ran under a private road and [therefore] did not constitute a crime, because it was not inside the riverbed.”
Undeterred, Valdenegro has resolved to keep fighting for his town’s right to clean water. “If I die tomorrow, what am I going to leave behind for my grandchildren?” he asks. “If we go on like this, nothing that is going to make them happy.”