investigation Report Climate change in Southern Europe | Algarve and Andalucia
Avocado fields in Algarve, Portugal | Photo: Davide Mancini.

Avocados until the last drop

European avocados have a lower environmental footprint than those imported from other continents, especially in terms of transport-related carbon emissions. But the unfolding scenarios of water resources in Portugal and Spain are alarming for residents and researchers. This is the first of a series of articles on the impact of climate change, a thematic that has been chosen by Voxeurop members.

Published on 27 May 2021 at 15:38
Avocado fields in Algarve, Portugal | Photo: Davide Mancini.

Susana*'s house used to be surrounded by cork trees, carobs and abandoned vine yards until 2017. In a matter of a few months, the landscape around her has turned into rows of little trees sprouting from harsh resud soil. Today, after four years, the avocado plants are three to four meter high and almost ready for their first harvest of the trendy fruit, that is as healthy as photogenic on Instagram's newsfeed.

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The rural area around Lagos, in the Portuguese Southeast region of Algarve, was historically cultivated with citrous fruits like oranges and lemons, almonds and vines, plants that grow well in the very dry environment that characterised the region. In the last few years though, the increasing demand for avocados brought many companies to invest in the tropical fruit, moving away from traditional products. Few kilometres away from Susana's house, a local company, Frutineves planted about 120 hectares of avocados in 2019, and this time Susana and other residents decided to take action. 

The company started preparing the soil for the new avocado plantations, and many residents living nearby witnessed an unconsidered disfigurement of the native landscape and vegetation. Susana and other residents also realised that the water level in their private wells was much lower during the dry summer seasons compared to previous years.

The correlation between lower wells level and avocados wasn't clear, as the area is one of Europe's forefront of drying land. Here, seasonal droughts are, in fact, becoming longer every year, and wells are often the main source of water for agriculture, private gardening, and, in some cases, for running water. As the company did not do any environmental study before the work started, which is mandatory by law, Susana and other eight residents decided to found an association, Regenerarte, and sued the company. The work was officially halted by the local authority but the company continued expanding the plantation nevertheless.

The environmental impact study was made public in November 2020, and Regenerarte promoted a public petition advocating for more transparency and control regarding the use of groundwater. The study gave green light to the new plantation, referring to a single specific research, written by DRAP (the Regional Directorate for Agriculture and Fishery), that positively evaluated the feasibility of avocados in Algarve. The study concluded: “However, in a situation of drought or water scarcity in the region (events that are more and more frequent), water availability may represent a problem”.

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