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.
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”.
“Lower availability of water is not currently an hypothesis, it is certain ', stated the Platform for Sustainable Water (PAS) in Algarve, of which Regenerarte is part of.
The study also states that, in case of drought, water deficit will occur, making water availability unsustainable in the middle and longer term. According to official data, as of April 2021, the main water source of Lagos area, the Bravura dam, was at 34% of its capacity, while the average level for the same month in the last 30 years had been 80%. In February 2021, MPs of the Portuguese Socialist party (PS), asked the government to halt further avocado plantations in Algarve, “as there is not control of the cumulative effects of water exploitation of the aquifers.”
Finally, in April 2021, Algarve's authority decided to indefinitely halt the expansion of the avocado plantation for Frutineves, marking a victory for Susana and Regenerarte. The company will have to reconstitute the irregular expansion of its plantations, returning it to the original landscape.
Rain precipitation in Portugal is projected to decrease throughout this century.. This reduction is dramatically significant, with up to 40 % less rain in the south during intermediate seasons, and above 50% in the mainland in summer, areas that are already very dry during most of the year. Other studies also observed that the southwestern corner of the Iberian Peninsula – Beja and Faro, in Portugal, and southern Extremadura and western Andalusia, in Spain–- will reach the highest temperatures, often exceeding temperatures of 45°C at the end of the 21st century.
Avocado trees have evolved under rainforest conditions, making them difficult to adapt to hot dry climates and prolonged water stress. Mediterranean Europe is characterised by regular hot and dry summers, with rain in winter time giving relief to plants, wild vegetation and, of course, agriculture, which absorbs about 80% of drinkable water in the Mediterranean basin. In such a scenario, can the persea americana become part of the Mediterranean food basket without draining water streams and accelerating desertification?
In the Algarve region, more than forty Portuguese farms are producing avocados, covering about 1,500 hectares. The main buyer is Trops, a Spanish cooperative and leading supplier of tropical fruits for the European market. Over 2,800 Spanish and Portuguese farmers are part of the cooperative that produce over 28,000 tonnes of avocados yearly, and distribute the raw green fruit and other products, like guacamole and avocado oil, around the continent.
The Portuguese avocado plantations are relatively new compared to the Spanish ones, which started already in the 1970s. While other companies are now planting the tropical fruit in Portugal, the Spanish biggest production area, Axarquía, near Málaga, is getting closer to a 'hydrological collapse', as the study of GENA-Ecologistas en Acción reported last October. Axarquía's main water source, La Viñuela dam, is currently containing half of the water compared to the average level of the last 10 years, and the same farmers are admitting that the current water available is not enough to irrigate the over 6,000 hectares of avocado plantations in the region – the equivalent of about 7,300 football fields. “Our study includes data up to 2017, and new plantations did not stop appearing since then. We took into account both legal and illegal plantations, – that were developed without a concession – thanks to satellite images” says Rafael Yus Ramos, author of the study, and Natural Sciences professor at Málaga University.
A speculative bubble, with avocados
A local Spanish avocado and mango farmer, Isidro, says that there is a real “avocado rush”’ in the area: lots of land owner are turning into this business, but they do not know much about tropical fruits or even agriculture in general, so “they first plant and then they start looking for water for their new plantations”. His family, which grows avocados and mangoes since the 1980s, are well aware of water scarcity, especially after temperatures in the last summers recorded up to 45 degrees and each plant needed about 90 litres of water daily to cope with the extreme heat during the summer season.
The climate characterising southern Portugal and Spain follows typical Mediterranean trends, but the water cycle is severely distressed by the climate crisis, as the Mediterranean region is one of the global hotspots of climate change. In this region, the average annual rainfall is expected to reduce by 40% on average, and some Mediterranean areas will see a drastic fall of 70% of rainfall. (MIT study, EUObserver article).
“This is a speculative bubble. It will explode at some point. After 2008, in this same region, the real estate bubble burst, and many people lost jobs and their investments. Now it is happening again, but this time with the tropical fruits.” says Rafael Yus, author of the study and local coordinator of GENA. “Many people that invested in avocado plantations will lose their investments,” Yus added.
Isidro also agrees with these predictions, saying that the situation will self-stabilize because of the limited water available. He says that many novice farmers believe it is a very profitable business - as a kilogram of the green fruit is sold to retailers like Trops for 2.5 to 3 euro, while other traditional fruits like oranges are only paid around 0.20 per kg. But they ignore the different care that the two products need.Due to water scarcity, Isidro's company is turning to mango and medlar cultivation, which need less water compared to avocados and are more resistant to water stress during heat waves.
Monocultural and intensive agriculture can be very demanding for the soil, and water tends to evaporate much more when biodiversity is limited, regardless of the kind of plantations. Especially in areas where the dry season is becoming longer every year. This is the case for the whole Mediterranean basin, which is learning to deal with less rainfall over the year, yet trying to confirm its role as Europe's green farm. When irrigation can't be guaranteed by stored rain water, like dams, it has to rely on underground aquifers, which are limited and should not be overexploited.
It is not easy to determine how much water avocados need to grow, as many factors apply. According to the Water Footprint Network, a single avocado fruit needs 70 litres of water, while one tomato needs 5, and one orange needs 22 litres. Iñaki Hormaza Urroz is a leading researcher at the Institute for Mediterranean and Subtropical Horticulture "La Mayora” in Málaga, which is a reference for tropical fruits farmers and companies in Spain. Hormaza says that “avocado plantations do not necessarily require more water than other traditional plantations”, if the irrigation system is done following modern irrigation techniques. Avocados demand high levels of water purity though, and very low levels of salts, compared to other cultivations.
A solution found so far is grafting the plant with roots that can absorb lower water quality, but this technique does not change the quantity of water needed. According to Hormaza, recent water shortages are not caused directly by the avocado itself, but it is a fact that there is a water problem and it is affecting the agricultural sector as a whole, as the industry absorbs 80% of the overall water available in a region recording water deficit year after year. On the other hand, Hormaza believes that “it is very important to have stricter control over illegal wells for plantations”, as the over-exploitation of the aquifer near the sea coast, will cause the infiltration of salted water, that will have a devastating impact on avocados, other plantations, and on the water supply for citizens use too.
The appetite for avocados in Europe is still growing, and so are the hectares of plantations in Europe's driest soil. Local and national politicians do not want to interfere with a sector that is recording positive economic growth, but the natural limit of water, and the threatening scenarios of its scarcity, require a different approach in the middle and long term. Today's tropical harvest might bring tomorrow's desertified lands, and a social impact far greater than current economic benefits.
* Her surname has been changed at her request.
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