Monday, July 15, 2024

First the trucks arrived, carrying armed men toward the mist-shrouded mountaintop. Then the flames appeared, sweeping across a forest of towering pines and oaks.After the fire laid waste to the forest last year, the trucks returned. This time, they carried the avocado plants taking root in the orchards scattered across the once tree-covered summit where townspeople used to forage for mushrooms.“We never witnessed a blaze on this scale before,” said Maricela Baca Yépez, 46, a municipal official and lifelong resident of Patuán, a town nestled in the volcanic plateaus where Mexico’s Purépecha people have lived for centuries.In western Mexico forests are being razed at a breakneck pace and while deforestation in places like the Amazon rainforest or Borneo is driven by cattle ranching, gold mining and palm oil farms, in this hot spot, it is fueled by the voracious appetite in the United States for avocados.A combination of interests, including criminal gangs, landowners, corrupt local officials and community leaders, are involved in clearing forests for avocado orchards, in some cases illegally seizing privately owned land. Virtually all the deforestation for avocados in the last two decades may have violated Mexican law, which prohibits “land-use change” without government authorization.Since the United States started importing avocados from Mexico less than 40 years ago, consumption has skyrocketed, bolstered by marketing campaigns promoting the fruit as a heart-healthy food and year-round demand for dishes like avocado toast and California rolls. Americans eat three times as many avocados as they did two decades ago.South of the border, satisfying the demand has come at a high cost, human rights and environmental activists say: the loss of forests, the depletion of aquifers to provide water for thirsty avocado trees and a spike in violence fueled by criminal gangs muscling in on the profitable business.And while United States and Mexico both signed a 2021 United Nations agreement to “halt and reverse” deforestation by 2030, the $2.7 billion annual avocado trade between the two countries casts doubts over those climate pledges.Mexican environmental officials have called on the United States to stop avocados grown on deforested lands from entering the American market, yet U.S. officials taken no action, according to documents obtained by Climate Rights International, a nonprofit focused on how human rights violations contribute to climate change.In a new report, the group identified dozens of examples of how orchards on deforested lands supply avocados to American food distributors, which in turn sell them to major American supermarket chains.Fresh Del Monte, one of the largest American avocado distributors, said the industry supported reforestation projects in Mexico. But, in a statement, the company also said that “Fresh Del Monte does not own farms in Mexico,” and relied on “industry collaboration” to ensure growers abided by local laws.In western Mexico, interviews by The Times with farmers, police investigators and Indigenous leaders showed how local people fighting deforestation and water…

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