The avocado industry is as buoyant as ever for farmers in the state of Michoacán, but producers fear a resurgence of criminal groups in the state that may once again endanger their livelihood.
The Association of Avocado Producers, Packers and Exporters of Michoacán (Apeam) reports that the state produces more than half the avocados consumed in the world. Just in the town of Tancítaro, one of the main productive centers of the region, nine out of every 10 pesos can be traced back to avocado production.
The boon in the industry is fairly recent. U.S. health authorities banned for more than 80 years the import of Michoacán avocados, arguing that they would introduce a species of fruit fly into the U.S.
Restrictions loosened in 1997, however, and production in the state multiplied. In the year 2000, the National Institute of Ecology performed tests on the avocados at the request of Apeam, and determined that the Haas variety was fruit fly-free, putting an end to all export restrictions.
Business has been growing ever since. Today, over 12,000 small producers — whose individual farms are less than than five hectares — produce eight of every 10 avocados sold in the United States. The growth of farmland dedicated to avocado cultivation can barely keep up with the ever-increasing demand.
In 2014 alone, over 600,000 tonnes of avocados — about US $1.4 billion worth — were exported, most of them to the U.S. market. Early reports for 2015 show that exports could come close to $2 billion, which would represent growth of over 237% in five years. Avocado exports in 2010 were worth just $594 million.
The Super Bowl has become the single biggest day for avocado consumption, with over 50,000 tonnes consumed in the U.S. on that day last year.
Apeam estimates that the avocado industry employs more than 300,00 people — 100,000 directly and over 200,000 indirectly — and has thus become the most important economic activity in Michoacán.
“The future is promising, worldwide demand is growing, particularly in the United States . . . but also in Central America, Japan, Canada and some European countries. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) might also bring good news,” Apeam president José Armando López.
China and South Korea have also opened their markets to Michoacán avocados recently, and could potentially become big consumers in the short term.
But such optimism hasn’t always been present. The arrival of the drug cartel Los Zetas in the region in 2007 halted the growth. Assassinations, kidnappings, extortion, theft of produce and farmland, and price controls changed the business for all producers.
Los Zetas were violently displaced by rival cartels La Familia Michoacana and Los Caballeros Templarios, who took over all their activities, from drug trafficking to extortion. By 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported that Michoacán avocados had become the equivalent of the so-called blood diamonds of Africa.
Producers had to pay the cartels 1,000 pesos per hectare or more if they wished to be allowed to continue operating.
Farmers, fed up with the constant threat to their livelihood and safety, decided in February 2013 to create self-defense groups in the community of La Ruana, an initiative that quickly spread throughout the state. In less than two years, the presence of Los Caballeros Templarios was greatly reduced.
Nonetheless, criminal groups weren’t completely eradicated and in recent months homicide rates have been increasing and new criminal organizations have appeared. Producers from several regions in the state have said they are once again the victims of extortion.
The self-defense groups believe it is only a matter of time before the “bad times return.” These groups have been on high alert since the murder last October of Jesús Bucio, avocado producer and founder of the Tancítaro self-defense group, and the worsening of violence in other regions such as Tierra Caliente.
Apeam and producers have reasons to be optimistic given demand for their product.
But the reasons for pessimism are just as valid. They haven’t forgotten what it was like to live under the yoke of the drug gangs.
Source: El Universal (sp)