Global demand for avocados has exposed farmers to increasingly violent attacks, as gangs and drug cartels respond to “green gold”, a highly profitable industry in the country. Kidnappings, extortion and theft are now a present part of farmers’ lives in the North American country.
The EU and the US continue to be massive consumers of avocados worldwide, but demand for avocados is steadily increasing in China, Japan, Saudi Arabia and South Korea. In China, net import of “cow-butter fruit”, as it is known, has risen from zero tons in 2001 to more than 32,000 tons in 2017.
A recently released analysis from Verisk Maplecroft, a supply chain link consultancy, warns that increasing global demand for the fruit has the potential to turn avocados into the latest conflict commodity.
43% of the world’s avocados are grown in Mexico. In Michoacán state, Uruapan city has made a name as the avocado capital of the world. Last year, avocado exports in Michoacán amounted to $2.4b.
Christian Wagner, Verisk Maplecroft America’s analyst said: “The similarities with conflict minerals are striking for companies that source avocados from the region.
“Association with killings, modern slavery, child labour and environmental degradation is becoming an increasing risk when dealing with Michoacán suppliers and growers, especially when establishing traceability is increasingly hard.
“From cultivation through to transportation, violence and corruption now pervade Mexico’s avocado supply chain – particularly in Michoacán, a longstanding hotbed for criminal violence.”
For gangs and drug cartels in Mexico, avocados are an added source of income. As the world’s largest producer of avocados, the conflict surrounding avocados are concentrated in Michoacán, where, according to Wagner, around 12 different cartel groups are fighting for control over the avocado-producing regions and their transport routes.
In Michoacán, avocado farming is far more profitable than farming other legal and illegal crops. According to local authorities, a gang had robbed a truck carrying a team of inspectors from the US Department of Agriculture at gunpoint in August.
Vigilantism has become the norm in Michoacán, as recorded thefts of trucks rose 600%, from 50 to 300, between 2018 and 2019. One local farmer turned vigilante said: “If it wasn’t for avocados, I would have to leave to find work, maybe go to the United States or somewhere else.”
For Christian Wagner, the Mexican government is partly to blame for the problem.
He said: “The government’s failed federal security strategy – which includes the creation of a new but under-resourced federal militarised police force – and the growing violence have driven local packers and growers to recruit and arm their defence forces, which operate outside of the law.
“This increases the risk of both more violence and the potential for human rights abuses and due process violations.
“The logistics side of the business is similarly exposed to criminal activity and associated disruption. Small criminal groups, lacking the resources to extort farmers or grow their product, have turned to hijacking avocado shipments.
“Michoacán state authorities report that an average of four truckloads get stolen, every day. Exporters and growers face both the losses of stolen product or equipment and the risk of death or injury to their employees, disrupting the business and increasing potential costs and liabilities,” Wagner continued.
The rise of violent attacks against the avocado industry is also a huge threat to the country’s economy. In the past ten years, climbing consumption of avocados in the US has raised parts of Western Mexico out of poverty. Nearly half of the USA’s imported vegetables and 40% of its fruits are also imported from Mexico. However, because of increasing violence and criminalisation of the avocado business, the United States recently warned that it could withdraw orchard inspectors to the region. Without USDA approval, farmers would be unable to sell avocados, and other produce, to the US.
Withal, as drug cartels wage a war for control over Mexico’s avocados, the likelihood multiplies for illegally and violently-obtained “green gold” to be sold to consumers globally.
“The risks associated with Mexican avocado production pose distinct supply chain management requirements for exporters and distributors worldwide,” Wagner concluded.
“Companies trading in avocados or avocado-based products are exposed to the violation of international or corporate best-practice standards on labour, sustainability and anti-money laundering and corruption.
“Given the power and reach of criminal organisations, however, and the inherent weakness of Mexican institutions when it comes to enforcement, companies will be unable to eliminate the risk of handling illegally-produced fruit.”
The West’s usual solution of boycotting an unethically-produced product will not work in the case of Mexico’s avocados. Mexico’s economy will suffer without its avocado exports, and its Western region will decline into poverty. The easiest solution, it seems, is for the Mexican government to invest a part of its avocado profits into better equipping and training its police.