Avocados and stolen water

19. Mar 2017

Stolen water


Water conflicts are common in Chile’s largest avocado-producing province, Petorca. The rivers have dried up, and local residents’ human right to water is being violated. Avocados from plantations that have been convicted of water code violations are being exported to Denmark.

¿En español?

Lea la reportaje en español aquí

Traducido por René Vergara y Oficina Regional Cono Sur de la Fundación Heinrich Böll

Why you should read this investigation...

Avocado is a popular fruit among Danish consumers, however with the rise in production of avocados, the rivers in the province of Petorca, Chile’s largest avocado-producing region, have dried up since large numbers of avocado plantations have moved into the area.

The local population has been seriously affected by water shortages, and according to the Center for Human Rights at the Universidad Diego Portales in Chile, their human right to access to water has been violated.

It takes an average of 70 litres of water to grow an avocado.  In the Chilean province of Petorca, where over 60% of Chile’s avocados are grown, it takes more than four times that amount: 320 litres.  Agricultural water usage to meet the growing demand for avocados has created shortages for local Chileans.

Because of Chile’s water code, which governs water according to private property law, the avocado plantations in Chile’s Petorca province have legally been able to empty the rivers of water.  Still, a number of avocado plantations have been accused of illegal water extraction, and several have been convicted of violating the water code.

A serious conflict has arisen around the right to water in Petorca Province, where demonstrations, assaults and trials have taken place.

Danish supermarket chains have expressed their intention to change their purchasing policies for avocados from Chile’s Petorca Province following Danwatch’s investigation.

There was a time when the Valencia family did not lack water.  They could get what they needed for food preparation, personal hygiene and their livestock directly from the river.  Today, that river has dried up.

On the mountainside across from the Valencia family’s little house in Calle Larga, a town in Chile’s Petorca Province, lies an avocado plantation.

“They have taken our water,” says Lorenzo Espinoza Valencia.  For years, the family had to use a hole dug in the ground as a toilet, and were only rarely able to bathe or wash their clothes.  Today the family gets water deliveries by truck, but they receive only just enough to run the household.  They have lost their livestock.  Several of the family’s horses died, and they had to sell the rest because they did not have enough water for them.

“Water is a human right, and that right has been violated here,” says the mayor of Petorca, Gustavo Valdenegro.

Danwatch’s documentation shows that avocados from plantations that have been convicted of violating the water code in the water-strapped province have ended up in Denmark.

Illegal pipes drain the river

Under the Chilean water code, water rights are privatised, and water is regulated by private property law.  For this reason, the avocado plantations in Petorca Province have legally been able to empty the rivers of water.  A number of avocado plantations, however, have been convicted of water code violations.

In May 2011, the Dirección General de Aguas (DGA), Chile’s water authority, published the results of a satellite investigation showing that at least 65 intake pipes, buried several metres underground, were carrying water from the area’s rivers to private wells.

The satellite investigation followed a decision by the relatively newly appointed governor of Petorca Province, Gonzalo Miquel, to investigate whether illegal water extraction was occurring in the area.

“I walked along the rivers with engineers and technicians.  I had a GPS with me to record coordinates, a camera, and a big pad of paper, because there was a lot to write down,” says Miquel when Danwatch meets him in Petorca in May 2016.

He found a total of 65 pipes taking water out of the river.

“I knew it was explosive stuff,” he says.

Miquel and the water authorities concluded that satellite photos would be necessary to provide evidence.  With the help of the GPS coordinates, the satellites could document the pipes, which were hidden many metres underground.

“The investigation showed that the 65 pipes were taking 100 percent of the water from the rivers,” says Miquel.

Water is a human right

In 2010, the United Nations declared access to clean water and sanitation to be a human right. The right to water, according to the UN, entails access to enough water for personal and household use; physical access to water; and affordable water prices. Water for personal and household use includes drinking water, water for personal hygiene, water for laundering clothes, and water for cooking. The resolution was supported by 122 out of 163 countries in attendance, including Chile.

Water is a human right

Next to the Valencia family’s little house is an enclosure where the family’s eight horses used to graze, back when the family could get water from the river.

“Many animals died.  People had to sell their animals.  It was pure misery,” says Lorenzo Espinoza Valencia, who was among those who lost their horses.

“When we could use the pump, and there was water, it lasted for only 10 minutes before it dried out,” he says.

The family were forced to use water sparingly.  The first priority was cooking.  Personal hygiene was less important.

“We had to stop washing our clothes so we could cook,” says Lorenzo’s wife, Gabriella Valencia.

Even though the family now receives water deliveries by truck from the Chilean authorities, they still have to prioritise how they use every single drop of the scarce resource.

Lorenzo Espinoza Valencia and Gabriella Valencia.

I felt such deep grief when the trucks began to go from house to house with water,” says Gabriella. “We were used to having water from the river, and we had enough for everything.

Gabriella Valencia, citizen of Petorca.

Today, serpents of gravel and stone twist through the valleys of Petorca Province where the rivers once flowed. According to Matias Guiloff, human rights lawyer and professor at Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago, the local population’s human right to water has been violated in Petorca Province. In 2013, Guiloff published an article about conditions in Petorca with a group of researchers in the annual magazine of the Center for Human Rights at the Universidad Diego Portales. In it, he concluded that the Chilean government has not lived up to its international obligations with respect to protecting the rights of the residents of Petorca to water. According to Guiloff, the residents’ right to water has been violated because they have lacked access to water in sufficient amounts and quality. He names a series of hygiene problems and illnesses that have been connected to the quality of the water delivered by truck.

The water trucks come once a week. The water is used from everything to cooking, drinking, washing clothes and bathing, so the people have to economize with the scarce volumes.

Guiloff tells Danwatch that the population’s right to water is still being violated in Petorca Province in 2016.

“We are talking about people that face water shortages on a daily basis and rely on water brought to them in trucks. I would say that this not only affects the possibility of living their lives with dignity but also the very possibility of maintaining their traditional form of subsistence economy,” he says.

According to Guiloff, the authorities have not done enough to stop the illegal extraction of water taking place in Petorca.

“DGA, the Chilean water authority, has a very limited budget, and because of that, it lacks sufficient personnel to enforce the provisions that deal with water use,” says Guiloff.  He adds that the fines that are assessed for illegal water usage are so low that they do not represent a real deterrent.

“There is a lot of illegal water extraction on a continuous basis. It is a problem the Dirección General de Aguas (the Chilean water authority, ed.) has not been able to fight effectively,” says human geographer Jessica Budds, who has followed the water conflict in Petorca for many years and has published several research articles on the topic.

The battle for water

The water shortage and the illegal pipes that drain the rivers have brought locals in Petorca to the barricades.

Hugo Diaz used to own a small avocado plantation in Petorca.  But like many other smallholders, he had to cut down his avocado trees because of the lack of water.  Today, he directs an organisation called MODATIMA, which fights for the rights of the area’s smallholders and local residents to water.  In his backyard is a pile of roots and tree stumps that he burns for fuel.

“That is all that’s left of my avocado trees,” he says, explaining how his fruit became so small and hollow that he could no longer export them.

Along the roads in Petorca, the avocado trees have been cut down because of lack of water.

Since the founding of MODATIMA in 2011, Diaz, along with others like the agronomist Rodrigo Mundaca, has tried to raise awareness about the water shortage and the illegal intake pipes by holding demonstrations and informing Chilean politicians about the problems.

“The water for the people and the small farmers has disappeared, but there’s water enough for the big avocado plantations,” says Mundaca.

The situation is so tense that both Diaz and Mundaca have been sued by the owner of a large avocado plantation in the area. In 2015 Mundaca was convicted for calumny because he referred to the penalties given to the plantation owners as water robbery.

According to Diaz, MODATIMA’s fight against the illegal river water extraction has been futile so far.

“They have never done anything about the illegal intake pipes used by the big plantations.  We know where the pipes are, and we have proof of their existence.  But everything still goes on as it always has,” says Diaz.

Shortly after the publication of the satellite investigation, political pressure led to the removal of Gonzalo as governor of Petorca Province.

“Even though they know about the 65 pipes draining the river, no one has done anything about them, because no one dares,” says Miquel, who still lives and grows avocados in Petorca Province.  Because of the water shortage, he too has had to cut down some of his trees.

Even under extreme drought conditions, there would have been enough water if it had not been for the illegal pipes

Gonzalo Miquel, former guvernor.

Human geographer Jessica Budds encountered similar narratives during her fieldwork on water scarcity in Chile’s Petorca Province. In a 2008 academic article, she cites two farmers who say that poor infrastructure and technology, and not lack of groundwater, is the cause of water scarcity in Petorca Province.

“Agricultural expansion and increasing groundwater use have significantly changed the waterscape, but opinions differ over their likely impacts,” Jessica Budds writes in her article.

“These disagreements are based on different perceptions of water scarcity, and are closely aligned with vested interests.”

Mayors ready to give up

In the town of Petorca, which has the same name as the province, Mayor Gustavo Valdenegro has tried to persuade the Chilean government to do something about the illegal water extraction.

“Even though we call their attention to the situation here, nothing happens.  It has been a surreal experience,” he says.

The mayor and local residents tried to get politicians’ attention by holding a protest demonstration against the illegal water extraction.  The demonstration was halted by police with water cannons, and the mayor himself says that he spent hours in police custody.  The clashes with police were recorded by television cameras.

“We have fought against the illegal pipes for a long time.  The politicians say they will do something about it, but the problem is that the plantation owners are connected to the politicians,” says Valdenegro.

In the neighbouring town of La Ligua, the mayor is just as frustrated.

“There used to be rivers here, and life was good,” says Rodrigo Sánchez Villalobos, mayor of La Ligua.  He describes how the water shortage has led to increased unemployment, debt, and loss of livelihood for small farmers.

“There are satellite photos that prove the water is being stolen, but no political will to do anything about it,” he says.  He explains how he presented the case of the illegal river pipes to the courts three years ago, but nothing has been done.  On top of that, the fines for illegal water extraction in La Ligua are, as he puts it, “laughably low.”

For example, the fines paid by the plantation owners named in this investigation for violating the water code were barely 1100 US dollars.

Sánchez Villalobos has reached the point where he has given up on persuading politicians and the courts to do anything about the situation.  Instead, he is trying to raise the money and political will to build a large desalination plant that can turn the Pacific Ocean into fresh water for the region’s residents.

Prominent politicians own plantations

Agrícola Pililén, one of the avocado plantations that have been fined for violations of the water code, belongs to the Cerda family, whose head, Eduardo Cerda García, is a former member of parliament for Petorca Province.  According to the Chilean investigative media centre CIPER, his son, Eduardo Cerda Lecaros, himself a former mayor of the town of Cabildo in Petorca, now helps run the plantation.

The plantations demand a lot of water for the avocados to grow. Ripe avocados hang from the trees in a plantation in Petorca. 

According to the 2013 court ruling, Agrícola Pililén was convicted of exploiting water more than 600% faster than permitted, as well as of taking water from an unauthorised location.  The Cerda family concedes that they were assessed and paid the fine, but deny that any illegal extraction of water took place. They point out that the infractions were of such a minor character that they cannot be characterised as illegal extraction.

“We do not deny having been fined for minor offenses related to procedural issues before the Dirección General de Aguas [the Chilean water authority, ed.], but we roundly deny the existence of any kind of judgment against Agrícola Pililén Ltda. with respect to the crime of water theft and associated impacts on the rights of third parities,” writes Ana María Cerda Lecaros of Agrícola Pililén in a statement to Danwatch.

Another avocado plantation convicted of water code violations, Agrícola Cóndor, is owned by former interior minister Edmundo Pérez Yoma.  In his case, the fine was assessed for illegal construction in one of Petorca’s rivers.  He also denies to Danwatch that his plantation was extracting water in an illegal way.

“I strongly deny that Agrícola Cóndor has ever drawn water illegally. The construction (in the river, ed.) was deemed illegal for installing a pipe from a well, not for illegal extraction of water,” wrote the former interior minister in a reply to Danwatch.

Pérez Yoma’s son-in-law, Osvaldo Jünemann Gazmuri, a former director of the trade association for Chilean avocado producers and exporters, and owner of the plantation Sociedad Agrícola Los Graneros, was also assessed a fine for violations of the water code.  In his case, according to the 2011 ruling, he was fined for unauthorised groundwater extraction.

Like the others, he does not deny the conviction or the fine, but asserts in a statement to Danwatch that his avocado plantation has never stolen water.

“This judgment, though adverse, is not a judgment for water theft, since what is being sanctioned is the extraction of water from an unregulated point.  The difference is that the ruling does not question whether Sociedad Agrícola Los Graneros Ltda. extracted more water than its permits allowed, but that it did so from a location that was not the same as the one specified in the resolutions allocating its water rights.  This constitutes an administrative error, which is the exact opposite of water theft,” he concludes in a twenty-one-page response.

According to the journalists at CIPER, both the Cerda family and Gazmuri attempted to have their convictions and fines overturned on appeal, but without success.

Consensus on illegal extraction

Even though several avocado plantations have been fined for violating the water code, water theft continues in Petorca Province, say the mayors of La Ligua and Petorca.

According to them, the illegal pipes are still draining the region’s rivers.

“It happens all the time,” says La Ligua’s mayor, Rodrigo Sánchez Villalobos. “They just pay the fine and carry on.”

Even though he denies any illegal activity himself, Edmundo Pérez Yoma, Chile’s former interior minister, admits that the province suffers from water theft.

“There is indeed much illegal water extraction.  According to the authorities, there are approximately 4000 illegal wells in the area, and that affects all of us who are acting within the law.  The government should intensify its inspection role in order punish those who commit these crimes,” writes Pérez Yoma.

Danwatch presented this criticism to the Chilean water authority, Dirección General de Aguas.  Its representative replied in a statement, “One hundred percent of the complaints received have resulted in an on-site inspection within thirty days, when they are accompanied by georeferences.  We have prioritised inspections, since in this way we detect infractions and inform the courts that are responsible for issuing fines. Often, however, the respective cases are archived without sanction.”

The water authority agrees with the mayors that the fines are too low to have the desired effect.

“When fines are assessed, since the amount is low, the offender often prefers to pay and re-offend, making it difficult to completely eradicate the illegal extraction.  This is why we are sponsoring statutory reform regarding inspections and sanctions.”

Danish avocado imports have doubled

There has been a steep rise in avocado consumption in Denmark.

According to Statistics Denmark, the country imported 14,000 tonnes of avocados in 2015, a number that has more than doubled since 2005.  This sharp rise in avocado consumption is also in evidence across the EU and in the USA.

Accused plantations send avocados to Denmark

Research by Danwatch has shown that avocados from Petorca Province and the problematic plantations do show up in Danish supermarkets.  According to the website GLOBALG.A.P. (Good Agricultural Practice), which traces produce around the world, avocados from plantations that have been accused of water code violations in Petorca Province have been sold to Danish consumers.

Danwatch asked several of the largest supermarket chains in Denmark whether they have purchased avocados from Petorca and from the two named plantations, and whether they knew about the problem of water scarcity in the region.  Most of the chains answered that they had not bought from the plantations in question.  Lidl did say that it had bought avocados from the exporter Cabilfrut, whose owners, the Cerda family, also own Agrícola Pililén; it declined, however, to say whether the chain had bought avocados from Agrícola Pililén or from Sociedad Agrícola Los Graneros.  Likewise, neither Aldi nor Dagrofa (owner of the Spar, Meny and Kiwi chains) would say whether they had purchased from these plantations.

“If businesses knowingly buy produce that contributes to regional water scarcity, they are directly complicit in human rights violations, because they benefit from those violations,” says Andreas Rasche, a professor at Copenhagen Business School who researches corporate social responsibility.

According to Rasche, supermarkets have indirect responsibility, and can put pressure on the middlemen who sell avocados to ensure that responsibility is taken farther down the supply chain’s links of suppliers and subsuppliers.

Following Danwatch’s inquiries, Lidl says that it has no plans to stock avocados from Petorca Province in the future.  Aldi says that only a fraction of their avocados are sourced in Chile, and that they have now informed their supplier about the problems and will henceforth avoid buying avocados from the plantations in question.

Coop has not bought any avocados from Petorca Province, and therefore none from these specific plantations.  Dansk Supermarked, similarly, said it had not purchased from the two plantations.  Rema 1000 said in a statement, “We have received replies from the suppliers we have used, and all confirm that Rema has not received any avocados from the relevant growers for as long as is possible to trace.  None of our suppliers has had business with the relevant growers, so the only risk might be if one of our suppliers was short a pallet and bought it from another supplier.”

How much water does it take to grow an avocado?


Avocado production requires a lot of water to begin with, but in the dry regions of Chile, where most avocados for export are produced, avocado farming is especially water-intensive. In these regions, 320 litres of water are required to grow one avocado.

On average, about 283 litres of applied water are required to produce a kilogram of avocados.  This is fresh ground or surface water that is applied via irrigation or other methods in order to produce a crop of the fruit, and does not include rainfall or natural moisture in the soil.  This means that approximately 70 litres of applied fresh ground or surface water are required to grow one avocado.

Of course, the amount of applied water needed to grow one avocado is dependent on where in the world it is grown.

In the part of Chile from which we typically import avocados (Region 5, which includes Petorca Province) and where over 60% of Chile’s avocados are grown, an average of 1,280 litres of applied fresh water are needed to produce one kilogram of avocados, which means that about 320 litres of applied water are needed grow one avocado.

For comparison, a global average of 110 litres of applied fresh water are needed to produce a kilogram of oranges, so each orange requires about 22 litres of applied water.

To produce a kilogram of tomatoes requires 63 kilograms of applied fresh water, meaning that 5 litres of applied water are needed to grow each tomato.

Human beings, on the other hand, require on average between 50 and 100 litres of water to meet their most basic daily needs, according to the World Health Organisation.

Sources: Water Footprint Network and WHO


Large avocado plantations own rights to Chile’s water


After the avocado plantations moved in to Chile’s Petorca Province, the rivers dried up. Today, local communities, small farmers and plantation owners are competing for the right to use the scarce water resources. According to experts, the root of the problem can be found in Chile’s water code, which allows water rights to be bought and resold to the highest bidder.

At the foot of the Andes Mountains in Chile’s Petorca Province, Ramiro Brantt looks out over a field of grass.  Once, eight-metre-high trees grew here, bursting with avocados.  Brantt’s small plantation, covering 5-6 hectares (about 55,000 m2), represented his entire retirement savings.  In a good year, he could grow 7000 kilograms of avocados.  Today, the plantation is gone.

First, the rivers dried up; then the battle for groundwater began.  Brantt had to dig his well deeper and deeper until at last it was 13 metres deep.  But those with more money dug their wells even deeper, he says.

When the avocados began to fall off the trees, little and hollow inside, Brantt knew that he could not continue.  He gave up his plantation, just as approximately 2000 other small avocado farmers in Petorca Province have done since 2007.

Ramiro Brantt walking on the field of grass which was once filled with avocado trees.

“Chile’s avocado boom has been based on overexploitation of local water resources,” says Carl Bauer, an associate professor at the University of Arizona’s School of Geography and Development, who has published several research articles and two books on Chile’s water code.

In Chile, both river water and groundwater are privatised, and water rights are a commodity that can be bought and resold to the highest bidder.

“In the Petorca area, one of the main places where avocados are grown for export, there are major problems of overexploitation of both groundwater and surface water. It’s one of the leading examples in the country of how the Chilean water model has really failed in critical respects,” says Bauer.

Avocado plantations move in

In the 1980s, water flowed in the rivers of Petorca Province.  Children bathed in the La Ligua and Petorca rivers, and the valleys were filled with small potato, corn and bean fields.  Even then, Petorca suffered from periodic droughts approximately every seven years.  But in the 1990s, large avocado plantations began to move in and grow avocados on the mountainsides.  Today, all of Petorca Province is in a water scarcity zone: the rivers are dried up year-round, and locals are dependent on deliveries of drinking water by truck.

“When I was a young man, the rivers were full of water.  Then the big avocado plantations arrived on the mountainsides, which are not at all suitable for avocado farming.  They dug deep wells.  Today, the rivers are dry because the avocado plantations have taken the water,” says Guillermo Toledo, who as director of Agua Potable Rural (APR) for the La Viña area is responsible for the distribution of water to 840 households.

The river La Ligua used to run here. Now the riverbed has dried out.

Beginning in the early 1990s, Petorca Province underwent a change. The area went from a place where crops like beans, corn and potatoes were grown for the Chilean market to one dominated by fruit plantations bound for export abroad. Between 1997 and 2002, the area under cultivation by fruit trees more than doubled in the province, with avocados especially dominant. Jessica Budds, a senior lecturer in geography and international development at the University of East Anglia, has followed the water conflict in Petorca for many years and has published several research articles on the subject. She says that the land on the mountainsides, which had formerly been used as pasture for cows, sheep and goats, was bought up at low prices by investors who converted it into avocado plantations.

The land on the hillsides was cheap, the water was free, and the new drip irrigation technology facilitated the process of bringing water from the valley floor to the slopes. The price of avocados on the world market was high, so it was a complete bonanza

Jessica Budds, Senior lecturer in geography and international development at the University of East Anglia

One of the reasons for the high price on the world market was that global demand for avocados had begun to rise sharply beginning in the 1990s, when it became trendy to eat the vitamin-rich fruit.

Water separate from land

In Chile, water rights are separate from land rights.  So even though the investors in Petorca Province bought dry land on hillsides unsuited to avocado farming, they could establish avocado plantations because they owned water rights or rights were available to be claimed.

In 1981, water in Chile was privatised by Pinochet’s military dictatorship. This was advocated by a group of Chilean economists known as the “Chicago Boys” because they had studied at the University of Chicago under Milton Friedman, an economist famous for his embrace of the free market.

Unlike in Chile, the Danish water market is tightly regulated.  Water utilities have a public service obligation and must provide water to the citizenry.  If a Danish farm wants to use groundwater to irrigate its fields, the farmer must seek permission from the authorities, and permission is granted within a limited timeframe.  In Chile, however, water rights are fully protected as property rights under the 1981 constitution and water code.  In practice, this means that water rights, once they are registered, can be used for an unlimited amount of time, and can even be resold.

The Chilean water authority, called Dirección General de Aguas (DGA), distributes water rights on a first-come, first-served basis.  This means that as long as there is evidence of sufficient water, DGA distributes water rights in the order in which they are requested.  Water rights are independent of land rights and are awarded free of charge.

Today, DGA is not allocating any more water rights in Petorca Province, since there is no more water available.  The individuals and businesses that were awarded water rights at no charge can, however, resell their rights at whatever price the market will bear.

According to Hugo Diaz, chairman of the local interest group MODATIMA, which works to secure local residents’ access to water, today’s market price for the right to extract one litre of water per second in Petorca Province is around 10,000,000 pesos (about US$14,500).  This is approximately the amount of water necessary to support a hectare of avocado trees.

An avocado plantation lights up the dry hills in Petorca, Chile.

Climate change aggravates problems

Even before the avocado plantations had moved in, water resources in Petorca Province were limited and in danger of becoming scarce.  The narrow La Ligua and Petorca river valleys had always suffered periodic droughts that struck the area approximately every seven years.  Unlike many other rivers in Chile, these two rivers do not rise in the high Andes Mountains, but rather in the lower peaks.  Therefore, snowmelt does not feed these rivers year-round as it does rivers that originate at higher elevations.  In addition, climate change has in recent years worsened drought conditions in Petorca because it has caused precipitation in the Andes to fall as rain instead of snow, which hinders a stable supply of snowmelt.

Except for the lack of rainfall, the warm climate and stable temperatures of Petorca Province are ideal for avocado farming.

“Petorca Province became Chile’s most important and dominant area for the production and export of avocados,” explains Rodrigo Sánchez Villalobos, mayor of La Ligua, one of Petorca’s largest towns.

Mayor Rodrigo Sánchez Villalobos of the city La Ligua in Petorca, Chile.

When the avocado plantations arrived, a battle began over the region’s scarce water resources.  The rights to the surface water from the rivers in Petorca Province had been fully allocated as far back as the 1980s.  But the rights to the groundwater were still available, and were used to transform grazing land to avocado plantations as many new wells were dug.

Beginning in 1994, requests for groundwater rights in Petorca Province increased so dramatically that DGA, the Chilean water authority, declared the Petorca aquifer to be a “restricted area” in 1997, and the La Ligua aquifer received the same designation in 2004.  This meant that the water authority stopped allocating additional permanent water rights.

“These two rivers have long been empty,” says Sánchez Villalobos.

However, DGA continued to allocate temporary water rights to the groundwater, as the investigative journalists at CIPER in Chile were able to document.

“The temporary rights were allocated alongside the restriction in 2004, as the water code permits, and were cancelled in 2014 because negative effects on the aquifer were detected”, Jessica Budds says.

Danwatch presented this critique to DGA, which responded in writing that a combination of systemic weaknesses and overlapping jurisdictions are to blame for the continued allocation of water rights “without DGA’s recommendation.” DGA denies having granted temporary water rights in the time since the Petorca aquifer was declared a “restriction zone.”

Unequal access to water

Today, the roads in Petorca Province are lined with abandoned plantations and row after row of felled avocado trees.  All that is left are the severed white stumps arrayed like tombstones in a cemetery.

“The white stumps are not dead, but dormant. The tree is cut right back to the stem, and is painted white to reflect the sun and not burn. The idea is to leave the trees dormant, surviving on winter rainfall alone, so that if water returns in the future, they can be irrigated again and will sprout back into a tree. They should then produce fruit again after about three years”, Jessica Budds explains.

“Many small avocado farms ended up on the auction block because their debts grew too large,” says local avocado farmer Ricardo Sangüesa, who owns a medium-sized plantation that has survived the axe so far.

Rodrigo Sánchez Villalobos, the mayor of La Ligua, says that avocado production in the area has fallen over 50 percent since 2004.  This has caused rising unemployment, and many have had to sell their land and move to surrounding towns to find work in mining and other sectors.

“The small producers have been hit the hardest.  It’s much easier for the large avocado producers to get access to water,” says Sánchez Villalobos.  According to him, there is an urgent need to change Chile’s water code.

The main problem is the water code from Pinochet’s time, which privatised the water and made it a commodity. A farmer without water can get nothing from his land

Rodrigo Sánchez Villalobos, Mayor of La Ligua

In the neighbouring town of Petorca, Mayor Gustavo Valdenegro would also like to see the water code changed to renationalise Chile’s water.

“We hope to change the water code so that the right to water is no longer separated from the right to land.  That is the farmer’s only hope for survival,” he says.

Reforms require constitutional amendment

Social movements like MODATIMA have fought for years to change Chile’s water code.  They have held demonstrations and attempted to persuade the government to change the law.  So far, however, their efforts have not borne much fruit.

Water in Chile is privatised

Chile’s water code reflects the country’s turbulent history in the second half of the 20th century.  Chile’s first water code, passed in 1951, combined private water rights with strong national regulations.  In 1967, the water code was changed as part of the agricultural reforms of the 1960s, during which large sections of Chile’s agricultural land was expropriated and redistributed.  The goal of the reform was to increase the number of small farms and to modernise agriculture.  In order to accomplish this, the water code reflected central governmental planning, and private water rights were converted to limited concessions.

After the military coup against socialist president Salvador Allende in 1973, the Pinochet dictatorship converted Chile’s economic system to a free-market model.  The new constitution of 1980 defined water rights as private property.  In 1981, Pinochet introduced a new water code that further weakened the role of the state in the allocation of the country’s water resources.

With the 1981 water code, Pinochet established a system in which water rights can be bought, sold, and utilised without restrictions on what they are used for.  The only requirement was not to use more water than had been allocated.

Private individuals and businesses can obtain water rights in two ways.  They can apply to the water authority, called the Dirección General de Aguas (DGA).  The DGA cannot refuse to allocate water rights as long as water is available, and these rights are made available without charge.  The only situation in which rights allocated by the water authority must be paid for is when simultaneous applications are made.  In that case, an auction is held, and the rights are sold to the highest bidder. The other way water rights can be acquired is by buying them on the open market.  Since most water rights were allocated in the 1990s, individuals and businesses that want to obtain water rights today usually must buy them on the free market.

In Australia and certain states in the American west, there is also a kind of market on which water rights are traded. The Chilean water code, however, is considered a textbook example of free-market policy.  In the early 1990s, the World Bank was a strong supporter of the Chilean model for water rights.

After Chile’s democratisation in 1990, Chilean politicians wanted to reform the 1981 water code, but when the reform finally came into force in 2005, it contained few real changes.  One important difference is that owners of unused water rights must now pay a fine, in order to discourage the hoarding of water rights.  In addition, a number of initiatives were introduced to make the allocation of water rights more transparent.  However, the reform did not change the way water rights are allocated and traded in Chile.  A new reform of the country’s water code is now being discussed.

“There have been efforts to reform the water code over the years, but not really with much success. In 2005, there was a minimal reform of the water code following lengthy political negotiations.  In the end, what was approved was quite limited,” says Carl Bauer, associate professor at the University of Arizona’s School of Geography and Development.

“Since then, water conflicts in Chile have only become more and more strained as water becomes increasingly scarce.”

According to Matias Guiloff, a human rights lawyer and professor at the Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago, a comprehensive change to the water code will require an amendment to the country’s constitution.

“In Chile, it can be very, very difficult to alter laws that may have a large impact on the country’s economy if they are protected in the constitution.  Supermajorities are required to approve reforms on the most important issues, and draft amendments can be challenged in the constitutional court even while they are being discussed in the legislature.  So there are many veto powers in play,” says Guiloff, who thinks that the chance of a comprehensive reform of Chile’s water code is remote.

Experts criticise the water authority’s management

As the law currently stands, the authorities have only limited scope to regulate who has access to Chile’s finite water resources, says Carl Bauer.

“The main problem is that the government has handed over all the water rights to people who are now doing whatever they want with them. The water code should be reformed to make water rights more conditional on criteria like social utility or public interest,” he says.

According to Matias Guiloff, the Chilean authorities have not made sufficient use of the possibilities available to them under existing law to administer the country’s limited water resources.

“Twenty years ago, when the first signs of the problem of water scarcity appeared in the region, the authority did not deal well with it,” he says.

Instead of declaring Petorca a prohibited zone (zona de prohibición), which would have meant that no further water rights could be allocated in the area, the authorities declared it a restricted area (area de restricción).  In the latter case, temporary water rights can still be allocated, but not permanent water rights.

“The authorities kept granting more rights in Petorca even though the signs indicated that it was not proper to do so,” says Guiloff.

In 2013, when Petorca experienced an unprecedented drought, the local population ran out of drinking water and some had to dig holes in their yards to use as latrines, as there was no water to flush the toilets. The authorities declared Petorca a drought zone (zona de escasez) and withdrew the temporary water rights that been allocated.

Jessica Budds, Senior lecturer in geography and international development at the University of East Anglia

However, it is one thing to withdraw water rights on paper, and another thing to do so in practice, says Jessica Budds, senior lecturer in geography and international development at the University of East Anglia.

“Those who had been given temporary water rights continue to have their wells, from which they extract water. The government inspectors actually have to come and close down people’s wells in order for them to stop using the water,” she says.

Empty rivers and felled avocado trees

Today, the neighbour’s animals graze in the field where Ramiro Brantt’s avocado trees once stood.  Instead of rivers full of water, dried out river beds cut through the landscape like long scars of gravel and sand.  When the shrivelled avocados began to fall, unripe, from the trees, Brantt didn’t know what to do.

“I felt like nature was cursing me,” he says.

Seven of his neighbours also had to abandon their avocado plantations.  The Brantt family can still get a little water from their well, but not enough to meet their daily household needs, so they are dependent on the water deliveries that come by truck.

“If we get water again, I will plant crops – maybe corn,” says Brantt.

Ramiro Brantt his wife in their home by the fields.

The avocado’s journey from Chile to Danish supermarkets


Avocados travel a long way before you give them that squeeze in the supermarket to test their ripeness. The Chilean avocados that we eat in Denmark have often been picked months earlier, and they usually take a detour to Holland first.

The harvest of Chilean avocados begins in August.  This means that Chilean avocados turn up in Danish supermarkets between September and April.  Most come from central Chile, near the cities of Santiago and Valparaíso. On plantations situated close to riverbeds, the avocados grow on trees four to five metres high.  They are harvested by hand with ladders, or with a tool called a “gancho,” which is like a bag on a long handle with a little guillotine attached: it saws through the stem until the avocado falls into the bag.

From the plantations, the avocados are transported by truck to warehouses where they are weighed, washed and sorted by size.  To prepare them for the long journey to Europe, they are cooled to approximately 4-8°C in cooling chambers; this prevents them from ripening too early.  Often, the warehouses are owned by export firms that negotiate prices with European importers before the avocados leave the ports of Valparaíso or San Antonio. During the sea crossing, which takes about three weeks, the fruit is stored in cooling containers in a controlled atmosphere in which the level of oxygen is reduced and the level of carbon dioxide increased.  This helps it stay fresh longer.

Most Chilean avocados that are sold in Denmark arrive first in Rotterdam, Holland, where they undergo an artificial ripening process.  The avocados are placed in so-called ripening chambers, where they are kept for 7-14 days at a temperature between 16-20°C.  After the ripening process, the avocados are ready to be transported by truck to Denmark, where they are sold as “ready to eat” avocados in supermarkets.

Danish supermarkets buy Chilean avocados in different ways.  Dansk Supermarked (which owns Netto, Føtex and Bilka), Rema 1000 and Aldi have contracts with European importers, mainly from Holland.  Other chains sometimes buy avocados directly from Chilean exporters.  Coop (which owns Fakta, Irma, SuperBrugsen and Kvickly), for example, used to buy avocados directly from two Chilean exporters, and Lidl says that it uses both wholesalers and buys directly from producers in Chile.

The time it takes to transport avocados from Chile and put them through the ripening process in Europe means that avocados you buy in the supermarket may have been in transit for up to two months since they were picked on the avocado plantation in Chile.

Supermarkets intend to change purchasing policies


Avocados in Danish supermarkets may have taken water from ordinary Chileans in a way that violates their human right to water. A number of supermarkets were unaware of the problem prior to Danwatch’s investigation, but they now say they will change their purchasing policies for avocados.

Familiar supermarket chains in Denmark sell avocados from Chile’s Petorca Province, where avocado plantations have contributed to the depletion of the area’s water resources.  After the avocado plantations moved in to Petorca, the rivers dried up, and locals have become dependent on deliveries of drinking water by truck.  Because of the nature of Chile’s water code, it has been legal for the plantations to empty the rivers; however, several have been accused of illegal water extraction in the area, others have been fined for water code violations, and according to Chilean human rights experts, the local population’s human right to water has been violated.

Danwatch’s documentation of the supply chain shows that supermarket chains like Dansk Supermarked, Lidl and Aldi sell or have sold avocados from Petorca Province.  Several of the largest Danish supermarket chains – including Aldi, Dansk Supermarked and Coop – did not know about the issue of water scarcity prior to Danwatch’s investigation, but say they will now change their purchasing policies.

Aldi expands network of producers

In 2014 and 2015, Aldi sold avocados from Petorca Province in its stores.

“We are in dialogue with our supplier about this issue and are discussing at the moment how we can ensure that we do not contribute to water shortages in the future,” writes Aldi.

More specifically, Aldi’s supplier will in the future prioritise goods from areas that do not suffer from water scarcity; to do so, they are now in the process of expanding their network of producers. Aldi has also asked its supplier to take the steps necessary to avoid buying goods from plantations that have been involved in violations of Chile’s water code.

Rema: Won’t buy from areas where water is scarce

Rema 1000 was the only one of the six chains we investigated that admitted to already knowing about the problem of water scarcity in Petorca.  Rema 1000 buys most of its Chilean avocados from wholesalers Nordic Fruit and Nature’s Pride.

“In our work over the last few years with Nordic Fruit and Nature’s Pride, we have prioritised the sole use of suppliers located in areas that do not suffer from water scarcity,” wrote Rema 1000 to Danwatch.

Following Danwatch’s investigation, Rema 1000 decided to place the same requirements on their remaining suppliers of Chilean avocados, which make up just a small fraction of the chain’s deliveries.

No answer from Dagrofa

Dagrofa buys the majority of the avocados it sells in its Spar, Many and Kiwi chains from Chile. Dagrofa says that its suppliers must guarantee that they uphold human rights and applicable environmental regulations.

Danwatch asked what kinds of challenges Dagrofa is especially mindful of with respect to its CSR policy and code of conduct when purchasing avocados from Chile.

The chain answered, “There are no particular circumstances for this specific country compared to imports from other countries outside the EU.”  Dagrofa said this was the case for both avocados and other product categories.

When Danwatch replied with a follow-up question regarding whether Dagrofa buys avocados from Petorca Province in Chile and if so, whether it would be necessary to take action if Dagrofa’s products proved to be contributing to the violation of local residents’ right to water, the company answered that it could not reply because of competitiveness concerns.

Dansk Supermarked will change procurement policies

Before Danwatch’s investigation, Dansk Supermarked was unaware that Petorca had been declared a water-scarce area by the Chilean authorities or that the region’s rivers are now totally empty.

Asked for a statement regarding the way avocado plantations are taking water from local residents in Petorca, Dansk Supermarked answered, “This is an issue we had not been aware of before, but that we must now look into and discuss with our suppliers.”

The chain also said that it would change its procurement policies for avocados from Petorca Province.

Lidl declined to answer questions of illegal water extraction

Lidl said that it buys Chilean avocados via the exporter Cabilfrut, which is headquartered in Petorca Province.  Lidl declined to answer whether it purchased avocados from two specific plantations that have been convicted of water code violations in Petorca Province.  One of the two is owned by the Cerda family, which also owns Cabilfrut, the exporter Lidl does business with.

Lidl did say, however, that Lidl Danmark does not have avocados from Petorca on its shelves right now, nor does the company have plans to stock avocados from the province in the future.

Coop wants to strengthen the right to water

The only one of the supermarket chains in this investigation to tell Danwatch that it has not sold avocados from Petorca Province is Coop.  Issues of water theft and scarcity in the area therefore do not affect the avocados sold in Coop’s stores.

The chain believes, however, that it would be necessary to take action should it prove that any of its products contribute to the violation of local residents’ right to water.

“If we find out that Coop’s suppliers are contributing to gross violations of ethical and environmental issues, then we will open a dialogue with our suppliers to find possible solutions.  If necessary, we would terminate our business relationship until it could be shown that the offenses had stopped,” write Coop.

Following Danwatch’s inquiries, Coop made its purchasers and suppliers aware of the problem of water scarcity in Petorca.

Water scarcity threatens future food security


Four billion people are currently affected by water scarcity.  In the future, even more people will have to share these limited resources.  Experts say that water scarcity will be one of the greatest challenges to future food security.

Rivers and lakes dry up while groundwater levels fall. Two-thirds of the world’s population is already affected by water shortages.  In the future, these problems will only become more serious, because more and more people will have to share our scarce water resources.

“It is an alarming issue. The global population is growing, and at the same time, so is water use per capita,” says Professor Arjen Y. Hoekstra at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

Water shortages do not only affect people who live in water-scarce areas.  According to the United Nations’ Food- and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), future water scarcity will also affect global food production and thereby global food security.

 More people will have to share the water

Today, four billion people live with water scarcity at least one month per year, while 500 million live with it year-round, according to new research Hoekstra has published in the journal Science Advances.

According to UN projections, the world’s population will be 9.7 billion in 2050, and the increasing population will only intensify pressure on the world’s resources. In a FAO report ‘Towards World Agriculture 2030/2050’, projections suggest that there is enough water available globally to sustain the world in 2050, but since the water is not equally distributed, an increasing number of countries will face growing water scarcity, impacting rural livelihoods and food security.

FAO points at water scarcity as one if the the largest challenges of the 21st century, and expect to see more conflicts over water in the future.

Water conflicts like the one in Chile’s Petorca Province, where local communities and avocado plantations are fighting over the rights to the area’s scarce water resources, are just the beginning, according to experts.

“We see conflicts over water in many parts of the world today, often between agricultural and growing urban areas, and also within the agricultural sector,” says Peter G. McCornick, Executive Director of the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska (DWFI), and an expert in water scarcity and food security.  According to McCornick, water scarcity can contribute to the destabilisation of fragile societies, even if clashes over water do not necessarily escalate to armed conflict between countries.

Changing food habits

Global water resources are not only under threat because the world’s population is growing, but also because rising incomes mean that we are changing our consumption habits and eating differently.

“Urbanisation and increased economic growth has radically changed our water use, placing increased demands on resources that are already scarce in many regions of the world” says McCornick, explaining that improved standards of living mean that many countries import much more food.  For example, countries like China are experiencing rising demand for a varied diet as the population can afford to buy new kinds of foods.

According to Hoekstra, consumer habits have been shifting toward a diet that requires much more water to produce.  He does not believe, however, that it is possible to conclude that eating avocados is always problematic.

“One can ask oneself whether it is wise to buy avocados from water-scarce areas in Chile, for example,” he says. “There is nothing wrong with making profits from food exports, but when the water use behind it is not sustainable, there is a risk of making short-term profits on long-term costs.”

Food consumption affects water scarcity

Worldwide, agriculture is far and away the industry that uses the most water.  According to the FAO database AQUASTAT, the agricultural sector accounts for 70 percent of global water withdrawal. The UN organisation therefore highlights that the solutions in regards to future water scarcity should include the agricultural sector, by way of, amongst others, managerial policy, legislation and technology, that could include promoting the safe reuse of drainage and wastewater for irrigation of crops.

Even though every kind of food production requires water, the global food economy does not account for water scarcity patterns in any way, according to Hoekstra.

“Food is produced where it is cheapest, and this is often where land and labour are cheapest. Water is not factored into the price of commodities because it is generally for free, even in the most water-scarce areas” he says. Hoekstra does not believe this is a sustainable situation.

“Water-intensive products should instead be produced in areas that are water-abundant. Take Northern Europe, which is water-abundant. It is well suited to producing food for itself and for other countries,” he says.  Europe, explains Hoekstra, is the region that has outsourced the largest share of its water footprint to other parts of the world by importing food that requires large water inputs.

“It is not sustainable because our food is being produced in other areas of the world where there is water scarcity.  At the same time, we are putting our food security at risk,” he says.

Businesses have a responsibility to society

According to Copenhagen Business School Professor Andreas Rasche, who researches corporate social responsibility,  farmers, governments, manufacturers, food retailers and end consumers each have a role to play in coping with future water scarcity.

“The right to water is extremely important.  Without water, our economy would not function, and many small farmers would not be able to survive,” says Andreas Rasche.

In his view, companies who buy produce directly from water-scarce areas risk being complicit in human rights violations.

“If businesses knowingly buy produce that contributes to regional water scarcity, they are directly complicit in human rights violations, because they benefit from those violations,” says Rasche.


Behind The investigation


The investigation has been conducted in accordance with the ethical principles of Danwatch and international press ethical guidelines. The contents of this investigation are the sole responsibility of Danwatch. This publication is produced with financial support from Danida.

Danwatch is an independent media and research centre that investigates the influence of businesses on humans and the environment globally. Danwatch commits to national and international rules and principles on good ethics of press practice, including the Media Liability Act (Denmark) and the International Federation of Journalists’ Declaration of Principles on the Conduct of Journalists (international).

: Danwatch’s investigation into avocados and stolen water
- Danwatch visited Chile in May 2016. We interviewed local residents, avocado plantation owners, researchers, local authorities and interest groups.
- Danwatch obtained photo documentation showing the dried-up rivers of Petorca Province and the enormous water reservoirs used to irrigate the area’s avocado plantations.
- Danwatch has examined the reports of local water authorities as well as export and shipping databases documenting the supply chain from Petorca Province to Danish supermarkets.
- Danwatch sent questionnaires to the six largest supermarket chains in Denmark: Coop (Kvickly, SuperBrugsen, Fakta, Irma), Dansk Supermarked (Netto, Føtex, Bilka), Dagrofa (Spar, Meny, Kiwi), Lidl, Aldi, and Rema 1000, to ask about their procurement policies for avocados from areas experiencing water shortages.


Stolen water


How much water does it take to grow an avocado?


Large avocado plantations own rights to Chile’s water


The avocado’s journey from Chile to Danish supermarkets


Supermarkets intend to change purchasing policies


Water scarcity threatens future food security


Behind The investigation