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Chile: At the ends of the world, upside down

20 June 2023

Chile is known as the ‘Country at the Ends of the World’ because it is the southernmost country on the planet. Chile is also a land of topsy-turvy inconsistencies. In a country dubbed the most water-stressed in the Americas according to the World Resource Institute, successive governments have resorted to the use of armoured water cannon trucks known locally as guanacos to deal with recent water riots. Water cannons hold up to 14,000 litres of water. Instead of supplying populations in need, the Chilean authorities have used water to commit crowd-dispersing violence, thus acting against international recommendations on the use of such weapons. 

Nowhere is Chile’s topsy-turvy reality more palpable than in Petorca, located in the Valparaíso region, two and a half hour’s drive north of the capital Santiago. Petorca is the first arable valley south of the Norte Chico, a semi-desert region south of the Atacama Desert. This is the epicentre of the Petorca water crisis, which has unfolded over the last decade under oblivious governments of both the right and the left, following a devastating 20-year drought.  

Petorca is a unique hydrological system, home to prehistoric forests of giant palm trees (Jubaea Chilensis) growing in fertile and sheltered valleys, now extremely vulnerable and prone to desertification. Lying at the rim of the driest desert on Earth, Petorca has been utilized by avocado boom empresarios as the epicentre of a lucrative plantation business sustained by grotesque levels of water use, and water theft.

A cistern truck (aljibe) supplies water to a house in a Petorca neighborhood. Credit: Cristian Soto Quiroz/Crsotoq Audiovisual Agency.

Using water to make green gold

We stop at the local shop in Petorca’s main square, where we are confronted with yet another example of Chile’s surreal upside-down sense of normalcy. The shop boasts entire shelves full of plastic water toys ‘Made in China’ – the irony is pointed out to me by my 10-year-old son. Even he knows this makes no sense. Like Chile’s laws – constitutional flaws inherited from the dictatorship era – these garish water toys are emblems of a normalized injustice. In this country, the buying and selling of rivers and patches of ocean is constitutional. Water in Chile is not a public good. Article 19 of the 1980 Constitution establishes ownership over the rights of water use, and further indicates that the rights of individuals over water, recognized or constituted in accordance with the law, will grant private actors ownership over water resources. The social uprising of 2019, and the 2022 Constitutional Plebiscite, which ended with a calamitous defeat for the government and the campaign for the Approval of a new Constitution, both had as a top priority the need to change the country’s laws with regards to water use. Chile is the only country in the world where water is a private good, and where any kind of water (groundwater, surface water, freshwater, even saltwater) can be granted rights of private ownership under the law– in other words, where aquifers, rivers and even seas can be bought and sold, much like a plastic toy. This legacy of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship and the neoliberal experiment he orchestrated is what has sustained a national economy dependent on two industries with some of the highest required levels of water consumption – mining (mainly copper and now lithium) and agribusiness (wineries and now the ‘green gold’: avocado). 

Don Justo is a subsistence farmer or campesino living in Los Comunes. Ironically named, since Los Comunes (‘The Commons’) is an impoverished hamlet clinging onto the dried-up banks of Petorca River, a few miles upstream from Petorca town in an area entirely carved up by avocado plantations. The palteros, as these large farming groups are known locally, have purchased most water concessions and licences for the building of their much-needed wells and water accumulation works.  

I am travelling with my son and my uncle, who lives close to the mouth of the river, where the Petorca and La Ligua meet. As we drive eastward, it becomes apparent that there are no flowing rivers left in this land. The avocado plantations have dried up the watersheds all along the Petorca Province – in the same way that industrial copper mining has dried up the rivers and seasonal salt lakes further up north. 

Don Justo explains to us that he has only enough water for seven days left in his tank, and that he has no money left to pay the next aljibe – the local water truck that transports commercial water to thirsty farmsteads up and down the dried-up valley. And here is yet another of those distinctly Chilean absurdities: further upstream, avocado plantation owners have built medium-sized water accumulation works to monopolize much-prized water to feed their avocado trees, even though local schools and hospitals have had to shut down due to shortages.  

Don Justo explains that when water ran out in previous years, he sought help from the local fire station, but that this will not be possible this year as the bomberos (firefighters) have had to give the last of their water to the local school. If a fire breaks out in the autumn, there will be no water to put it out. Mega-fires did break out in February 2023 further south, destroying an area estimated to be roughly three million hectares in size, and which was covered mainly by eucalyptus plantations. Eucalyptus is a highly flammable non-native species that was intensely planted and timbered after a 1974 decree, at the outset of the military dictatorship. The Pinochet regime incentivized monocrop and intensive agriculture, without much consideration for the environmental, or indeed the social consequences of uneven economic growth.

Caco Salazar, a painter, social artist and community builder and resident of Pullalli in the lower Petorca river, looks out into Chincolco valley, a few miles northwest of Petorca. Credit: Leo Salazar.

Injustice affecting local campesinos in the Valparaíso region is an entrenched and endemic problem. Don Justo’s story is a case in point. In 2021, Don Justo’s beehives died after being affected by an unknown disease. After calling the Servicio Agrícola Ganadero (SAG), a government body that regulates crops, seeds and animal husbandry, Don Justo was told that his bees had contracted a disease, and that there were no subsidies or compensation available to him, even though SAG readily offers lucrative bonuses and subsidies to large-scale avocado farms all around his crumbling farmstead. Don Justo told the authorities that his bees had died as a result of toxic pesticides used in the nearby avocado plantation, owned by Chilean department store giant Falabella. Government officials took samples of Don Justo’s dead bees. After a two-month wait, Don Justo phoned in to find out what the outcome of the tests were, only to be told that his samples had been lost.  

Don Justo has already had to cope with the collapse of his honey-making business. For the last five years, Don Justo keeps hives only to sell queen bees. The absence of flowers in the dry valleys has destroyed local pollination, making the production of honey impossible for small-scale producers. The death of Don Justo’s colonies due to pesticide poisoning amounts to the complete destruction of his already precarious livelihood. He tells us that families all around the valley are thinking of leaving. He speaks of going to live up in the high mountains. 

‘No es sequia es saqueo.’
‘This is not drought, it is plunder.’

Campesinos like Don Justo have not only seen their river and springs dry up; what is more, Don Justo was fined for digging a well on his own land. According to the local authorities, he does not own a valid licence – nor does the neighbouring plantation owner for that matter. The trouble is, he cannot afford the licence fee. Furthermore, Don Justo has been threatened with further sanctions for setting up a makeshift pipe in the high vertientes (water springs) in an attempt to access water from the mountain top for his desperate family and animals. Los Comunes boasts a communal water trough which local campesinos all pay for collectively in an effort to share the last available water. In November 2022, for the first time, it dried up. Meanwhile, the water accumulation works paid for by the avocado businessmen are overflowing with turquoise waters up in El Chalaco, five miles upstream. 

Bribery, corruption and local mafia are the legacy of the avocado boom in Chile’s upside-down fantasy of economic development. Only a handful of people own Petorca Valley and its waters. These privileged overlords, among them Falabella, are allowed to dig unlicensed wells up to 60 feet deep, according to Don Justo, thus monopolizing water use in Los Comunes. Water use is determined by those who have money – that is, by large Petorca landowners like Edmundo Pérez Yoma, former defence and interior minister, and owner of avocado business group Agrícola Cóndor, former agriculture minister Antonio Walker Prieto, and the Cerda family, owners of Cabilfrut, the largest producer of avocados in Petorca. In short, only a bunch of wealthy families own the entire catchment. A land once graced by green abundance, as the ancient petroglyphs found up and down the valley testify, has been transformed into a green desert that benefits only a few upper-class families from Santiago.  

It is worth remembering that avocado is a water-guzzling crop: one kilo of the so-called ‘testicle fruit’ (from the Nahuatl language) equates with roughly 1,000 litres of water. Don Justo’s entire family consumption is circa 500 litres per month. One kilo of avocado available in European and US supermarkets is equivalent to two whole months’ worth of water for a family of local Chilean campesinos. 

They fall off the radar. Campesinos do not receive much attention from international human rights organizations. Although elsewhere in the Americas ‘campesino’ is an established identity that cuts across other forms of minority identification, such as ‘black’, ‘Afro-descendant’, ‘Afro-rurales’ and so on, Petorca’s campesinos are not strictly speaking an ethnic, religious or linguistic minority, nor are they indigenous in this part of Chile. Nevertheless, they remain ignored and under-represented. Campesinos are an economic and class-based marginalized group, historically oppressed and subject to gross levels of human rights violations.  

The Petorca crisis is a case of human rights violations grounded in deep-seated marginalization. The campesino is in direct competition, at the level of water use, with majority-led industrial avocado farming. Don Justo is up against a structurally flawed system where business, police, local authorities and government bodies like SAG operate a legally sanctioned collusion driven by short-term profit for a select few. 

The injustice does not end with discrimination against campesinos. Water activists have raised national and international alarm to highlight human rights abuses committed in Petorca, yet police brutality and threats have been the prime response. Water activist Rodrigo Mundaca, currently Governor of Valparaíso, has received numerous death threats due to his work supporting water justice in Petorca. Similarly, there is the case of Modatima, a social movement campaigning for water access in many parts of Central Chile, often led by local women’s groups, which has generated serious levels of hate and repressive violence. 

While consumption of ‘green gold’ continues to soar, driving avocado production into a frenzy, and while markets allow for the unregulated production of this crop at the expense of environmental and social justice, the avocado war in Chile will continue to drive marginalized communities to the edge. Incidentally, the so-called avocado war in Chile is a replica of familiar conflicts occurring in Mexico, the world’s leading avocado-producing country.

‘This is plunder’

I have not contacted Don Justo in recent weeks. The last time I phoned him, he told me he is afraid of reprisals, and that he would prefer not to be named in our report. He would rather remain silent, which is why he has been anonymized (Don Justo is not his real name). In this line of work, it is apparent that a human rights violation has reached its ultimate goal when the victim opts for silence. Silenced campesino men and women will suffer the indignity of rampant water theft while sliced avocadoes continue to be served in trendy cafés and restaurants around London and New York. Consumption up north will continue to drive the exorbitant water footprint of this green gold, as avocado wars continue to pose existential threats to campesino communities in Petorca and elsewhere in the world.

I finish with a personal memory: When I was a child, I used to swim where the Petorca and Ligua Rivers meet, before their graceful waters rolled into the Pacific Ocean. The place, which is blessed with extraordinary beauty, is known as Las Salinas. From the sandy and open beach, I would look out across an opening in the coastal range towards the towering pyramid-shaped Aconcagua Mountain – the highest peak in the Americas and the highest mountain outside Asia. I was told back then that the snows in the high mountains were ‘eternal’ (nieves eternas). In my own lifetime, I have seen the eternal snow vanish. The rivers have run dry. The lakes have gone. The riverbed is littered with dead animals, and it is fouled by the stench of pesticides. That is the vision of my home country I have bequeathed to my son.  

It is not climate change that is to blame; it is greed.  

Or as the local campaign for water justice shouts out: No es sequia es saqueo. ‘This is not drought, it is plunder.’

We are grateful to members of Mujeres del Agua de MODATIMA for their collaboration in the production of this chapter.

Photo: A campesino farmer picks up a goat that strays from his herd. Petorca, Chile. Credit: Cristian Soto Quiroz/Crsotoq Audiovisual Agency.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >


Nicolás Salazar Sutil

Commissioning Editor

Minority Rights Group