Sitting in a hospital waiting room, Valentina* was disoriented and groggy from her severe migraine, but she noticed an injured man sitting close by.
“What was he there for?” she asked, and he gave an unlikely story about being “caught” while running in a field. But what was he running from? The neutral setting and perhaps the need to confide added up, and the man told his story. He was in the hospital with his friend who had been shot by police – they were both members of the FARC. Valentina was shocked. Although she grew up in Popayan near to the war-torn southern states and major coca producer areas, it was the first time she had come across someone from Colombia’s most infamous guerrilla group and he was sitting right next to her.
“Why do you do it?” she asked, surprising herself, and the man shrugged and said he had no other choice. He had children and a wife, and although he had tried to find alternative work, none was so well-paid.
Such is the reality that faced, and is still facing, many in Colombia’s rural states. But there is a new cash crop on the block, and it tends to be smashed rather than snorted.
No boom comes without a price, and the exponential global obsession with avocados is already having a huge impact in many of the countries that produce it. Stories of deforestation and drug cartel involvement in Mexico, down to the need for heavy irrigation and water security in Chile, you suspect that stories of the adverse impact of avocado craze will run for years to come. In tropical Colombia, some of the biggest challenges come from pests – farmers spray crops with chemical protection on average once a month, and as farms are springing up all over the country (one big company says it is planting “one tree a minute”), the subsequent risks over water contamination and worker protection can only be increasing.
But the country also has a unique social impact story linked to the lucrative export demand for avocados. After a peace agreement with the FARC in 2016, rural people suddenly had more options, where in the past it seemed that the only financially viable option was the coca trade. Of course, Colombia still remains a major producer of cocaine and its raw material, the coca plant, and some in the country are sceptical that the peace agreement was ever anything more than an international PR effort.
Nonetheless, the huge demand for avocados is undeniable, as are the haze of yellow-green avocado trees that are starting to dominate the hillsides. As Ricardo Uribe, head of the largest avocado company in Colombia, puts it: “Young people see our UK clients coming onto farms and it shows them that this business has a future. We are encouraging growers to switch from coffee to avocados because avocados really are the peace process of this country. It is a business that encourages people to stay on farms.”
More directly, land ownership is changing, as companies such as Uribe’s Cartama are constantly on the look out for new land, and when they buy they bring new employment to the area.
Whether or not the avocado business is helping to solidify the peace agreement by offering new jobs is at best only a small part of what is still a very current issue, and at worse, it just moves the problem elsewhere.
But while unemployment and poverty remain the threads that join much of rural Colombia, avocados are perhaps starting to offer a new way out.