The stealing of water in Petorca: who is the one that really harms the country?

On June 25th, the magazine “Revista del Campo” of El Mercurio (conservative right-wing newspaper) published a note called «avocado growers strikes back». With this warlike title, a delegation of avocado exporting producers, particularly from the province of Petorca, accompanied by the president of the Association of Fruit Exporters (ASOEX), Ronald Bown, initiated a series of actions to counteract the many reports from Denmark, Germany, France and England had related the production of avocados in the area with the stealing of water and violation of the human right to water.

What was this so-called “strike back”? The association of large agricultural producers in Petorca made a series of efforts and lobby with public services, national and international media, as well as a tour of Europe to «clean up their image»

First, they began appealing to trade associations, such as the Association of Fruit Exporters (ASOEX) and the “Palta Hass Chile Committee”, an organization in which one of its directors is an avocado exporter who has been accused of stealing water in the town of Cabildo. Later, they made a couple of calls and managed to sit down with different government entities, which according to their own statements they would have given them backgrounds to refute the reports of European newspapers.

Then, they took their bags and said: «We’re going to Europe.» There they met with supermarkets who threatened to stop importing avocados from Petorca for being associated with the violation of human right to water, and with the media that made the reports on the subject. Unfortunately for them, they did not receive favorable responses from the press, given that -as in any serious communication media- the investigation that gave rise to the reports had rigorous standards that transformed the evidence into irrefutable facts.

However, returning from the trip empty-handed, they have made a series of statements in different media, noting that local production and exports of avocados will be seriously affected by the «unfounded» reports, blaming social organizations that for years have denounced the injustices, inequalities, the negligence of the State and the steal of water from large agricultural companies in the area. Moreover, on Saturday July 7th at CNN Chile, the president of the Chilean exporters, Ronald Bown, without any reason has labeled as «anti-country» organizations that defend the human right to water, trying to install the idea that the citizens who mobilize and denounce the violations must be considered outside the law.

Some facts

Let’s review some background information that we have put on the table during the last years, which corroborate the unequivocal responsibility of the big avocado producers of the Province of Petorca in the deprivation of water to the communities.

The Petorca river was declared in restriction in 1997 (Res. DGA 216), which in practice means that after that, no new water rights could be established, since the consumption of water exceeded the availability of the aquifer. However, the restriction being fully valid, the V Region office of the National Water Authority (DGA in Spanish) continued to provide water rights, equivalent to 3,730 liters per second until 2016.

In the same way, the Ligua River entered into restriction in 2004 (Res. DGA 204) and water rights continued to be delivered for a flow of 4,540 liters per second until 2016. That is, the State and in particular the National Water Authority -dependent of the Ministry of Public Infrastructure- has a high responsibility for having delivered more water rights than those actually available in the Petorca and La Ligua aquifers.

The steal of water by large agricultural companies in the area has existed for years. In April 2011 we attended with more than 400 farmers of Petorca to a debate at the Chilean Parliament about the reform of the Water Code and, thanks to the pressure made by the communities, a committee was set up to investigate the illegal extraction of water in the rivers of the country. We agreed to give testimony on two occasions regarding the information provided on November 25, when the parliament -presided by Adriana Muñoz (PPD)- visited the Petorca area, confirming in situ the improper practices of usurpation.

That same 2011, the National Water Authority mandated the company Geosensing Ltda. to carry out a report entitled » Identification of groundwater and water diversion structures in the area La Ligua- Petorca, using aerospace remote sensing techniques», which detected the existence of 65 drains and 456 wells.

In 2013, the Universidad Diego Portales – in its annual report on Human Rights – allocated a special chapter (n ° 7) to the water situation in Petorca and, in particular, relieved the violation of this right. Also, at the end of that year, the National Institute of Human Rights also included in its annual report a chapter on the human right to water, pointing to the province as an emblematic case of violation of this right.

In 2014, we met with the then director of the INDH, Lorena Fries, to whom we asked that the institution carry out an observation mission, which took place between July and October of that year. The report that was drawn from that work point that deprivation of water to the communities was directly related to the extractive agro-export industry.

Recently, in June, the sub-secretary of Public Infrastructure, Lucas Palacios, and more than 20 supervisors carried out an inspection on the rivers of Petorca, confirming the irregular extraction of waters (source: El Mercurio de Valparaíso, June 20, 2018). And weeks later, on July 5, the INDH of the V Region made a new observation mission, confirming again the usurpation of water.

Four days later, the National Water Authority said that from a total of 53 wells visited in the province there are 27 with irregularities and added that, if the illegal extraction of water is confirmed, those responsible risk fines of up to 1,000 UTM (74 thousands dollars).

The reports by Weltspiegel, Danwatch and The Guardian reflect and confirm what we have been denouncing for years: overexploitation and the steal of water in the province of Petorca are extensively evidenced and intimately linked to a particular group of large avocado producers, being they the visible face of impunity in the rivers.

Has Mr. Bown taken this background into account to ask who is harming the country? We invite him to raise the level of the discussion and put the concern not only in the profits generated by this business, but also in the ethical dimension of agricultural production and the human right to water.

Rodrigo Mundaca, Rodrigo Faúndez, Alexander Panez

Original text published by «El Mostrador»
Deltacap 2016