Chile has seen, in the past decade, one of the worst droughts in a thousand years. Rainfall has decreased creating a water deficit of 75% percent, and higher especially in the central regions where citizens are resourcing to mobile water tanks, and local wells to fulfill their water needs. As the COVID-19 pandemic threat increases, the lack of access to water is making simple sanitary mandates, like handwashing, unmanageable.
Small-scale agriculture and livestock farmers are suffering detrimental consequences of a water conflict dating back to 1981, as large industry holds the rights to water to produce food for export while the food sovereignty and well-being of rural communities are in peril. The World Resources Institute foresees Chile as one of the countries with high water stress by 2040.
We received a report from our network in Chile recounting the dire situation.
“The drought has affected my production. More than 90% of the fruit trees have died and I had to reduce the number of chickens I raised. It’s a widespread problem in my area, many producers are suffering, even with the latest rain precipitation, it’s not enough to think the situation will improve. On the part of the authorities, the help is minimal because we could not store the water to irrigate our trees in the summer, plus the reduction from the estuary also affects production. But people no longer complain because in the face of this empire nothing can be done,” said Evelyn Olguin, a Slow Food farmer in Los Yuyos.
In August 2019, the Chilean government declared an agricultural emergency as the drought persisted, with concerns of land desertification rather than a temporary lack of rain. Next to climate change, agribusiness is one of the major contributors to the drying up of rivers and aquifers. Overexploitation of resources has forced small-scale farmers and livestock ranchers out of business, while large monocrops, like avocados, consume vast amounts of water.
“The water rights have been transferred and delivered to the emblematic productive sectors of the country under the umbrella of an extractive economic policy, such as mining, agribusiness, the energy sector, and private sanitation… Water was converted into a commodity to the detriment of the development of a subsistence economy and peasant family agriculture. In Chile there are around 110 basins where water rights have been over-granted, that is, more water rights have been delivered than the existent water in rivers and groundwater,” said Carolina Alvarado Aspillaga and Debora Vega-Valdes of the Slow Food Network in Chile
Food Production: Big vs Small
Chile is one of the 10th largest agricultural exporters in the world, sending avocados, table grapes, blueberries, and prunes, among others, to supermarkets around the world. Meanwhile, biodiversity is suffering as the land dries up, livestock perishes due to reduced fodder and grasslands, bees and other pollinators struggle with the lack of flower blooms, and the overall situation is pushing rural populations to migrate south, as many farmers have ended food production.
“I am a beekeeper and agroecological farmer, from the agricultural community of Quebrada Honda, in the Coquimbo Region. My husband and I have been part of this agricultural community for 20 years. We started with beekeeping and gradually incorporated fruit trees, orchards, and small animals such as chickens and goats. The drought has forced us to decrease beekeeping production, as we depend 100% on the rains to maintain our bees. Right now we see with some hope with the latest rainfall, the possibility of more on the way, for our bees and the animals. Our region, in general, has had many years of drought, and although this year has rained some, it won’t be enough for rivers, reservoirs, and aquifers to recover. I firmly believe that the state of Chile must ensure water for food production and not leave water in the hands of industry and large companies. Much of agriculture in Chile is in the hands of small farmers and without any protection policy, it’s becoming increasingly difficult and less sustainable in the short term,” said Belgica Navea, Slow Food farmer in Quebrada.
Looking to the Future
Despite the rain seen in the past few weeks, small-scale farmers are worried about the future, as the respite is welcome but inconsistent, and they know they don’t have the rights to the water stored in the aquifers. Local activists are proposing a shift toward more sustainable practices, like planting native trees able to withstand drought while sequestering carbon and improving water retention and changing toward regenerative farming to improve ecosystems. But the major hurdle is the water rights system and the careless use of water resources by agribusiness, among other industries.
“In the face of the relentless drought lasting more than a decade, in what is an evident and progressive context of climate change that fosters uncertain scenarios, the privatization model and hoarding of the water resource benefits only a few to the detriment of the population. Added to the current regulations and water management, water depletion continues and there is still no progress toward a deep reform of the regime for its correction and value as a fundamental resource for the subsistence of life,” said Carolina Alvarado Aspillaga and Debora Vega-Valdes of the Slow Food Network in Chile.