source: Equal Exchange
By Jake Streeck, Equal Exchange Avocado Supply Chain Coordinator
This article cites quotes from recent video interviews with member-farmers of Equal Exchange’s partnering cooperatives in the state of Michoacán, Mexico. For privacy purposes, only first names are used. All producer quotes have been translated from Spanish to English. Other sources are cited directly in footnotes.
The industry landscape: uneven benefits, uneven drawbacks
In the western Mexican state of Michoacán, where an impressive 80% of all avocados consumed in the US were produced until recently,1 the land area dedicated to the crop more than doubled from 78,500 hectares in the year 2000 to 167,748 hectares in 2019.2 Amid such expansion in Michoacán and surrounding states, the national avocado industry as a whole surpassed an annual export value of $3 billion (USD) at the end of 2022.3 Today, the economic potential of the region seems yet unbounded as global demand continues to rise.
Unfortunately, as pointed out by Denvir et al. in the investigative work titled Ecological and human dimensions of avocado expansion in México, profits resulting from this recent avocado boom “are concentrated among a few, powerful large producers, thereby limiting the social and economic benefits to the local community.”4 Juan, a small-scale farmer and Equal Exchange partner near the city of Peribán, provides context: “The majority of producers are smallholders, but newcomers tend to be large companies who are establishing themselves in the market.” With these new arrivals, he continues, “There is a larger profit that we as smallholders haven’t seen.” As hinted by Denvir et al., the profits raked in by larger companies most often end up in the hands of foreign ownership rather than benefiting the local economy. More yet, the market oversaturation brought on by these corporations drives down the prices paid to all producers.5
Despite receiving an ever-shrinking fraction of the benefits from the avocado’s commercial success, local producers and communities bear the majority of the burden of deforestation (with an annual rate of habitat loss up to 3% in some areas) and water scarcity, as well as soil degradation, chemical pollution, and other localized ecological detriments associated with conventional mass production.6 Speaking on the effects of deforestation, Gustavo, another EE partner near Peribán, explains bluntly, “If there are no pine trees, there is no rain.” His associate, José, adds, “Droughts are getting longer. During this time in past years, we already had rain.” Along with these issues, broader climate trends like unstable temperatures have become a significant obstacle. Francisco, a smallholder near the city of Uruapan, says, “These past couple years, we’ve had extreme cold which affects plant florations. The heat, too, is a problem. They’re [both] going to extremes.”
Large companies—with higher volumes, nuanced technologies, and diverse production capabilities—are well-equipped to mitigate the impacts of negative pricing trends (which they often drive) and environmental degradation on their bottom line. Regarding the latter, most leaders of these corporations also avoid personal repercussions from local ecological problems since they are based in other parts of the world.7 In contrast, smallholders are acutely susceptible to both economic and environmental issues due to a lower “adaptive capacity” and limited production zone8 - not to mention a personal stake in the health of surrounding ecosystems. In Juan’s words, “The difference is that a large producer is a company with access to financing and other types of tools” to stabilize their business in times of adversity.
Our model: economic justice, sustainability, community development
Equal Exchange imports avocados exclusively from democratically structured, organic- and Fairtrade-certified cooperatives of small-scale farmers (each possessing under 10 hectares of orchard) in Michoacán. With direct weekly pricing negotiations, additional Fairtrade premiums paid to the cooperatives, and collaborative efforts to maximize efficiency, both parties strive to thrive ethically in an industry dominated by large, foreign-owned corporations.
Proveedores Agrícolas Orgánicos (PRAGOR)
Grupo Integradora Vics, soon to be renamed “Jarakue”
“Democracy is the base of everything. I feel that [small-scale farmer cooperatives] serve as an example. They are organizations in which everyone is equal. They give importance to each person. This helps to develop a consciousness.”
— Gustavo, President and founding member of PRAGOR
How it works
As part of a cooperative, small-scale farmers have their avocados harvested and sold collectively. In doing so, they amplify their power within a market in which large-scale foreign corporations—and the packhouses that often serve as a bridge to them—wield undue control over pricing. As PRAGOR member Salvador puts it, “At times, the packhouses and marketers are a bit abusive. There are times in which they even rob our production” via coercive or misleading tactics. He continues, “Now, I don’t worry about seeking out a packhouse or marketer to sell my fruit because PRAGOR takes charge of it.”
Thanks to the market power generated by the cooperative, members are granted further insight into the processes that their avocados undergo once sold. “We know how things are handled. We’ve gone to the packhouse where we see how they pack our fruit. So there is a total openness and equality between everyone,” exclaims José of PRAGOR. Furthermore, by selling as an aggregate, members insulate themselves from potential issues with individual harvests and sales—thus stabilizing income streams for all. “Before, we didn’t have certainty in our sales,” says Héctor, a one-year member of Grupo Integradora Vics. “If there was product left over, it was our problem.” His compañero, Francisco, adds, “here we sell at a price that we know is correct, and we have the security of knowing we’ll get paid.”
In addition to economic benefits, the cooperatives foment positive ecological impacts in a region deeply affected by both local and global environmental trends. To play their part, all farmers from PRAGOR and Vics are USDA-certified organic producers, meaning their practices “foster resource cycling, promote ecological balance, maintain and improve soil and water quality, minimize the use of synthetic materials, and conserve biodiversity.”9 While organic farming may require more effort than conventional practices, the advantages are immediately evident. Francisco explains that organic inputs “are much less aggressive on the soil, which also gives us better production.” Emmanuel of PRAGOR speaks on added health benefits to the farmers: “I am satisfied in avoiding the use of toxins and chemicals that damage one’s health as they do to nature. That’s why I continue organic practices despite the difficulties.” His words seem extra impactful when considering the multiple PRAGOR farmers who recount losing family members to cancers suspected to be linked to the synthetic chemicals they were exposed to on their own orchards over the years.
Regular organic practices are not the only means by which Equal Exchange’s partners take care of the environment. Gustavo, PRAGOR’s president and one of the founding members, offers the example of their innovative beekeeping project that, “if well managed, can increase production by 20-30%” by improving local pollination without the use of harmful chemicals. More steps toward sustainability include the construction of a biofactory to produce cost-effective organic inputs, pine reforestation on members’ farms, and an anti-deforestation policy that prohibits the acceptance of new members whose orchards have been established in the last five years. In Gustavo’s words, “Working with nature is something that motivates us.”
As if economic and environmental improvements aren’t enough, our partnering cooperatives also strive to bolster social services and general welfare in their respective communities. Such efforts are made possible by a “Fairtrade premium” of $1.356 per case of avocados that Equal Exchange tacks on to every purchase order. During the busiest times of the growing season, these premiums can amount to over $7,000/week (USD) paid to the cooperatives with the express purpose of reinvesting in their local communities.
For PRAGOR, this community reinvestment takes the form of mattresses and water heaters donated to families in need, and games and musical instruments gifted to local schools. Grisela, a four-year member of the cooperative, expresses, “It is very gratifying to see the kids’ faces and how they receive our help with such enthusiasm.” In addition to local donations, PRAGOR directs a portion of Equal Exchange’s premium payments to environmentalist efforts like the beekeeping and biofactory projects mentioned above. Vics, like PRAGOR, uses premiums to benefit both the environment and the community. They too have been developing ecologically friendly farm inputs, as well as donating to Familia Unida Contra el Cáncer, a Michoacán-based foundation focused on treatment and family services to those affected by cancer.
The rapidly growing Mexican (and global) avocado industry presents an exciting opportunity for growth and prosperity in producing regions, but has yet to bring about any mainstream efforts to promote ethics and sustainability. PRAGOR and Vics—with their demonstrated commitment to democratic values, environmental consciousness, and community development—serve as beacons of responsible business practices within this landscape. By sourcing from and collaborating with these cooperatives, we at Equal Exchange hope the same can be said for us. So next time you see a product with our label on the shelf while out shopping, remember how your purchase can contribute to an ethical and sustainable future for people across the world.
Further testimonials from our partners
“The Fairtrade model has improved the social aspect and the environmental aspect [of this work]. When you better your own situation, then you can think about bettering that which you’ve never thought of.”
— Gustavo, PRAGOR
“We’ve felt very content in the cooperative. It’s a different culture and a different way of life. In the face of the circumstances that have been presented, I believe we are on the path, and there is a commitment shared by everyone on this end [PRAGOR] as on that end [Equal Exchange].”
— Salvador, PRAGOR
“There are a lot of challenges that we’re facing, but we face them because we like this work. You could say we don’t even see it as work. We see it as part of one’s life, part of one’s family. That’s something that a large-scale producer doesn’t have. They have 200 workers and they can’t share [the benefits] with everyone. But we have one or two workers on our farm and we share even our food.”
— Juan, PRAGOR
- Descalsota, Marielle. “The US Temporarily Banned Avocado Imports from Mexico. Take a Look inside the Country’s Biggest Avocado-Producing Region.” Insider, www.insider.com/michoacan-mexico-biggest-avocado-producing-region-photos....
- Denvir, Audrey, et al. “Ecological and Human Dimensions of Avocado Expansion in México: Towards Supply-Chain Sustainability.” Ambio, vol. 51, no. 1, 18 Mar. 2021, https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-021-01538-6.
- Bustos, Andrea. “México Y Su Producción Sustentable Y Exportación de Aguacate.” PortalFruticola.com, 15 Feb. 2023, www.portalfruticola.com/noticias/2023/02/15/mexico-y-su-produccion-suste.... Accessed 3 Aug. 2023.
- Denvir et al.^
- Denvir et al.^
- Denvir et al.^
- Denvir et al.^
- “Climate Change Impacts on Small Scale Producers.” Evans School of Public Policy and Governance, epar.evans.uw.edu/blog/climate-change-impacts-small-scale-producers.
- “Labeling Organic Products | Agricultural Marketing Service.” U.S. Department of Agriculture, www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic/labeling#:~:text=USDA%20organ....