Chile: Drought & Water Injustice Jeopardizes Family Farming

Rosa Guzman harvests tomatoes on her family plot in San Pedro Alley, in the municipality of Quillota, 126 kilometers north of Santiago, the Chilean capital, where she cannot expand her crops due to lack of funds, which prevents her from drilling more wells to obtain water and face drought. Photo: Orlando Milesi / IPS

By Orlando Milesi (IPS)

HAVANA TIMES – The lack of water threatens the existence of family farming in Chile, as it forces farmers to reconvert and migrate.

The scarcity is caused by a 15-year drought, but the unequal distribution stems from the Water Code enacted in 1981 during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) that made water a tradable commodity and granted perpetual rights to its owners.

Additional problems include the accumulation of water rights in large agro-export companies and real estate speculation with lands of small farmers forced to sell.

“We don’t have running water for human consumption. In Canela, more than 80% of the population depends on tanker trucks that deliver 50 liters of water per person daily. It’s difficult to live with that amount,” Julieta Cortes, 52, president of the Association of Rural Women of that municipality, tells IPS.

Located in the Coquimbo region, 400 kilometers north of Santiago, Canela was known for its goat farming, which has now been reduced to half. Its farmers previously produced wheat and barley. Today, only a few vegetables are grown, their fruit trees dry up, and their animals die of thirst.

In contrast, the extensive avocado plantations for export have water and thrive on the hillsides facing the dry valleys.

Chile’s agro-export industry is one of its largest sources of income, alongside mining. In 2023, the agro-export sector contributed 3.54% to the gross domestic product, equivalent to US $10.09 billion.

Water problems are concentrated in isolated rural areas that lack technical, economic, and infrastructure capabilities.

“Small farmers don’t have access to water rights controlled by those who have money and can buy and relocate them,” says Cortés in a phone interview.

“The lower part of the Choapa River passes through my municipality (Canela), and none of us who live here have access to the water that stays up high, in the Los Pelambres mining operation and in the large agro-industrial operations along the route,” she explains.

Hills stand out for their greenery in Quillota, north of Santiago de Chile, with avocado plantations that reach the top, covering many hectares. They overcome the water shortage thanks to water rights used by large agro-exporters, with which they escape the drought and can send their abundant production abroad. Photo: Orlando Milesi / IPS

Lack of water is not the issue; inequity is

In the publication Guardians of Water by the German Foundation Heinrich Boll Stiftung, Macarena Salinas and Isaura Becker state that 47.2% of Chile’s rural population lacks formal access to drinking or irrigation water.

In this South American country, around 950 communities are not part of the Rural Drinking Water (APR) program and obtain water from informal sources such as wells, springs, and tanker trucks.

The publication reveals that between 2016 and 2021, the state invested the equivalent of $150 million to supply tanker trucks to areas with water scarcity.

“While APR committees and cooperatives need drinking water and rely on emergency measures, individuals and companies have a water surplus and can profit by selling water through tanker trucks,” say Salinas and Becker.

Therefore, they emphasize, “rather than a lack of water, there is an unequal distribution of the resource.”

The drought in Canela is repeated in other areas of Chile’s long territory, with 19.5 million inhabitants living between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.

The rainfall shortage lasted for 15 years, eased in 2023, and what will happen in 2024 is uncertain.

In Canela, farmers survive by using recycled water from washing machines and toilets or harvested from rooftops or fog catchers, systems used to capture microscopic water droplets in the fog, widely used in Chile.

“We’ve been reinventing ourselves. We even collect water from dew. Many of us have been reconverted to other work, others have migrated,” says Cortes from her community, Carquindaña.

Rosa Guzman, 57, and her three siblings own a 40-hectare property in San Pedro, in the municipality of Quillota, 126 kilometers north of Santiago. They only cultivate four hectares with vegetables and 2.5 hectares with avocados because they lack the funds to expand their crops.

“Sometimes we run out of water for the house because the wells are 10 meters deep. They fill with seepage from two channels that never have water,” she tells IPS during a tour of the sibling’s collective farm.

Guzman is director of the National Association of Rural and Indigenous Women (Anamuri) and president of the environmental organization of her community, San Pedro Digno.

Anamuri is an organization founded in 1998, composed solely of women, that organizes and promotes the development of rural and indigenous women in this country. It also builds relationships of equality, considering gender, class, and ethnicity, in an environment of respect between people and nature.

“Before, I collected medicinal herbs along the canal, but now there are none. The natural sources have dried up. That problem is severe, but there are people who don’t have water to drink, and that is extremely serious,” she laments.

According to this rural leader, the state has abandoned small-scale agriculture.

“It would be very different if the state invested more in small-scale agriculture and provided us with low-interest loans or subsidies. They must pay attention to what’s happening because at this rate, I’m sorry to say, family farming in Chile may disappear,” she says.

Water collected in a small reservoir allows the Guzman siblings to maintain vegetable production on a 40-hectare plot, of which they only exploit 10 percent, due to lack of resources, and it is one of the few that survives in the family farming municipality. . Image: Orlando Milesi / IPS

Agro-export model under scrutiny

Water scarcity directly affects the way of life of farmers and often leads them to experiences of environmental suffering.

“The lack of safe water impacts domestic and community economies, especially for families who sustain their diet through family farming,” say Salinas and Becker.

Guzman criticizes the agro-export model and calls for a return to planting wheat, lentils, chickpeas, products that are part of Chile’s food security. However, she emphasizes that doing so requires the support of low-interest loans or subsidies.

“We must be sovereign over our food. But if small farmers lose every year, many end up selling. We want to live well and without losing our identity and our knowledge,” she emphasizes.

Sociologist Evelyn Vicioso, executive director of Chile Sustentable, criticizes the agro-export model because “it is very water-intensive and irresponsible in cultivation. But most importantly, it doesn’t address the country’s problem of water availability for many communities,” she stressed.

“We feed ourselves primarily with family farming, and if it disappears, we have a problem with costs and distribution. Large-scale farmers think about ensuring the food sovereignty of any country except their own communities,” she told IPS in Santiago.

Hernan Guzman, one of the four brothers who own a plot in Quillota, inspects a small area dedicated to the cultivation of basil that is destined, along with other vegetables, for the market in the nearby port city of Valparaíso, in central Chile. Photo: Orlando Milesi / IPS

Slow progress in watershed management

To advance climate justice in a scenario of water scarcity, many experts agree on the need to manage watersheds with representative councils.

“Our country has a massive mountain range, but today we don’t have an application that allows us to link what happens in the headwaters of the watershed with what happens further downstream,” Vicioso stated.

She lists a series of failures in creating watershed councils, as there have been 25 attempts since 1994, with only one functioning.

There is no willingness to establish them, especially from water rights holders.

“We have a privatized water model where the focus and priority have always been to maintain property rights over the human right to access water,” affirmed Vicioso.

Salinas and Becker lament that the reforms to the Water Code (2005) are not retroactive.

“This creates conditions for water rights holders to exploit water from an economic perspective, disadvantaging the development of non-extractive uses, such as ancestral and ecological uses,” they say.

The norm hinders integrated water cycle management, as it does not consider the watershed as the minimum unit, does not establish mechanisms to jointly manage surface and groundwater, and allows rivers to be sectioned.

Evelyn Vicioso, executive director of the non-governmental organization Chile Sustentable, in her office in Santiago from where she monitors the water reality of small farmers and coordinates actions to defend the human right to water. Photo: Orlando Milesi / IPS

Land speculation

In Quillota, there is an increasing sale of agricultural land to real estate companies that resell them as recreational family plots, which are not productive.

This leads to the disappearance of native trees and reduces the hope of recovering family farming.

“Land has become a business. Half a hectare is sold for 60 million pesos ($60,000) and sometimes doesn’t even have water. That value leads people to sell,” Guzman explains.

These plots will increase water demand and also deforestation because the state Agricultural and Livestock Service (SAG) lacks control capacity.

“They are parceling all the hills, and water is brought to those people with tanker trucks,” Guzman reports.

Migration from the countryside is forced by climate change.

In Canela, Cortés explains that young people used to migrate, but now whole families move to nearby cities seeking water access.

According to Guzmán, “young people don’t want to stay in the countryside, and women say it’s not even profitable to raise chickens.”

Cortes appreciates the tanker water, but emphasizes that the fundamental issue is to restore watershed management.

“To restore, resources must be allocated. And for that, we need to reforest, create barriers to retain the scarce rain, and restore the hydrological system,” she insists.

Vicioso denounces the “lack of protection for glaciers, which are the headwaters of watersheds where water comes from.”

The sociologist also urged reconsidering the intensive use of water in productive activities.

“We have a fundamental political problem with water that has a high market value and a state that does not dare, does not want to, and does not seek the tools to intervene in this unregulated market, much like drug trafficking,” she asserted.

Read more from Chile here on Havana Times.