Avocado: A Driver of Sustainable Agriculture? Ask These Farmers in Guatemala
As international demand for avocado has increased, more farmers have started to clear forested areas to plant additional avocado trees. In Guatemala, TechnoServe is helping farmers improve their harvests and access higher-value markets while continuing to protect nearby forests.
Growing up in shadows of some of Guatemala’s largest volcanoes, Azucena Quel has watched as the landscape has changed over the years. The department of Sacatepéquez in southern Guatemala boasts rich volcanic soil and ample sunshine, making it a prime location for growing a vast array of crops, including avocados. However, changes in precipitation, more frequent extreme weather events, and widespread deforestation have threatened the productivity of this land — and the livelihoods of the farmers who rely on it for survival.
A nurse by trade, Azucena originally tended a small farm to supplement her family’s food consumption, only starting to sell her crops once she joined a local cooperative several years ago. This cooperative was formed as an effort to prevent deforestation by commercializing sustainably harvested forest crops and taking away the incentive to cut down forests for productive land. Today, Azucena supports her family by selling forest-grown avocados through the cooperative.
Very few people think about the future of others and the consequences of losing the forest. To me, this is my commitment to help future generations.”
— Azucena Quel, avocado farmer in Guatemala
As international demand for avocado has increased significantly in recent years, more farmers have started to cut down forests to plant additional avocado trees. Avocado production is very lucrative for smallholder farmers, particularly in comparison to some other crops, such as maize. However, forests in southern Guatemala play an important role in the ecosystem, promoting biodiversity, reducing soil erosion, and sequestering carbon. “Protecting the forest is everyone’s responsibility,” Azucena declares. “Very few people think about the future of others and the consequences of losing the forest. To me, this is my commitment to help future generations.”
Farmers like Azucena face many challenges on their farms. Often, they do not know the best agricultural practices to use, while unpredictable rainfall, severe weather, and plant diseases and pests limit their yields and income potential. “Avocado growing is very susceptible to climate changes,” she explains. “Global warming has caused changes in the plant, causing early or late flowering…The fruit falls from the tree or the plant does not produce anything.”
In 2019, Azucena’s cooperative joined TechnoServe’s Smallholder Market Access Program — a program supported with grant funding from the Walmart Foundation that is working to increase the incomes of 5,000 produce farmers in Guatemala and Nicaragua. Azucena hopes that the program will teach her the skills she needs to tap into formal supply chains.
High production costs, price volatility, and indirect or informal market connections can make it more difficult for farmers in this area to earn a living. “With the income I earn, I can improve the infrastructure and management of my farm,” she says. “If we improve our production, safety, and traceability practices, [our cooperative] can have more direct participation in the market and not have to worry about where we will sell our products.”
Through the program, Azucena is learning important techniques to improve her avocado production. “We are learning to use the existing resources on our plot to get results without raising costs,” she explains. “For example, using rainwater harvesting since we do not have irrigation systems.” Although the avocado harvest is still months away, the transformation is already evident on Azucena’s farm. “Due to the lessons I’ve received in the project, I’ve changed our family finances to invest back in the farm and the family and to use what we have.”
Azucena still faces many challenges. Without a vehicle and with no public transportation in her remote community, she has to walk long distances each day to tend to her plot. “I’m no longer a young girl, and my health has deteriorated in recent years,” she shares. “But knowing that we are going to work our crop fills us with motivation and energy. For me, no distance is an obstacle to move forward with this project, and to help our economy and our ecosystems.”