María Mónica Monsalve
July 02, 2021
BOGOTÁ — One of Colombia's star export products, the Hass avocado, has cracked open two major environmental issues: the destruction of traditional landscapes and recurring water shortages.
The country has been promoting the Hass avocado since 2016, and proudly publicized in early June the arrival of its first 1.6 tons of Hass in South Korea, Asia's fifth biggest importer of avocados. But on May 29, the Senate's Fifth Commission, which considers land and environmental issues, questioned Agriculture Minister Rodolfo Enrique Zea about the effects of Hass farming in the Quindío department.
While the government is keen to boost avocado exports — the country exported more than 77,000 tons in 2020 — environmental concerns have grown in the three departments with just over half of all avocados, Antioquia, Caldas and Tolima. A well-known reason is that the avocado is a thirsty fruit. Comparatively, while a banana is grown with 160 liters of water, the avocado requires 227 liters. It has been blamed for water shortages in other producer countries like Chile and Mexico. Zea told the committee Hass was cultivated in rainy departments that allowed it "to be planted with drainage not irrigation systems."
Besides water, some avocado farms, which may be foreign properties, are cropping up next to or inside protected woodlands, beside moors or skipping environmental permissions.
Mónica Flores, a spokeswoman for the CittaSlow lifestyle network said that many farmers have been pushed into farming avocados and other cash crops by the collapse of coffee prices after 1989. While traditionally, the local crop was coffee, she said many farmers going broke after the end of the International Coffee Pact, had heeded the government's suggestions to branch out. "It was citrus fruits or passion fruit, then came the banana boom..." and then came the avocado.
In 2016 farmers asked for permission to plant 230 hectares of Hass avocado in the department, which she says have risen to 2,000 hectares in her Pijao municipality in western Colombia. "Foreign firms arrived to buy land, just to plant Hass avocado," she says.
Besides concerns that small-scale farmers being forced to sell their plots and the demise of the region's coffee-growing culture, there are worries about the impact of cultivations on protected areas. This, she says, is the case with the Doña Eva estate, owned by the firm Inversiones ASL S.A.S., whose crops are in a reservation and close to two rivers. "We're not saying they shouldn't plant avocados, but that it should be done respecting soil use and environmental conditions," she says.
Inversiones ASL told El Espectador that only 680 hectares of Doña Eva's 2,433 hectares are used for the avocados, and there are no plans for developing "future planting or production of avocados in these areas."
There are complaints of avocados being planted next to palm trees.
The Quindío Autonomous Region Corporation (CRQ), the local waters and environmental authority – has imposed regulations to prevent the destruction of emblematic wax palm trees, after reports in 2020 of five being burned down on the estate and avocados being planted next to the trees. Currently the CRQ is looking into 10 other reports of environmental offenses by avocado farms, says a CRQ adviser, Jáider Andrés Lopera.
The nearby district of Cajamarca in Tolima made the news in 2017 for its referendum rejecting mining there by the firm AngloGold Ashanti. Today it faces another environmental threat in avocado farming. The "rumors began in 2017," says Róbinson Mejía, head of the local Environmental Committee in Defense of Water, about reports of AngloGold buying up plots. "In 2019, we saw how avocado firms arrived, paying good money for land. They were paying 50 million pesos per hectare (more than $13,000)," nearly five times the average price for a hectare in Cajamarca.
Mejía estimated that some 3,000 of the district's 51,000 hectares were now reserved for avocados, with AngloGold still owning 5,000 hectares. "They're outsourcing the land," he said. One of the country's cultivators is Green Super Food, a registered Colombian firm, but part of a Chilean conglomerate, Inversiones Benjamin. Some 1,300 hectares of its farming lands in several departments are used for avocados. The firm has asked for several water-related permits in Tolima, though not necessarily for avocados alone, and has penalties pending too for several environmental infractions.
In Cajamarca, like Pijao, there have been complaints of avocados being planted next to palm trees, or others being burned to make way for avocados. The Tolima water authority has also warned that the Coello river, whose waters are presumably used for avocados, is drying out. Green Super Food insist they are growing avocados in areas with ample or excessive rainfall, and citing FreshPlaza, a Spanish website, claim that in any case, avocados require less water than some other fruits.
Woman selling avocados in the Fruit market Galeria Alameda in Cali, Departamento Valle del Cauca, Colombia — Photo: Sergi Reboredo/ZUMA
Avocados, planted mainly for exportation, also threaten the livelihood of small-scale farmers. In 2019 the Colombian academic Ángela Serrano published a paper in Nature and Space on how avocado farming was making traditional farming unprofitable, and inflicting ruinous losses on the peasantry living in districts where avocados have become dominant. She wrote these were a monoculture fit for big enterprises, and a small plot holder could ill afford to invest his savings in a potentially risky business. Likewise big firms made more than enough avocados to cover the domestic market, from which small-holders were effectively excluded. State policies, she concludes, favor big farming in Colombia at the expense of the small farmers.
The fruit may be a perfect example of the globalization conundrum: are customers enjoying its taste and texture in South Korea, Europe and the United States even aware that its production is changing the landscape, running rivers dry and disrupting the lives of helpless folk in rural Colombia?
The oldest newspaper in Colombia, El Espectador was founded in 1887. The national daily newspaper has historically taken a firm stance against drug trafficking and in defense of freedom of the press. In 1986, the director of El Espectador was assassinated by gunmen hired by Pablo Escobar. The majority share-holder of the paper is Julio Mario Santo Domingo, a Colombian businessman named by Forbes magazine as one of the wealthiest men in the world in 2011.
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Letters from inmates provide a crucial link with the outside world, and yet the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is both arduous and arbitrary as an extra means of control.
October 28, 2021
CAIRO – Abdelrahman ElGendy says letters were a crucial lifeline for him during the time he spent locked up in five different prisons between 2013 and 2020. "Letters were not only important, they literally saved my life," he says. "I was only living because I was looking forward to them from one visit to the next, and I would read them over until the paper became worn and torn."
Last month, the family of imprisoned software engineer and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah — who had been held in remand detention for over two years until his referral to emergency trial last week — announced it would take legal steps to ensure that Abd El Fattah is able to send letters to them following a period when prison authorities refused to allow him any correspondence.
According to the family, besides prison visits once a month, Abd El Fattah's letters are the only way they can gain assurance of his condition, and when his letters are denied, that in itself is an indicator that his treatment in detention is worsening. The numerous legal requests and official complaints by the family have been met only with silence by authorities.
While letters provide a crucial link between prisoners and the outside world, the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is an arduous one as a result of arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities.
Mada Masr spoke with a number of former prisoners about their relationship to letters during their incarceration and the way prison administrators constrained their right to send and receive correspondence.
Two letters per month
The law regulating Egypt's prisons and the Interior Ministry's prison bylaws stipulate that prisoners have a right to send out two letters per month and that prison administrators may allow more than two at their discretion. Prisoners are also legally entitled to receive letters.
Those sentenced to hard labor — a type of sentence that in practice usually entitles prisoners to fewer visits — are allowed to send one letter a week, and prisoners in remand detention technically have the right to exchange letters with family and friends at any time. However, in all cases, prison bylaws grant prison authorities the right to monitor, censor and refuse any correspondence sent and received , a power the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights deems a "violation to the personal freedom of prisoners, as it intrudes on their privacy."
A form of punishment
Prison authorities often restrict prisoner letters as a form of punishment, a measure that came under the spotlight when correspondence from Abd El Fattah to his family was arbitrarily cut off for an extended period last month.
Mohamed Fathy, a lawyer, says that Abd El Fattah's family pursued all possible legal procedures to push for allowing the exchange of letters with him, the last of which was a report submitted by the family to the Maadi District Court. This was preceded by an official notice through a court bailiff to the head of the Prisons Authority and telegraphs to the interior minister, Prisons Authority director and the superintendent of Maximum Security Wing 2 of Tora Prison Complex. Abd El Fattah's mother, Laila Soueif, also sent official requests to the superintendent on a daily basis.
Outside the gates of Tora Prison
Aside from the legal procedures, Soueif spent over a week waiting at the gates of Tora Prison Complex in the hope of receiving a letter from her son, a circumstance that gained particular urgency after Abd El Fattah signaled he was contemplating suicide during a detention renewal session in September.
This marked the second time that Abd El Fattah's family has embarked on a legal campaign in order to be granted their right to exchange letters with him. As the coronavirus pandemic first gripped the world in early 2020, the family went through a similar struggle after authorities halted all prison visitations as part of its COVID-19 restrictions.
During this period, letters became the principal form of communication between prisoners and the outside world. The Interior Ministry halted all prison visits from March until it reinstated them again in August 2020, though they were restricted to once a month.
Gendy, who was released from prison in January 2020, one month before the outbreak of the coronavirus in Egypt was officially announced, says that even in ordinary circumstances, letters were of vital importance since only direct family members are allowed visitation rights.
He says he used to give his family around 10 letters during every visit, addressed both to family and friends. "I used to keep an open letter to write to my mother about everything that was happening because the visitation time did not allow me to tell her all the details," he says.
Even though the right to correspondence for prisoners is enshrined in the law, in reality, the process is an arduous one for both prisoners and their families due to the conditions of Egyptian prisons and arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities, according to the accounts of several former prisoners.
It typically begins when the prison warden announces the visitation schedule for the following day. Prisoners hurry to pen letters before lights out, though some continue to write in the darkness. A prisoner who has a scheduled visit then gathers all the letters from his cellmates and hands them over to his visiting family members, who in turn give them to the rest of the prisoners' families outside, either in person or via WhatsApp if the family lives in another governorate.
In parallel, the families of prisoners who share a cell often create a WhatApp group to inform each other about visitation times. "Some families in nearby governorates send physical letters inside with the families that have scheduled visits. But those who live in remote governorates and who cannot afford to travel to the prison simply write letters and send pictures of them to the WhatsApp group," says Amgad Samir*, who was imprisoned for two years in Tora Prison Complex and was the facilitator for letter exchanges in his cell.
Marked in red
According to Samir, families would print out the letters sent via WhatsApp to deliver them to the prisoners, but the prison administration would sometimes not allow the entry of printed letters, so some families would volunteer to rewrite them by hand. "The sister of one of the detainees in Alexandria would rewrite dozens of letters in one day and would ask the children of some of the families to help her," Samir says. "Some families would send their letters with more than one person to make sure that at least one version made it inside."
Any letter being sent or received from prison is required to first be reviewed by the National Security Agency (NSA) officer stationed in the prison, who usually delegates a subordinate officer to read the letters before allowing them through or to "mark them in red," at which point the officer reads the letters himself to approve or deny them, according to Samir. After this screening phase is over, explains Samir, the officer hands over the letters to the mail facilitator, a designated prisoner, who then hands them out in the cell. "I would look at the faces of those who had letters sent to them, it was as if they had just been released," Samir says.
Khaled Dawoud, a journalist and the former head of the Dostour Party who was released from prison in April after nearly one and a half years behind bars, says that prison authorities tightly restrict prison correspondence. "Everything in prison is cracked down upon: food, clothes and even letters," Dawoud says.
According to Dawoud, the NSA officer in Tora Liman Prison, another maximum security facility in the complex, would sometimes force prisoners to rewrite their letters after redacting sections describing things like prison conditions, for example, to avoid them making it into the press or being circulated on social media.
Disseminating information about prison conditions can even lead to further prosecution, as was the case with imprisoned attorney Mohamed Ramadan in December 2020, when he was rotated into another case by the State Security Prosecution after he was ordered released on charges of "sending letters from prison with the intention of destabilization."
Relatives speaking with defendants at a Cairo court
Fear of being forgotten
Banning letters is a form of punishment and pressure that authorities deploy arbitrarily against prisoners, according to lawyer former detainee Mahienour al-Massry, who has spent time in prisons. She tells Mada Masr that following the reinstatement of prison visitations in August 2020, after they had been halted amid the coronavirus outbreak, the National Security officer in Qanater Women's Prison told her she had to choose between visitations and letter correspondence, but that she couldn't have both. Massry refused the ultimatum, and after negotiating with the officer, was eventually granted "exceptional" approval for both under the condition that she only send two letters a month.
"Even though letter correspondence from prison is a legal right that is non-negotiable, there were always negotiations and struggles about sending and receiving them, about how many letters were allowed, and about their content," she says. "Prisoners inside for criminal offenses were in a different situation from political prisoners. The latter had a chance to talk and negotiate, whereas the former did not."
Massry recalls a situation when the NSA officer in Qanater took back some letters that she had initially been allowed to receive. "He said, 'I don't have a reason. This was an order from the National Security Agency. You could try next time, maybe they will go through.' They are moody like that," Masry says. The letters were returned to the family, who then delivered them to Mahienour in a subsequent visit without any objections from the officer. Another time, a letter was confiscated because it had the term "son of a bitch," which the officer deemed "foul language."
Looking for something to say
During an earlier stint in prison in 2016 in Damanhour, Massry did not receive any letters for a month. When she went to the officer to inquire after them, she found that he had a pile of letters addressed to her on his desk. She says the officer simply told her: "Sorry, I didn't have time to go through them all."
After the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, letters to and from prison were banned for two months in Tora Prison Complex while visitations continued to be suspended until August. During this period the prison was overwhelmed with letters, as they were often the only form of communication with detainees. According to Dawoud, the National Security officer was unable to go through hundreds of letters a day, even with the help of another officer. After long negotiations, the officer finally approved the sending of letters to and from prison under the condition they did not exceed two passages.
Dawoud says that he used his letters to simply reassure his family with brief sentences. "Sometimes I couldn't find anything to say because on the one hand, I can't speak about prison conditions, otherwise the letter would be confiscated; and on the other hand I couldn't talk about personal issues," he says.
Despite that, the short letters were enough for Dawoud to check in on his father, who was battling cancer and eventually died. "One sentence was enough for me to know that he was okay. It was enough for me to be reassured," he says.
News about COVID-19
In certain cases, letters have taken on additional importance beyond allowing families and prisoners to check in on each other.
Samir says he was able to help out a foreign cellmate who was charged in a criminal case without the authorities ever informing his consulate or assigning him a lawyer. Samir was able to tell his wife about this prisoner in a letter, but he made sure to use coded language in order to evade surveillance.
Samir would also use coded language to pass on information about COVID-19 in prison that would otherwise be flagged and confiscated by the NSA officer. "We replaced the word 'corona' with 'mosquitoes.' I would write that someone had been bitten by mosquitoes yesterday, and my sister would understand what that meant," he says.
Using this simple code, Samir was able to communicate the prison's coronavirus situation to the outside world until the officer realized that someone was passing along information and pressured him to confess. "I had two choices: either lie and say that there was a mobile phone in the room, or tell him the truth. I told the truth," he says. As punishment, he was not permitted to exchange letters for a period before the officer finally allowed it again.
"The importance of letters does not just lie in their content," Gendy says. "They are also a testament that people outside still remember you, because the fear of being forgotten is every prisoner's worst nightmare."
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