Diakonia - People change the world

Water shortage in Peru - Swedish companies' responsibility

The significant export of asparagus from the Ica region in southern Peru has led to a severe water shortage, making villagers sick and preventing small farmers from providing for their families. Diakonia’s partner organization Codehica works to ensure access to water for both the local population and the farmers, as well as improving the rights of the plantation workers.

“We have worked with Codehica in the Ica region for several years, including on the issue of the right to water. The methods can vary, as it covers everything from education to micro-projects,” says Åsa Beckius, policy adviser private sector.

One of the farmers badly affected by the situation is Santos Cerrato De La Cruz from the farming cooperative Pachacútec.

“Each day, our crops provide us with less and less to eat. Our water should be used for our crops, our land should give us food, but that’s not the way it is,” he states despairingly, before adding:

“You’re eating our water!” 

The aim: to increase awareness

In November 2018, Diakonia and Swedwatch issued the report To The Last Drop. It shows how large-scale asparagus planting causes severe water shortages in the Ica valley and that Swedish food companies – which buy asparagus, avocados, and grapes from the Ica valley – recognize the situation but are falling short in their follow-up of the suppliers’ impact on people and the environment.

“The aim of the report was to increase awareness of the water shortage in the Ica valley among the Swedish purchasers, to work for them to achieve a sustainability mindset throughout the supply chain and to carry out what is known as Human Rights Due Diligence,” says Åsa Beckius.

Human Rights Due Diligence: the process that a company should have in place in order to identify, prevent and mitigate the adverse human rights impacts which may occur in conjunction with the company’s business. It is a central tool of the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, which Sweden has undertaken to follow.

The report has also been received with great interest by the Swedish food companies concerned, the Peruvian minister of commerce, the Swedish minister of commerce, and the Swedish embassy in Peru.

“The Swedish companies say that the report has been important and has led to internal discussions in terms of what key requirements they can make of their suppliers,” says Åsa Beckius, adding:

“We will follow up on the report next year, when we will hopefully see which concrete changes it has led to.”

Participated in a field trip

She highlights that the report has already resulted in a new role for Diakonia’s Peruvian partner organization Codehica. The organization had previously been met with mistrust and was accused of putting key jobs at risk. However, the organization now has a wider remit and is invited to participate in discussions with the companies.

The export companies are accused of breaking the ban on digging new or deeper wells. The agricultural sector, dominated by large export companies, consumes 90 percent of the groundwater. Photo: Claes Herrlander

The new role is partly the result of three Swedish companies (of the seven covered in the report) participating in a field trip over several days, meeting local actors together with Codehica, Diakonia, Swedwatch and SIWI. The companies also participated in a panel discussion in the Ica valley at the time the report was issued locally.

“During the panel discussion, the Swedish companies explained that the water shortage – and how it impacts the local population – is a problem for both them and their customers. This was a hugely important message to the Peruvian agricultural companies and other actors who were there, not least because it was expressed by the foreign purchasers,” says Åsa Beckius.

Not encouraging a boycott 

She states that major economic interests are at stake. The agricultural industry is incredibly important in this area. It has contributed to economic development, the creation of jobs and tax revenue, and many are worried that the jobs will disappear.

 “But we’re not encouraging a boycott; we’re not saying ‘stop buying asparagus’. That would be the simple solution. The difficult and necessary solution is to achieve sustainable farming that takes everyone’s water needs into consideration.”

Asparagus fields in the Ica Valley in southern Peru generate large export income, but have resulted in an acute shortage of water. Photo: Claes Herrlander

Codehica will now – with the support of Diakonia – create a permanent dialogue forum where actors such as representatives from the local community, plantation workers, small-scale farmers, water authorities and agricultural companies can meet and discuss these issues. A key step, according to Åsa Beckius, who points out that the report identified failings in open dialogue as a huge problem in achieving sustainable development.

A need for legal incentives

The report also mentioned that Sweden has undertaken to work towards sustainable enterprise and to follow the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Nevertheless, repeat audits show that Swedish business is not doing enough to ensure that human rights are respected in their customer and supply chains.

“I believe that we need legislation and legal incentives, otherwise nothing will ever happen,” says Åsa Beckius.

She highlights how some companies are now making a huge effort in this area and championing the cause, whilst others are doing nothing – which threatens to distort the competition.

“Legislation would also even out the competition,” she says.

In the work on the report, drafted together with Swedwatch and Codehica, Diakonia’s partner CEPES has also played a key role, as has SIWI, the Stockholm International Water Institute.