Game of Drones: Dron help a brave women journalist to reveal big companies are draining local water supplies in Peru and Colombia
In the parched Peruvian province of Ica , where a state of water emergency has been in effect since 2005, an unlikely business is booming: the cultivation of asparagus for export. The flourishing green stalks in the middle of the desert raised the suspicions of Fabiola Torres, a journalist and a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. She suspected big Peruvian agriculture companies were violating the province’s rules for water usage and earning millions of dollars exporting Peru ’s prized asparagus by depleting scarce water supplies for local families and smaller farmers. But when she traveled to Ica , some two hundred miles south of Lima at the edge of the Atacama Desert , she found the agribusiness properties were walled off, and no one was willing to talk. “It was a hostile zone,” said Torres, the editor of the investigative website Ojo Publico, which has partnered with ICIJ on its Paradise Papers and Panama Papers investigations. “The only ones there are the agro-exporters and their security guards.”
So Torres decided on a novel approach: she launched a drone. Soaring a hundred meters above the desert, remotely piloted by Ojo Publico reporters, the drone gathered footage that quickly confirmed Torres’ suspicions. It showed the companies’ properties dotted with illegal wells that were extracting subterranean water from beneath the desert, sometimes camouflaged beneath green mats. The result was a system that allowed agricultural companies to deplete underground water supplies with impunity as Ica struggled with drought. First in Peru and then in Colombia the reporters came to the same startling conclusion: big companies were able to appropriate water supplies because the state was giving a green light to their conduct. The Journalists had uncovered a different kind of water abuse in Colombia: appropriation linked to the country’s long and deadly civil conflict and when the original residents returned home, they were met with an unwelcome surprise: the public irrigation system had been diverted to serve a large palm oil company, Oleoflores. The government had concluded that the agrarian reform that granted land rights to the farmers had failed. Oleoflores began its operations in the region in 2000 and has retained its control over the irrigation system In Ica, water shortages have sparked conflicts between local farmers and companies growing asparagus and other export crops that resulted in physical assaults against the farmers, according to a 2015 report by the Desert Sun, a newspaper in southern California, and USA Today. The farmers said the companies’ depletion of underground aquifers had damaged their crops and provoked shortages of drinking water.
Meanwhile, asparagus has become big business, accounting for $420 million in exports in 2016 and making Peru the world’s leading asparagus exporter. Most of Peru ’s asparagus is sent to the United States , followed by exports to Spain and the United Kingdom . The power of wealthy companies to take water with state approval is a critical topic. Water is the conflict of this century.