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 images provided a striking illustration of a similar finding by Peru’s National Water Authority, which reported last year that 314 of 474 wells in Ica province were unlicensed.
Instead of confronting the companies, Peruvian authorities granted licenses after the fact to many illegally drilled wells, Ojo Publico found. The result was a system that allowed agricultural companies to deplete underground water supplies with impunity as Ica struggled with drought.
The findings were part of the cross-border investigation Los Acuatenientes (The Water Keepers), published by Ojo Publico in partnership with the Colombian outlets Verdad Abierta and Rutas del Conflicto.
In both countries, reporters traveled to the countryside and launched news drones to investigate how powerful companies monopolized water resources at the expense of vulnerable local communities.
In Peru and 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 idea for the collaboration began with Ivonne Rodriguez, a reporter for Verdad Abierta, a website that covers justice and armed conflict in Colombia.
Rodriguez approached Torres at a journalism conference in November 2017 with an idea for a cross-border investigation into misappropriation of water resources.
The two worked together to develop a proposal for the project and won a grant the following month from the Institute for Press and Society (IPYS), a nonprofit group that promotes investigative journalism in Latin America.
Rodriguez had uncovered a different kind of water abuse in Colombia: appropriation linked to the country’s long and deadly civil conflict.
Between 1996 and 2003, paramilitaries terrorized farming communities in a mountainous area of northern Colombia, with tactics that included the brutal massacres of men, women and children. The attacks forced the farm families, who had benefited from fertile soil, an agrarian reform that gave them land rights and a public irrigation system, to abandon their lands. They joined the ranks of more than 34,000 people in the region displaced over three decades.
The whole world is focused on land… this is a tiny little piece of a whole sea of stories.
In 2005, Colombia’s leading paramilitary group disbanded, and the former residents began to return to their town. Several years later, paramilitary fighters were convicted for their crimes in one of the massacres, the first sentences issued under Colombia’s transitional justice system, and the municipality of Maria La Baja was made a priority for land restitution. The sentences were held up as a triumph for the country’s post-conflict approach to justice.
Rodriguez’s investigation found that the official story was missing a crucial piece. 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 and invited the Colombian company to come in and develop Maria La Baja. Oleoflores began its operations in the region in 2000, the same year as two of the bloodiest massacres, and has retained its control over the irrigation system.
The returning farm families not only lacked water for their crops, Rodriguez found, they didn’t even have potable drinking water.
Rodriguez believes that the fight for water resources is a massive untold story in Colombia’s civil conflict.
“The whole world is focused on land,” Rodriguez said, contrasting the country’s widely covered disputes over land rights with her findings on water appropriation. “This is a tiny little piece of a whole sea of stories.”
Torres shares the view that scarcity of water resources, and their monopolization by powerful actors, represents a problem of growing urgency.
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, Torres said, is a topic that lends itself to cross-border investigations of the kind she did with Rodriguez.
“There are issues of global interest that are possible to investigate with particular methodologies,” Torres said. “Water is the conflict of this century.”