Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Drinking the world dry

Despite its claim 'to benefit and refresh everyone it touches', Coca-Cola has been increasingly accused of destroying communities and the environment around the world

May 1, 2006
6 min read

Coca-Cola is one of the most recognisable brands in the world. The company claims to adhere to the “highest ethical standards” and to be “an outstanding corporate citizen in every community we serve”. Yet Coca-Cola’s activities around the world tell a different story. Coca-Cola has been accused of dehydrating communities in its pursuit of water resources to feed its own plants, drying up farmers’ wells and destroying local agriculture. The company has also violated workers’ rights in countries such as Colombia, Turkey, Guatemala and Russia. Only through its multi-million dollar marketing campaigns can Coca-Cola sustain the clean image it craves.

The company admits that without water it would have no business at all. Coca-Cola’s operations rely on access to vast supplies of water; it takes almost three litres of water to make one litre of Coca-Cola. In order to satisfy this need, Coca-Cola is increasingly taking over control of aquifers in communities around the world. These vast subterranean chambers hold water resources collected over many hundreds of years. As such they represent the heritage of entire communities.

Coca-Cola’s operations have particularly been blamed for exacerbating water shortages in regions that suffer from a lack of water resources and rainfall. Nowhere has this been better documented than in India, where there are now community campaigns against the company in several states. New research carried out by War on Want in the Indian states of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, confirms theories that Coca-Cola’s activities are having a serious negative impact on farmers and local communities.

Coca-Cola established a bottling plant in the village of Kaladera in Rajasthan at the end of 1999. Rajasthan is well known as a desert state, and Kaladera is a small, impoverished village characterised by semi-arid conditions. Farmers rely on access to groundwater for the cultivation of their crops, but since Coca-Cola’s arrival they have been confronted with a serious decline in water levels. Locals are increasingly unable to irrigate their lands and sustain their crops, putting whole families at risk of losing their livelihoods.

Local villagers testify that Coca-Cola’s arrival exacerbated an already precarious situation. Official documents from the Government’s water ministry show that water levels remained stable from 1995 until 2000, when the Coca-Cola plant became operational. Water levels then dropped by almost 10 metres over the following five years. Locals now fear that Kaladera could become a “dark zone”, the term used to describe areas that are abandoned due to depleted water resources.

Other communities in India that live and work around Coca-Cola’s bottling plants are experiencing severe water shortages as well as environmental damage. Local villagers near the holy city of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh complain that the company’s over-exploitation of water resources has taken a heavy toll on their harvests and led to the drying up of wells. As in Rajasthan and Kerala, villagers have been holding protests against the local Coca-Cola plant for its appropriation of valuable water resources.

In the now infamous case of Plachimada in the southern state of Kerala, Coca-Cola’s plant was forced to close down in March 2004 after the village council refused to renew the company’s licence on the grounds that it had over-used and contaminated local water resources. Four months earlier, the Kerala High Court had ruled that Coca-Cola’s heavy extraction from the common groundwater resource was illegal, and ordered it to seek alternative sources for its production.

In 2003 the independent Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) tested Coca-Cola beverages and found levels of pesticides around 30 times higher than European Union standards. Levels of DDT, which is banned in agriculture in India, were nine times higher than the EU limit. In February 2004 Indian MPs who investigated CSE’s studies upheld these findings and the Parliament went on to ban Coca-Cola from its cafeterias.

War on Want’s “alternative report” also details how Coca-Cola is having a devastating impact on water resources elsewhere. In El Salvador, the company has been accused of exhausting water resources over a 25-year period. In Chiapas, Coca-Cola is positioning itself to take control of the water resources. The Mexican government under Vicente Fox – himself a former President of Coca-Cola Mexico – has given the company concessions to exploit community water resources.

Coca-Cola’s own workers have also suffered and the company is being increasingly associated with anti-union activities. The most notable case is in Colombia where paramilitaries have killed eight Coca-Cola workers since 1990. The main Coca-Cola trade union, Sinaltrainal, is seeking to hold Coca-Cola liable for using paramilitaries to engage in anti-union violence.

Coca-Cola is being sued on behalf of transport workers and their families for its part in the alleged intimidation and torture of trade unionists and their families by special branch police in Turkey. In Nicaragua, workers of the main Coca-Cola union, SUTEC, have been denied the right to organise and the General Secretary, Daniel Reyes, believes that the objective of this ongoing and escalating campaign is to crush the union.

Guatemalan workers have been struggling against Coca-Cola since the 1970s. In the years between 1976 and 1985, three general secretaries of the main union were assassinated and members of their families, friends and legal advisers were threatened, arrested, kidnapped, shot, tortured and forced into exile. The violations of workers’ rights continue, and Coca-Cola workers and their family members with ties to unions have reportedly been subjected to death threats. Elsewhere in countries such as Peru, Russia and Chile, Coca-Cola workers have been protesting against the company’s anti-union policies.

Coca-Cola claims to exist “to benefit and refresh everyone it touches” and to try to sustain this positive image the company spends $2 billion a year on advertising alone. Yet there are signs that the image is beginning to crumble. At the recent Winter Olympics the relay carrying the Olympic flame was repeatedly disrupted by protests at Coca-Cola’s role as the principal sponsor, with the Turin council actually declaring the city a no-go zone for the company (a decision subsequently overruled by the mayor). War on Want demonstrated outside the UK leg of the Coca-Cola sponsored World Cup Tour. The company is promoting a sporty image of itself through sponsorship of events such as the World Cup, but is not playing fair with its workers and with local communities around the world.

Coca-Cola’s operations have had a devastating impact on the environment and workers’ rights around the world. By exposing these abuses and campaigning in solidarity with these affected communities, we can send a strong signal to our elected leaders that corporate abuses are unacceptable. War on Want is calling on the UK government to put in place a series of laws that hold companies like Coca-Cola to account for their operations overseas.For more information and to join War on Want go to: www.waronwant.org or to order a printed copy of the report, e-mail jzacune[at]waronwant.org

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun


24