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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

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