News & Politics

It's the Real Thing -- Thievery and Corruption

To the indigenous people of Kerala, Coca-Cola Corp. is a thief operating with impunity -- polluting their land, killing their crops, stealing their water and selling it back to them as sugary soda and bottled water.

No Shame: Defacing the Himalayas for a Buck

The Supreme Court of India has charged the Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo, Inc. with crimes against nature. The offense: Painting huge, garish advertisements on the base of the Himalayas in an ecologically threatened region in violation of environmental and advertising laws.

The advertisements were discovered along a 56 kilometer stretch of road in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh, painted on massive rock outcroppings to be visible to passing cars. It is against the law in India to advertise anywhere without a permit. The destruction caused grave concern among geologists and biologists who use the area to conduct studies of the fragile ecology of the mountain range. And that's on top of the offense to the good sensibilities of any sane person assaulted by commercial messages in and on the Himalayas!

Remediation of the offending advertisements remains to be determined; paint-thinners would create further pollution, but weather and erosion alone could take decades to eliminate the eyesores.

So far the court has asked both companies to pay a paltry $62,000 each in penalties and restitution.

The global politics of water, especially corporate-led privatization fueled by dire shortages in developing countries, is at the heart of everything wrong with globalization. Children in developing countries now drink more soft drinks than they do fresh water, often because a can of Coke is cheaper or more readily available than a clean-running tap. And nowhere is that more evident than in Kerala, India.

I spent a week in India with Vandana Shiva earlier this month, lecturing on corporate responsibility and learning loads about biodiversity and the struggle against multinational agribusiness. Still, it seems, we spend all of our time refuting the popular myth that corporate globalization alleviates poverty by bringing Western "advancement," "civilization" and "opportunity" to developing nations. One of the participants at Vandana's conference pulled me aside to tell me about the Coca-Cola company's criminal activities in Kerala.

Coca-Cola is anything but a savior to the indigenous people (Adivasis) and members of the oppressed castes (Dalits) around Kerala. To them, Coca-Cola Corp. is a thief operating with impunity, polluting their land, killing their crops, stealing their water and then selling it back to them as fizzy sugar drinks, and ironically, bottled water.

Coca-Cola opened a bottling plant in Plachimada in 1998, in the center of agricultural land where a bountiful variety of crops have grown for centuries, providing work and sustenance for the indigenous people. As soon as the first nail was hammered, the plant was in violation of India's Land Utilization Act, which forbids agricultural land from being converted for non-agricultural use. Where thousands of locals once worked the land for a living, just 100 local residents are employed at the plant, and another 150 as casual laborers who have no job security or appreciable benefits.

The plant drilled more than 60 deep wells on the land in two years, and extracts between 600,000 and 1.5 million liters of water each day, at absolutely no cost to Coca-Cola. The aquifer is so overtapped, the water table has dropped below a measurable level in many areas. The three agricultural reservoirs in the region have dried up completely. What remains of the groundwater is polluted by runoff and rampant dumping along the banks of canals on the plant property.

For every bottle of Coca-Cola produced by the plant, three bottles of water are lost to the production process. Chemical processes for cleaning bottles and mixing ingredients leave tons of effluent that the plant allows to run back onto the ground. In the first year of the plant's operation, Coke actually told local farmers that the slurry was good fertilizer; those who used it said the smell was revolting, and the crops treated with the gunk withered.

Water samples tested from the area's aquifer show the water is extremely hard, and thick with excess salt, calcium and magnesium, indicating that the limestone that lines the aquifers is being degraded by over-use.

The meager amounts of water that can still be extracted from the indigenous peoples' wells are unfit for irrigating their fields, let alone for bathing or drinking. Those who drink it or bathe in it have reported stomach illnesses and skin rashes. Their crops no longer grow; they have to travel dozens of kilometers before dawn to outlying villages to gather as much clean water as they can haul back home, before leaving for work, some of them at the Coca-Cola plant that has caused the local disaster. And to add insult to injury, sometimes they are forced to buy bottled water from Coca-Cola.

This is development? Where is Coca-Cola's conscience in all this?

When the local Adivasis, primarily from the Eravalar and Malasar tribes, pleaded with Coca-Cola, they were turned away and told that the corporation could mine water anywhere and however it liked on its own land.

When the villagers appealed to the government to propose some fair system of water conservation and distribution, they were met with deafening silence. That didn't surprise them; Coca-Cola has shared its wealth handsomely with local and national political officials, and has been exempted from any number of laws and restrictions, including the long-standing protectionist rule that demands all transnational corporate subsidiaries doing business in India be at least 60 percent owned by shareholders living in the country.

In April, more than 2,000 Adivasi picketed the plant, demanding its closure. At least 50 Adivasi and Dalits picket the plant peacefully every day in a symbol of the ongoing struggle. On June 9, 130 peaceful protestors, including 30 women and nine children, were arrested by police at the request of Coca-Cola.

In response to the protests, Coca-Cola briefly delivered free bottled water to surrounding villages, an act that amounts to an admission of guilt. But still, the Indian government refuses to hold Coca-Cola accountable.

But you can. How? Refuse to drink or buy Coca-Cola, and be sure to tell them why. Send an email to Coca-Cola's corporate offices here, or write to Coca-Cola via snail mail at: The Coca-Cola Company, P.O. Box 1734, Atlanta, GA, 30301.

Anita Roddick is the founder of The Body Shop and a lifelong activist. Email her at [email protected].
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