Coca-Cola finally held to task over groundwater theft

From ToxicLeaks

The farming community of Rajasthan, northwest India, recently had unusual cause to celebrate when Coca-Cola's Kaladera plant suspended bottling. Although the soft drinks giant has been swift to claim this course of action is a direct result of the firm's commitment to the communities in which it operates (cue sardonic guffaw) the local farmers' action group has been lobbying for its closure since 2004. That Coca-Cola's commitment to the community takes 12 years to materialize tells a lot about how seriously they take it, but at least the farmers themselves can get on with the business to which they owe their lives and which the presence of the Kaladera bottling plant has done much to impede – i.e. the tending of their crops and especially the supply of water to maintain them. And this is where the contention has lain.

The Kaladera plant is just one of three in India where bottling has been suspended due to the impact it has had upon those regions' sparse groundwater reserves. Again, rather than accept culpability, Coca-Cola has made a big PR fuss about not only its continuing community commitment but also, in direct contradiction, claimed that the closures are part of an ongoing reorganization of corporate operations. A number of other bottling plants, however, are still continuing to use India's precious reserves of H2O at an alarming rate. The chief issue for India and its farmers, is that the poorer segments of society, of which this vast nation has many, fight an unceasing battle against starvation that only the productivity of its farms can stave off. And in this battle, the importance of groundwater, especially in the production of rice, is absolutely paramount. A slave to the monsoons, and dependent upon the deluge hopefully produced to fill its rivers and other water sources, the frequently irregular and unpredictable nature of this seasonal phenomenon is as capable of producing drought as it is plenty. Indeed, India has been singled out for the rapidity of its groundwater depletion, which is greater than any other nation in the world. And yet, Coca-Cola has thought nothing of trading in the welfare, and even lives, of those who exist near one of its bottling plants, for yet another quick and easy buck.

Coca-Cola's reaction to accusations that it is extracting water from underground aquifers at the expense of the livelihoods of local people, has been to suggest different watering methods for local farms, such as drip irrigation. However, not withstanding the point that such a stance is akin to stealing someone's house and then happily showing them how best to live under a bivouac, such solutions can be quite costly – not only in the materials needed but in training time, and transition time ion man hours to the farmers themselves. The 0.6 billion people employed in India's agricultural sector are unlikely to convert to Coca-Cola's methods as seamlessly as its clueless PR execs seem to think possible. Which makes even more ridiculous efforts a number of soft drinks firms to help by offering a guaranteed purchase of those crops produced by local farms. A move that would supposedly help “thousands”, ignoring the greater effect of the draining of aquifers and the hundreds of thousands that it may impact upon. The obvious point, that it is morally and ethically wrong to subject millions to the possibility of drought for the sake of a decent corporate return, seems to have been largely overlooked.

The farmers who had lived for generations where the Kaladera plant now stands, can celebrate a major victory against the soft drinks giant. Against a backdrop of soft accusation, that Coca-Cola is only responsible for a tiny percentage of water usage and that the problem is with the farmer's irrigation techniques rather than their own greed, local people are confident of a return to pre-production water levels and a bumper harvest in the coming years. And they are not the first to have taken Coca-Cola to task in expectation of a similar result. A plant in Kerala, in the south of India this time, went through almost exactly the same process in 2005, forced to close due to the intervention of a local action group which believed it was suffering from the plants excessive water usage. Again, in Tamil Nadu also. Despite Coca-Cola's self adopted halo of community concern, the residents of these three places at least had felt first hand the ill effects of excessive water usage and felt it enough to act upon. Of course, much of any success against a firm the size of Coca-Cola depends quite heavily upon the level of integrity inherent within the regional authorities, and in a nation beset by the shadow of corruption at all levels, such successes are likely to be few and far between.

And the issues don't just stop at water drainage. Coca-Cola's cavalier attitude towards the existence of communities, rooted in the targeted locales for centuries if not beyond, has had even more heinous consequences. Back in 2003, this approach was exposed in an investigation that was initiated, once again, by the complaints of local farmers regarding water depletion. However, it soon became apparent that the drain upon groundwater supplies was not the only issue in this case, as concerns were raised by scientists over a by-product sludge that Coca-Cola had been supplying to local farmers as a fertilizer. Although these concerns were made public, company spokesmen claimed their own investigations had proved the sludge had significant fertilizer-like properties and that the farmers who had used it had not aired any complaints. Unable to afford branded fertilizers, the farmers' acceptance of the product was understandable, even though, as it turned out, it had no beneficial effect at all upon crops using it. Less understandable, was the incredible oversight of Coca-Cola's technicians in failing to identify the presence of lead and cadmium in the fertilizing sludge. The toxic nature of lead is well recorded and cadmium is a known carcinogen: both are eminently detectable. However, in its desperate attempt to cut another corner and save yet another buck, this potential solution to the relatively costly issue of waste removal convinced Coca-Cola officials to look the other way. Not only then had Coca-Cola drained native water supplies on this occasion then, but it had also contaminated those same supplies as well as the entire food chain.

Coca-Cola's complete disregard for the environment and those people whose sustainable involvement in ecosystem services has been supplanted by the simple dollar value approach is, unfortunately, not an isolated example. Its closest rival in the soft drinks market, Pepsico, has also been caught up in similar controversies, being accused in 2010 of extracting excessive quantities of water from the already arid state of Palakkad. Furthermore, in 2003, high levels of pesticides were found in Pepsicola drinks, spurred the relevant authorities on to declare that they were outright unfit for human consumption. Possibly Coca-Cola's greatest rival however, at least in its blatant disregard for environmental issues, is the Swiss giant, Nestle. Worth $247 billion compared to Coca-Cola's $190 billion, according to Forbes, it would almost seem as though there is a direct negative correlation between financial value and corporate responsibility, Nestle constantly under the spotlight for its irresponsible greed. Putting aside the dispute over its powdered milk that saw a boycott of the product in three of the worlds most influential nations, and the recent revelations of that it has benefited from slave labor in several parts of the developing world, it has also recently been in the news for its own indiscretions regarding groundwater usage – and this time a little closer to home. California is now approaching the fifth year of a drought that has significantly affected local communities and farms. However, much as Coca-Cola in India, this has not stopped Nestle from extracting huge amounts of valuable groundwater from underneath the feet of those who need it most – 27 million gallons a year. To Nestle, which holds a monopoly over 70% of the entire globe's bottled water production, such volumes are, literally, a drop in the ocean. Yet to the people of California, and especially its farmers, this amount could be the difference between creating a healthy surplus or suffering bankruptcy. Most bizarrely of all, however, this extraction has largely been done from a reserve which lies on public land underneath a protected national forest on a permit which expired in 1988. To date, there have been no repercussions for this obvious and illegal theft of a public resource.

And therein lies the rub.

Whether due to relatively small amounts of money changing hands at a district level, or the influence of entire governments in ensuring that the world's multinationals maintain production within the relevant nation's borders, money makes far more noise than the protests of those who are losing their livelihoods. Even the greatest and grandest can be bought, it would seem, by those faceless corporations who financially have the most to gain by the excessive and unfair exploitation of the planet's natural resources. Water, it might be argued, is the most valuable of all these, and yet, when stolen from the rightful claimants, the repercussions are almost non-existent. It is clear, that apart from a small amount of lip service and nominal concession, that this will always be the case until someone somewhere, some dedicated international body, starts to contest the illegalities of corporate exploitation. In a world where the success of the farming community at the Kaladera plant is an occasional blip on the corporate radar, the likes of Coca-Cola must be held accountable for their actions – and before the damage caused is irreversible.