Saturday, May 27, 2006

Are Coke’s Spinning Wheels Coming Off?

Coca Cola spends about 70% of its profits on media, image building and publicity. And yet, at the share holders’ meeting in Delaware, under pressure from a large number of global communities for its unethical practices, its wheels seemed to be coming off.

Coke was expecting flak for its role in Plachimada where reports by BBC and state environmental board has shown high amounts of heavy metals in effluents dumped in fields of local farmers and in the groundwater. It showed two clips – one saying the Coke’s rainwater harvesting programs have caused lush green agricultural conditions in the area and that they have provided employment in an area of high unemployment.

In fact, Coke has aggressively presented itself as the savior of water. And yet, it had no answer when presented with facts. Kiran, from AID pointed out that Coke’s claim to conserve water is completely unjustified. A single bottling plant in Mehdiganj – another site of protests in India – withdraws over 180 million liters of water annually – as per numbers presented by Coke. On the other hand, its rain water harvesting programs recharge only 10 million liters – again as per Coke numbers. So what kind of conservation is this?

Coke has had no comments. For one, it was not prepared for Mehdiganj. Second, an employee of Coke – apparently a scientist – tried to wiggle out with a fatuous comment that water cannot be created nor destroyed and that there was no water shortage in the area. This at a time when the local government in Mehdiganj and other blocks in the neighborhood has already announced water levels to be critical and has banned withdrawal of water from larger bore wells. And yet, Coke – with the largest borewells in the area – continues to withdraw millions.

It has had no comment to charges of corruption and of illegal occupation of land – charges upheld by local Indian courts. The best it would do is say that Coke products are a choice to consumers. That people around these plants are very happy with Coke. That Coke also gives scholarships to students to student in Atlanta. Non Sequitur anyone?

About a dozen people spoke about the unethical practices of Coke with respect to water, to wages, to labor rights – and for most part, the spin machine chose to ignore it or respond with inane statements.

And yet, the pressure on Coke seems to be growing. Coke sent an 8 member team to UCLA to respond to student groups demanding the UCLA’s contract with Coke be cancelled in light of its unethical practices. During the discussion, a number of questions including copies of court orders regarding Coke’s corrupt practices in India, its illegal occupation of land as well as high heavy metals in its effluents were presented. However, the Coke team seemed not ready for these and pleaded to come back once more. With 8 more people perhaps?

In India, the indefinite strike continues in Mehdiganj. More filmmakers from Europe – this time from Sweden – visited to document the continued ethical malfunctioning of Coke. The campaign is now planning to organize a one-day program including Rajender Singh – another Magsasay winner and water conservationist. Besides Rajender Singh, other local civic society leaders have kept their visits in solidarity with the campaign. But perhaps, the biggest strength of the campaign has been the local farmers, who continue to keep on the strike despite their own crops being affected by bad weather.

At the same time, Plachimada marked its 4th anniversary of the struggle with a gathering. In the weeks leading to the anniversary, the local union of bank employees presented a check to the movement and promised their solidarity with the people of Plachimada in their demand for justice from Coke’s activities.

With the state legislative elections approaching, events marking the 4th anniversary were smaller. Prof. M. N. Vijayan, a well known social activist and philosopher, inaugurated the functions in front of the gate to Hindustan CocaCola Bottling Company.

A press release from the Plachimada resistance pointed out that
The struggle has achieved much with Coca Cola unable to function since March 2004. The bottling plant has been unable to open because the local village council is refusing to reissue a license to operate. The village council has maintained that the plant needs to shut down because it has destroyed the water system in the area as well as polluted the area. Coca cola is guilty of destroying the lives and livelihoods of the tribal community of the Plachimada. Now, the matter is under judicial review of Supreme Court of India.

But, in a significant move, the state government of Kerala has joined the community in its struggle by appealing Coca Cola’s right to extract water to the Supreme Court of India in September 2005. The Kerala State Pollution Control Board has also issued a stop order notice to the plant because of pollution. All these are mile stones in our struggle. But the goal has not been yet achieved. It will be, when compensation for the victims who are affected is given, when the Coca Cola quits and ends its legal battle with us…

And yet, Coca Cola continues its history of spinning its public relations wheels – hoping somehow that its gigantic media presence will keeps its profits flowing in. However, with more and more communities joining in presenting their concerns against the operations of Coke – universities in the USA, in Europe, communities in Germany, increasing number of communities in India, Colombia – perhaps Coca Cola needs to understand that it might have to change its unethical practices where it continues to earn profits by dumping its dumping its externalities on local communities.