Coca Cola butchers employees in Colombia

On the morning of December 5, 1996, two members of a paramilitary gang drove a motorcycle to the Carepa Coca-Cola bottling plant in northern Colombia. They fired 10 shots at worker and union activist Isidro Segundo Gil, killing him. Luis Adolso Cardona, a fellow worker, witnessed the assassination. “I was working and I heard the gun shots and then I saw Isidro Gil falling,” he said in a recent interview. “I ran, but when I got there Isidro was already dead.”

 

A few hours later, paramilitary officials detained Cardona, but he escaped, fleeing to the police office, where he received protection. Around midnight that night, the paramilitaries looted the local union office and set it on fire. “There was nothing left. Only the walls,” said Cardona. The paramilitary group returned to the plant the next week, lined up the 60 unionized workers, and ordered them to sign a prepared letter of resignation from the union. Everyone did. Two months later, all the workers—including those who had never belonged to the union—were fired.

Gil, 27, had worked at the plant for eight years. His wife, Alcira Gil, protested her husband’s killing and demanded reparations from Coca-Cola. She was killed by paramilitaries in 2000, leaving their two daughters orphaned. A Colombian judge later dropped the charges against Gil’s alleged killers.

Paramilitaries, violent right-wing forces composed of professional soldiers and common thugs, maintain bases at several Coca-Cola bottling facilities in Colombia, allegedly to protect the bottlers from left-wing militants who might target the plants as symbols of globalisation.

Activists say at least eight union activists have been killed by paramilitaries at Colombian Coca-Cola facilities since 1989. And plaintiffs in a recent series of lawsuits hold Coca-Cola and two of its bottlers responsible for the violence, alleging “systematic intimidation, kidnapping, detention, and murder of trade unionists in Colombia, South America at the hands of paramilitaries working as agents of corporations doing business in that country.”

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, as 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 the 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. Research carried out by War on Want in the Indian states of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh affirms the findings from Kerala and Maharastra 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. 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 fear 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 held 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 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.

Besides these issues, War on Want’s Alternative Report on Coca-Cola also details how Coca-Cola is having a devastating impact of 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 dosens 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 of SUTEC, Daniel Reyes, believes 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. 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).

University campuses throughout the world have voted to cancel contracts with Coca-Cola in protest at its operations, and in solidarity with the community resistance, which has escalated in many countries across the world. It is up to us to keep up the pressure on Coca-Cola and also send a strong message to our elected leaders to rein in irresponsible business practices.

 

Anthony Lang

October 21, 2010

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