Coca-Cola and Water Resources in Chiapas

Coca-Cola is present in almost all of the 194 countries that exist in the world today. It is estimated that the average global consumption of Coke is more than 1 billion cans or bottles daily, or about 12,500 per second. And while for many of us, Coke has been a big part of our lives, the corporation that produces it does serious damage to the world’s communities and resources. Coca-Cola is notorious for their anti-union stance and their affront on public health and the environment. Here in Mexico, currently the number one Coca-Cola consuming nation in the world, the situation is even more serious. The impact that Coca-Cola has had on the water supply in Mexico, and more specifically here in Chiapas, is astounding, and has created a crisis that shows no sign of improving.

By Monica Wooters

FEMSA, based in Monterrey, Mexico, is the largest Coca-Cola bottler in Latin America and the second largest bottler in the world. After the invention of Coke in 1886, it was quickly exported to Mexico, the first sales of the beverage here having been registered in 1897. Understandably, the market for Coca-Cola in Mexico has deep seated roots. This can be seen in many forms. Most shocking of these examples are its uses in indigenous communities in Chiapas. In San Juan Chamula, Coca-Cola has attained a religious significance, replacing traditional beverages in their sacred cleansing rituals. This love affair with Coke is in part due to the vast amounts of money spent on advertising in Mexico, some 500 million USD annually. In addition, Coca-Cola asserts their hold on the market in more insidious ways, by imposing quotas on small shop owners in return for gifts such as tables, chairs and refrigerators, all emblazoned with the Coca-Cola insignia, of course. Perhaps the most disturbing reason for the immense consumption Coke is the lack of potable water. Some 12 million people in Mexico have no access to piped water and 32 million have no access to proper sewage. This resource monopolization simultaneously creates a scarce water supply and a conveniently abundant Coke supply. Mexico is now the number two consumer of bottled water in the world, a large percentage of which is sold by Coca-Cola, ironically enough.

The process of making Coca-Cola utilizes two liters of water to make one liter of Coke. However, some studies cite the ratio as high as 5:1. Thus it is easy to see how important it is for a large corporation like Coca-Cola to secure water resources. Due to this immense water demand, FEMSA literally drains the country of its resources. Since 2000, Coca-Cola has negotiated 27 water concessions with the Mexican government which gives them the right to extract water from 19 aquifers and 15 rivers, many of which are found within indigenous territories. They have also acquired an additional 8 concessions allowing the company to dump waste in public waters. These concessions mark a major step toward the complete privatization of water in Mexico. However, despite its great resource wealth, the country receives relatively little in compensation. In 2003 FEMSA paid a mere $29 thousand (USD) for their water concessions in Mexico, while in 2004 their profits at the San Cristobal bottling plant alone reached $40 million (USD). A quick calculation shows that Coca-Cola spent 0.072% of their 2004 San Cristobal profits for the rights to use their entire water supply of 2003 in all of Mexico.

Being one of the most resource rich states in the country, it is interesting to examine the company’s impact on Chiapas, where the fight for water resources is already heated. Chiapas receives about 50% of the countrywide rainfall in Mexico and claims a large percentage of the surface water to be found in the country. The FEMSA bottling plant in San Cristobal de las Casas is located at the foot of Huitepec, a mountain overlooking the city, in part protected by a Zapatista ecological reserve. Huitepec sits directly above a huge underground aquifer, a key strategic water source for Coca-Cola. In 2004, Coca-Cola used enough water (107 million liters) to supply water to 200,000 homes, which is in fact more homes than currently exist in San Cristobal. All of this sucking up of water has created major concern. There is no public record of the actual size of the aquifer below Huitepec. However, it is known that FEMSA has begun looking for new sources of water elsewhere in Chiapas. This could mean that the water is running low in Huitepec, and an impending scarcity of water for this heavily populated area in the Chiapan Highlands. To make matters worse, the waste that is created by this plant is often toxic, containing lead, cadmium and chromium. San Cristobal has yet to impose controls on dumping, and is at risk of contaminating its water table, from which the city draws its running water.

Moreover, the Mexican government does not recognize indigenous communities as possible beneficiaries of water resources and therefore does not allow these communities to participate in the legal proceedings surrounding the water concessions. There exist 6 indigenous communities located on the slopes of Huitepec, who maintain the forests and topsoil of the mountain, helping to restore the aquifer below. These actions are not recognized by the government, which has yet to grant any water concessions to these communities. Meanwhile FEMSA, which does nothing to sustain the aquifer, has achieved a veritable legal monopoly over its water rights. The San Andres Accords of 1996, signed by the Mexican government and the Zapatista National Liberation Army, addressed this very point of contention and injustice. However in 2001, the legislative branch of the Mexican government signed into law a measure that completely overturned the agreements made in 1996.

The fact is that the world is already seeing a water shortage. As the former Vice President of the World Bank stated, perhaps in a sensationalist manner, “the next world war will be over water.” Indigenous and impoverished communities will be the first to feel the effects of this crisis. The struggle to secure this precious resource has already begun and is evident in international agreements like the SPPNA (Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America) and locally in the case of the Zapatista ecological reserve at Huitepec. It remains to be seen how this struggle will end, but it is obvious that controls put on Coca-Cola, or lack thereof, will play a major part.