Sunday, November 21, 2010

coca-cola crimes: part 1

Since this blog has already tainted my enjoyment of coffee, chocolate, chicken, toys, technology, and clothing, I was wondering what I could add to the list of things we love to consume as United Statesians, but destroy our planet and the lives of other people around the world. What could be dearer to the hearts of Atlantans than Coca-Cola?

I most definitely limit my consumption of Coke for nutritional reasons, but have for years sung the praises of its tastiness and unquestionable superiority to Pepsi. What I’m saying is: I drink Coke. But should I? Should you? Does the Coca-Cola company have any skeletons in their closet?

As usual, I shared my desire to ruin Coke for my readers with my husband. As usual, he had something interesting and helpful to share with me: He often works at the Georgia World Congress Center, which is very close to the World of Coke museum in downtown Atlanta. He told me that he has seen an advertising truck driving around Centennial Olympic park promoting the web site and playing music and messages over loudspeakers to raise awareness about “killer coke.” Hmmm . . . Is this a health issue? Nope. To my incredible surprise, is trying to raise awareness of Coca-Cola bottling plant abuses in Guatemala and Colombia. Further research showed that coke has also created quite a few enemies in India as well. First, the story of Coca-Cola in India:

Coke opened a bottling plant in the Plachimada community in India in 2000. Since then, the companies practices have contributed (greatly) to a lack of water for the community (because Coke’s wells are sucking up all of the water) and pollution (because Coke’s waste and product are toxic). Local farmers have been affected the most. Aside from their water supply being depleted, they are being pandered to by the company by having Coke’s “toxic sludge” marketed to them as fertilizer. This “fertilizer” has been shown to contain high levels of cadmium, a carcinogen that can build up in the kidneys causing serious illness. The cadmium has now spread to the ground water as well. (More here:

The high levels of pesticides (yes, pesticides) that have been found IN the actual Coca-Cola products in this region have led many farmers to simply spray Coke on their fields rather than purchase the actual pesticides themselves! Other farmers who cannot take watching the destruction of their crops and land have simply resorted to suicide—over 20,000 farmers in Western and Southern India have commit suicide in the last ten years. Not all of these can be blamed directly or only on Coca-Cola, but the company is definitely playing a role in the devastation of this region of our planet. And while the people suffered, Coke’s profits soared since it was withdrawing the water for free and paying very little for waste disposal. (This situation is further detailed here: AIYER, A. (2007). THE ALLURE OF THE TRANSNATIONAL: Notes on Some Aspects of the Political Economy of Water in India Cultural Anthropology, 22, no. 4. And here:

Stay tuned for the story of violence against union organizers in Latin American bottling plants . . .


  1. I spent yesterday walking around through the huge, palatial buildings of Coca-Cola's downtown Atlanta compound of offices. My wife works in their telcom department and was testing a new site-wide phone system, so she had to go to every building and try random phones, forwarding, conferencing, etc. I went along for the exercise.

    I've been harassing her about working for Coke for years, kiddingly, but I did dig into some of these things. It's one of those good-with-the-bad deals - Coke itself is a fairly negative product; it contributes little to nutrition but water and sugar, and little else but caffeine, unless you count all the wealth it generates. It is amazing how much the world pays for Coca-Cola in a year.

    The thing about Coke is that, like most giant corporations, it's very distributed and compartmentalized. The bottling companies are all franchises - even in Atlanta, Coca-Cola Inc. doesn't bottle Coke. In other countries, some of producers are almost entirely separate from the corporation, just paying licensing fees and a share of profits. It's impossible to say whether those are just firewalls against liability and the mother company really runs it all, or whether they are truly independent outfits. My guess is that it's a matter of degree, controlled by how much control Coke is allowed to have and how strong a country's market is.

    So - that raises the question - who is "Coke" in India or Guatemala? Does the U.S. corporation have any input, control, or even awareness of these issues, or can we say that if they don't they should? Coke Inc spends zillions on PR and "good will" efforts - recycling, enviro projects, and charities - and does it enough to impact serious issues. If they do have some control over water use and toxic chemical issues in India, it seems unlikely that they'd fail to at least keep things looking good. Also, the failing farms/suicides issue there is very much larger than that one spot's Coke issues - it involves huge regions and the national economy and trade. This is one of those "what did they know, when did they know it, and can they change it" questions.

    On the terrorism and killing of union organizers in Guatemala, the same questions apply. Is U.S. Coke involved at all with the politics at those facilities? I don't think they have any stake in them other than as customers. That doesn't mean that there isn't some collusion between Big Coke and the Guatemalan companies that drives an organized-crime pattern, but it also doesn't mean there is. These are hard situations to untangle. In any case, though, it's reasonable to expect U.S. Coke to be good stewards - they should at least be taking some action to correct these situations. I don't know if they are or not.

  2. Here's a good and very current article in HuffPost on this, with some info on both sides of the who-knew-what debate:

    (I give their journalism a good bit of credibility - my niece Amelia is a career journalist who writes for Huffington and it sounds like their journalistic standards are solid)

  3. I haven't gotten tot he Guatemala side yet (and may not considering this blog project is almost over and I don't particularly see myself continuing with it). :) Read that article, though, and it sparked the rest of this. Thanks, Chris.