Coca-Cola, the multinational soft drink giant, is facing the wrath
of rights advocacy groups here in the United States and abroad for refusing
to take responsibility for abusive practices at its bottling plants.
While a number of universities and colleges in the United States have already
banned the sale of Coke products on their campuses, mounting pressure from student
bodies throughout Europe is pushing hundreds of schools to terminate their contracts
with the company as well.
The company is also under fire in a number of Asian and Latin American countries,
where labor unions, peasant groups, and consumer associations are relentlessly
campaigning to force Coca-Cola to just pack up and leave.
Last week, in India, for example, hundreds of villagers protested outside the
company's bottling plant in Kala Dera in the northern state of Rajasthan. Demanding
immediate closure of its plant, they charged that Coca-Cola was directly responsible
for severe water shortages in the area because its continued operations had
caused massive groundwater depletion and soil pollution.
Their demonstration came less than two weeks after another major protest was
held in front of a Coca-Cola plant in Mehdiganj in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
Thousands of people turned out to demand the plant's closure, activists say.
"Coca Cola is looting our natural resources. These resources belong to
the public," says Sawai Singh, a prominent social activist in India who
organized the march.
To Singh, "water is a basic need for people and trading in water is not
acceptable because it deprives people of a basic need."
Activists say the anti-Coca-Cola campaign has spread all over India and that
it has so far met with some success.
In Piachimada in south India, for example, Coca-Cola had to shut down its biggest
plant for about 20 months after it failed to cope with the mounting pressure
from community groups.
Rights activists in the Latin American nation of Columbia are equally angry
at Coca-Cola, but for different reasons. They allege that the company is complicit
in the murder and torture of union organizers at its plants in Columbia.
But the company has repeatedly denied that it bears responsibility for troubles
at the Colombian plants, arguing that its business "in each country is
a local business."
With about one million employees, the company says it operates in more than
200 countries worldwide.
Activists in the United States say they want the company to agree to an independent
probe of labor violations and violence against union leaders at its Colombian
To address this issue, the company hired a private firm to conduct a probe
into its Columbia plants, but says that it found no instances of anti-union
violence or intimidation.
But activists remain skeptical about the company's claim.
"We believe the evidence shows that Coca-Cola and its corporate network
are rife with immorality, corruption, and complicity in murder." says Ray
Rogers, director of the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, an independent group based
in the United States.
Last week, the U.S.-based campaigners scored a major victory when New York
University, the largest private school in the country, declared that it had
decided to ban Coke products on campus.
Rogers claims that more than 100 colleges and universities already have anti-Coke
programs in place, adding that 20 of them have either banned Coke products or
axed exclusive contracts with the company.
Still, there is more bad news for the multi-billion dollar corporation.
Recently, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest
indicated that it was preparing a lawsuit against Coca-Cola that would link
its additive caffeine levels with childhood obesity.
Meanwhile, encouraged by growing support from the West, activists in India
say they will continue their campaign to revoke Coca-Cola's contracts until
the communities' demands are met.
"Coca-Cola in India is a perfect example of what goes wrong when institutions
like the World Trade Organization (WTO) give more powers to corporations,"
says Amit Srivastava of the India Resource Center, a U.S.-based advocacy group
that has supported the anti-Coke campaigners.
"The campaign to hold Coca-Cola responsible is significant because it
asserts the rights of communities over natural resources--rights that are increasingly
under threat from the WTO.