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Letter from Brazil...
Globalization made simple: Things go better without Coke

Op-Ed, Brattleboro Reformer
By John Nirenberg
February 5-6, 2005

PORTO ALEGRE, BRAZIL — Porto Alegre was as hot as Phoenix in August last Saturday, but 500 participants at the World Social Forum packed shoulder to shoulder, in a standing-room-only crowd, to learn about the campaign to boycott Coca-Cola. While hearing the long list of grievances, the crowd was also introduced to the complexities of globalization and how the economic power of a multinational company can threaten a variety of human rights in the name of development and private enterprise. What was most revealing perhaps, is not the list of grievances - this audience was expecting to hear them - but how, in the name of selling an apparently harmless soft drink, so much disruption and suffering could follow.

In an effort to increase their share of the market for human liquid consumption, Coke managers are driven to expand their brands, reach an ever increasing number of consumers, and to be accessible and affordable whenever humans seek to quench their thirst. In order to fulfill their mission, Coke locates in as many markets as possible. Then, as is a business imperative, they manufacture and position their products to drive out competition. Preferable, they can also privatize the public water supply so consumers will have no alternative except to purchase beverages from them.

For three hours through faulty interpretations of Hindi and Spanish into English and Portuguese, the crowd remained patient. As they dripped sweat into the plastic seats of their chairs, many fanned themselves with conference brochures, but to no avail. The blanket of heat was immovable. Off to the front side of the tent was an incongruous sight. A man dressed in a suit and tie was standing with cans of Coke strapped to him like a suicide bomber. Not a drop of sweat on him. He stood perfectly still. The suit said he could have been a corporate responder for Coke. The strapped-on cans of Coke suggested a prank was coming.

Someone yelled for an interpreter to speak up. The man in Coke cans yelled for a new interpreter. The audience hooted and hollered through the heat. Referring to the man, the moderator said it was disrespectful to keep talking. The man screamed back, sweat still not showing through his suit and tie, that it was disrespectful to the panelist not to have accurate translation.

The crowd grew restless and erupted in protest to continue the program. "Translate this!" one yelled. Another blurted, "You do it!" And the moderator finally broke in: "If you don't like the interpreter, you can leave." A great cheer rose from the heat and the audience began to settle back into the program.

What began as a small seminar about a campaign to boycott the Coca-Cola Company turned into a presentation by campaigners from India; Colombia; Chiapas, Mexico; Puerto Rico; and Canada. Each urged the crowd to support a unified, worldwide campaign to boycott all products manufactured by or licensed from Coca-Cola. The crowd was very supportive and the overwhelming number of those in attendance signed up to be a part of an e-mail campaign news network after the forum.

Here's why: according to the delegation from India, Coke is produced with a pesticide level 30 times that allowed in Europe and the United States.

It is turning the entire public fresh water supply into a commodity for its own financial gain, and in so doing, depriving people of access to water that had always been their right. At the same time, the waste from the Coke plant, which the organizers claim is also toxic, is given to farmers as fertilizer but has resulted in damaged crops.

The existence of a Coke plant, according to them, displaces thousands of self-employed fruit juice, water, coconut milk and other beverage sellers. Further, the water consumed for the plant drains local communities of their water supply because the water table is reduced below the reach of wells.

In Colombia, long-standing labor struggles have resulted in the deaths and beating of union organizers who worked for Coke and a threatening atmosphere of intimidation persists to keep unions out and workplace abuses undocumented.

As the presentations continued, Coke became a case study for the conference. The issues raised by this one company include: workers' rights (to organize, to report grievances and abuses), land rights (multinationals like Coke buy public lands often with a local government's power of eminent domain believing the jobs will be good for the community), food security (the level of toxic substances in products exceeding established standards), toxic waste (the output of the plant in India included cadmium and lead), genetically altered foods (milk products often include residues of bovine growth hormones), water safety (besides the toxic waste leaching into the water supply, public water is commercialized and made inaccessible to the poor thereby privatizing a major part of the commons), health (as people substitute the chemicals and sugar in Coke products for natural juices, milk and water), and the threat to cultural identity.

At the question period, the man wearing the Coke cans finally got the mike. He apologized if he was misunderstood. Then he continued and eloquently made the case that Coke and the teams, music shows and media programming it endorses must also be boycotted.

"If your favorite band is sponsored by Coke, then say f*** your favorite band!" he declared, to which the audience rose up through the heat in a gigantic roar and much applause. As he left the front, he stabbed each can strapped to him and they burst with caramel spray scattering those nearest him but causing another great roar from the crowd.

He was Leo Bassi, an Italian Michael Moore.

FAIR USE NOTICE. This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. The Campaign to Stop Killer Coke is making this article available in our efforts to advance the understanding of corporate accountability, human rights, labor rights, social and environmental justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use,' you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.