COLUMN: Obey your conscience, not your thirst: Rally for a Coca Cola-free university

By Brenda Kay Zylstra

My father has always been one of those people who flat out refuses to drink Coke. At restaurants when the waitress came around to get our beverage orders, my father would inevitably answer “Pepsi, please.” If that unlucky waitress had to respond, “Is Coke okay?” my dad would frown, shake his head in disgust, and resign himself to water. The only time I can recall him taking even a sip of that vile brew was the time my foolish siblings and I challenged him to a blind taste test between Coke and Pepsi, which he handily won. He’s never wavered in the face of thirst or relented at a sale (a strong statement, considering our Dutch propensity toward thriftiness). It’s a prejudice all four of his children proudly carry on today. Little did we know our father was instilling in us not only superior taste preferences, but also social awareness.

Right alongside the recent outcry against Wal-Mart, the poster child for contemptible business practices, Coca-Cola is increasingly garnering attention not for soda, but for allegations ranging from intimidation to murder. The worst crimes are coming out of Columbia and India, and university students across America have taken up the rallying cry in an effort to rid Coke from their campuses.

Much of the most recent clamor stems from allegations that managers of a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Columbia worked with paramilitary forces to murder at least eight union leaders since 1989. Just last week, a judge in Miami dismissed lawsuits concerning these allegations for lack of jurisdiction; Sinaltrainal, the Columbian union who filed the suit, has already expressed their intention to appeal. The lawsuits made a strong case, citing interviews with Columbian union workers, the close relationship between plant managers and paramilitaries, money changing hands, descriptions of some of the brutal assassinations of union leaders and eyewitness accounts.

Reports of union-busting activities supported either directly or indirectly by Coca-Cola have been substantiated not just from union workers themselves but also from independent journalists and human rights organizations, such as the International Labor Rights Fund. Disturbingly, in 2004 Coca-Cola representatives admitted to a fact-finding delegation that their employees might have worked together with paramilitary forces in the deaths and torture of Columbian union members. Equally disturbing is how Coca-Cola has often worked to thwart independent fact-finding delegations, and has refused to hire one itself to look into the many accusations against them.

This gross disregard of human rights exists elsewhere. In 2000, Coca-Cola set up a plant in Plachimada, India. Within one year, groundwater levels had declined and wells were polluted. When residents realized that Coca-Cola was taking away their water and thereby endangering not only their livelihoods but also their very lives, they began to protest. To quiet their cries, Coca-Cola offered them free fertilizer, an offer the poor farmers could not refuse. Appallingly, an investigative study by BBC found the cola giant had duped the unsuspecting locals. The “fertilizer” turned out to be nothing more than toxic sludge. Already causing headaches and allergies, doctors believe the effects of the sludge will be felt in years, resulting in cancer, renal failure and lung damage. The factory had also polluted the wells – what little water was left – to such an extent as to be medically undrinkable. Coca-Cola’s response? Deny, and cast aspersions on the BBC’s study.

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    The campaign against Coca-Cola has grown across the United States; at least 100 campuses are taking action. On our campus the Coalition Against Coke Contracts (CACC) is working to convince the University to not renew their exclusive contract with Coca-Cola, which is up in June 2007. New York University, DePaul and Rutgers, to name a few have done so, and it is a step our administration should take as well.

    With so many choices at our fingertips, why spend your money supporting a company which shows such little regard for humanity? Tomorrow at noon, the CACC will be hosting an alternative soda tasting on the south patio of the Union. They will offer locally brewed beverages and more information on the fight against Coca-Cola. Check them out, and join the fight against this revolting corporation.