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«A More Perfect Commodity: Bottled Water, Global Accumulation, and Local Contestation Daniel Jaffee Department of Sociology *Washington State ...»

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(2010:326) Thus the societal implications of this commodity extend beyond water to the broader questions of the market’s steady incursion into the public sphere and its implications for democracy.

Movements against Bottled Water The dramatic growth of this commodity has not gone unchallenged. An increasingly effective social movement against bottled water has developed in the past decade, particularly in North America and Europe. This movement has taken two principal forms: on one hand, campaigns to “take back the tap” by persuading consumers to eschew bottled water and pressuring public institutions and local governments to stop buying it; and on the other hand, local opposition to specific instances of spring water extraction by the industry. “These efforts,” writes Gleick (2010:145), “are squeezing the industry at two ends: putting pressure on demand, and drying up supply.” A number of cities have recently passed laws prohibiting municipal purchases of bottled water, sometimes linked with commitments to reinvest in public infrastructure such as drinking fountains (VelasquezManoff 2009).4 These cities and others have also launched advertising and public relations campaigns to revalorize tap water, promoting the quality of public water supplies and distributing refillable bottles to residents (Gentile 2008). Several university campuses have banned sales of bottled water in the wake of student campaigns, and some restaurateurs have ceased offering it to customers. Many of these efforts have received support from a network of national and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), most prominent among them Corporate Accountability International, Food and Water Watch, and the Polaris Institute. Increased media coverage of the negative environmental effects of bottled water has also contributed to shifting public sentiment.

The other arena involves contestation over the extraction of spring water. In the United States, Nestlé’s efforts to meet increasing demand, by siting new high-capacity wells and bottling plants and expanding 4 These cities include San Francisco, New York, St. Louis, Vancouver, Toronto, and Liverpool.

12 Rural Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 1, March 2013 others, have been the focus of protracted grassroots opposition (Barlow 2007; Clarke 2007; Velasquez-Manoff 2009). In these areas, residents and environmental groups have raised concerns about issues including the depletion of local groundwater supplies, harm to local fisheries, and the minimal compensation paid to local communities or governments relative to the high water volumes extracted (Snitow et al. 2007). In many of these cases, Nestlé has acquired legal rights or title to the water or land and actively courted local officials, often prior to making its plans public (Hall 2009; Snitow et al. 2007). Bottled water extraction has also been a flash point for local activism in the global South, with major conflicts erupting in Pakistan (Nestlé), Indonesia (Danone and Coca-Cola), India (Coca-Cola), and Mexico (Coca-Cola) (Barlow 2007; Raman 2010).

The net effect of these various movements has been to contribute to shifts both in public attitudes toward bottled water and in the fortunes of the industry. In 2008 and 2009, the global market for bottled water shrank for the first time ever, a reversal due in part to the global recession but also to push-back from opposition movements (Packaging Digest 2010).

The bottled water industry has responded to the growing controversy in several ways. It has waged an aggressive public relations campaign to oppose “take back the tap” efforts (Gleick 2010). Nestlé has changed its commercial strategies, increasingly moving away from outright acquisition of land and water rights toward extracting spring water as the customer of local public water utilities, but with long-term contractual access rights—a strategy employed in the case studies we profile in the following section. The firm is also shifting from establishing new spring water extraction sites toward the (so far) less conflictive practice of drawing from municipal sources, as its main competitors Coke and Pepsi do exclusively (Food and Water Watch 2010a). While spring water by federal law must be bottled with little or no alteration and is marketed for its allegedly “pristine” qualities, bottled tap water is typically filtered and supplemented with minerals, and often marketed with reference to the “hypertechnological intervention” involved (Szasz 2007:123–24).

The rapid growth of Nestlé’s municipally sourced Pure Life brand indicates that many consumers do not find drinking filtered tap water objectionable or problematic, yet it also raises intriguing questions. What are the implications of a major increase in extraction from public tap systems by the very actors who are simultaneously waging an all-out campaign to persuade consumers that tap water is unsafe to drink?

In regard to the broader issues raised in this section, the extraction of water by beverage firms—depending on the property rights regime involved—can be conceptualized as ranging from privatization to A More Perfect Commodity — Jaffee and Newman 13 “merely” commodification. Yet in all of the contexts mentioned above, we argue, it does constitute accumulation by dispossession. Moreover, bottled water merits particular attention because it is not hindered by many of the obligations and tethers for capital that have limited the commodification of tap water globally. Nevertheless, the paucity of empirical case study research examining how bottled water commodification unfolds and is contested in specific locations—particularly within the United States—is noteworthy. Existing scholarly analyses have either placed bottled water as a minor coda to discussions of tap water privatization or conflated the two processes, overlooking the fundamental distinctions we have outlined above. In the following section, we examine two instances of conflict over proposed bottled water extraction by the world’s largest agrifood firm, Nestlé. These cases serve to illuminate our principal contention that bottled water has posed lower barriers to commodification than municipal supplies, and they illustrate capital’s shifting accumulation strategies regarding both forms of water.

Contesting Bottled Water Extraction in the North: Local Conflicts, Global Implications In this section we examine two case studies of contestation over bottled water extraction: McCloud, California, situated at the foot of Mount Shasta in the state’s far north, and Cascade Locks, Oregon, located in the Columbia River gorge 40 miles east of Portland. Both are economically distressed former mill towns that have recently been riven by proposals by Nestlé Waters to tap local springs and establish high-capacity water bottling plants for its Arrowhead spring water brand. Nestlé Waters is the largest and most profitable bottled water firm and the biggest supplier of spring water, with North American profits of $4.2 billion in 2009. It owns 15 water brands and operates 50 spring water extraction sites in 15 U.S. states (Ball 2010; Correll 2009). As two of the most recent proposals by Nestlé to establish new bottling facilities,5 these cases are broadly representative of the conflicts that have arisen over bottled water extraction elsewhere in the United States; they illustrate major trends within the industry as well as the tactical and strategic approaches of the organizations opposing it (Clarke 2007; Snitow et al. 2007).

5 In 2009, Colorado officials approved a controversial proposal by Nestlé to build a facility in Chaffee County to extract 65 million gallons of groundwater annually (Correll 2009).

14 Rural Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 1, March 2013 McCloud, California An unincorporated hamlet of just over 1,200 residents, McCloud was long a company town owned by the local lumber mill. The timber industry faded in the 1990s, and the mill closed entirely in 2002, pushing the town’s unemployment rate to over 20 percent. In September 2003, officials of the McCloud Community Services District (MCSD) voted to approve a contract with Nestlé that had been negotiated in secret, with no public input. The contract would have allowed the firm to build the nation’s largest water bottling plant, giving it access to 520 million gallons of water from local springs annually for 99 years as a customer of the services district. Although Nestlé would have paid the district only $0.00008 per gallon (one cent for each 123 gallons of water), far below industry norms, the contract would have generated $350,000 annually for MCSD, whose total revenues were close to $1 million (Conlin 2008b).

After several legal challenges, Nestlé was obligated to prepare an environmental impact report required by California law, which slowed approval significantly. In the meantime, local opposition became organized. Several local residents formed the McCloud Watershed Council (MWC), which worked in coalition with angler groups Trout Unlimited and California Trout, and later collaborated separately with Food and Water Watch.

When Nestlé announced in 2008 that it would dramatically reduce the size of the proposed plant, Business Week described the case as a “cautionary tale for any company. [Formerly], multinationals could arrive in economically depressed communities and pretty much have their way.

But in the age of hyper-connectedness, residents in McCloud were able to turn their issue into an international sensation. Now Nestlé has capitulated” (Conlin 2008a). Then in September 2009, Nestlé rescinded its McCloud proposal entirely, saying it no longer had a need for the site.

Only a few months earlier, the firm had reached agreement with city officials in Sacramento, California, to build a large plant there to bottle municipal water, which began operation in 2010.

Cascade Locks, Oregon As Nestlé was beginning its withdrawal from McCloud in 2008, the firm announced a proposal for another bottling plant in Cascade Locks, Oregon, a village of 1,100 located on Interstate 84 along the Columbia River. With a projected extraction of less than 200 million gallons per year, this plant would be considerably smaller than that proposed for McCloud, although other aspects of the deal were similar, such as giving Nestlé a long-term (50-year) guarantee to spring flows. Cascade Locks A More Perfect Commodity — Jaffee and Newman 15 officials are eagerly supporting a complex water-swap proposal that would give Nestlé access to spring water currently used by a state fish hatchery, in exchange for providing higher volumes of city-owned well water to the hatchery. According to company and city officials, Nestlé would pay one fifth of a cent per gallon as a customer of the municipal water utility, generating about $350,000 annually for Cascade Locks, plus another $150,000 in taxes—a sum roughly triple the town’s total current property tax revenues. The company promises that the plant will generate 48 full-time, living-wage jobs in this economically depressed community, a contention challenged by opponents (Ball 2010).

In contrast to McCloud, little public opposition has emerged within Cascade Locks to the proposal. However, a coalition of NGOs formed to challenge Nestlé’s plans at the state level, including the Sierra Club and Food and Water Watch. While the state Department of Fish and Wildlife supports the proposal, opponents are mobilizing public opposition in an effort to defeat the water swap. As of this writing, no decision has been taken, and Nestlé—perhaps learning from its lessons in McCloud—to date has not committed in writing to build the proposed bottling plant.

Data and Research Methods The data on which the analysis in this section is based are principally drawn from ethnographic field research. Between March 2010 and June 2011, we conducted semistructured interviews with a range of participants involved in the controversies over bottled water in McCloud and Cascade Locks. These included community residents; local and state officials; staff and volunteers with local, regional, and national NGOs and advocacy groups; and a Nestlé representative involved in negotiating both proposed bottling plants. We conducted 29 interviews with 28 participants (one was interviewed twice), two by telephone and 27 in person. Of these respondents, four represented organizations involved in both case study sites; eight were community residents or representatives of organizations involved in the McCloud case; and 16 were community residents, elected officials, or organizational representatives involved in the Cascade Locks case. Table 1 depicts the distribution of interview respondents by organization and by community. The interviews lasted between 45 minutes and two hours and were audio recorded. We initially assembled a core list of respondents from a small number of key informants; once interviews had begun, we expanded the list through snowball sampling. Our aim was to construct a sample broadly representative of the range of participants and opinions involved 16

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in each site. While in this article we quote only from a subset of the interviews with the aim of representing the key actors and major issues, the remainder of the interview data strongly informs the broader analysis. These interviews were supplemented with observation at public meetings and other events.

Local Contestation: Key Dimensions In our interviews, several common foci emerged that help to illuminate the broader conceptual and theoretical issues involved in the commodication of water. These recurring topics include divergent local framings of water’s significance, perceptions of ownership and control (or the lack thereof) over water, the relationship between local instances of water extraction and broader issues of privatization, and tactical or strategic choices made by opponents and assessments of the outcomes and future prospects of these struggles. Each of these themes illuminates distinct facets of the earlier theoretical discussion, as we describe below.

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