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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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First, residents of McCloud and Cascade Locks and Nestlé staff vocalized a range of distinct understandings of the nature of local water, its relation to economic well-being, and the appropriateness of commodifying it. These concerns speak to the question of water’s uniqueness and whether or not its transfer from the public sphere to the market constitutes accumulation by dispossession. “This is the only thing the service district has to sell,” said a McCloud resident who strongly supported Nestlé’s proposal: “We have water—pure, simply, end of the story, water.

That’s all we have to sell, other than what you get from me every month [in taxes]. And you have no sales tax [receipts] here, because we’re not incorporated. And so we have water.... So we thought, ‘gee, who could complain about a clean industry, a water bottling plant?’ ” Other residents of both communities similarly expressed bafflement over their neighbors’ and NGOs’ opposition to the siting of what they perceived as a job-creating industry like any other. The company’s rhetorical approach echoes this framing of water as merely another commodity.

“It’s unfortunate that these organizations are taking a stance of banning bottled water,” argued the Nestlé representative active in both the

McCloud and Cascade Locks proposals:

Our company has taken the position that people should drink more water, whether it’s bottled or tap water. We think the consumer should have a choice out in the marketplace when they’re looking for a beverage. We are not in competition with tap water.... There’s an epidemic of diabetes and obesity in this 18 Rural Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 1, March 2013 country and if bottled water disappeared today, people would not be turning to tap water.

On the other hand, a staff member of California Trout who was actively involved in the anti-Nestlé coalition focused on the polarized politics

that have often pitted greens against resource-dependent communities:

This is a town that was booming in the timber industry days, and then from their perspective, environmentalists said, “Oh we’re going to run out of trees.” And the timber industry collapsed.

... So now, we’re never going to run out of water, there’s glaciers on the mountain for heaven’s sake; water just bursts up out of the ground all over the place. But environmentalists came in and said, “Oh we’re going to run out of water.”... And that’s how they look at it; the environmentalists are trying to take their water. Why would they give it to the environmentalists for free when they could sell it to Nestlé for nothing?

Second, many residents and activists also spoke passionately about the issue of local control over water resources, and the perceived threats to such control. These concerns speak to the question of the nature of the enclosure entailed by bottling local springs. A resident of Cascade Locks opposed to Nestlé described the central issue as one of public ownership of water (literal state ownership, in this case) being compromised by negotiations between Nestlé, the city, and one state agency: “When I found out that they wanted to trade spring water with the Department of Fisheries over here, I thought, ‘why?’ You know, the water belongs to the state—to all of the people—not just the fisheries, not just to Nestlé or the city. It’s all of ours and they have no business selling it for nothing so that this company can make a huge profit on it.” This appeal to a notion of water as part of a commons echoes themes used by social movements elsewhere opposed to privatization of water and other natural resources (Harvey 2003). A representative of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, in contrast, argued that the arrangement poses no threat to public ownership: “We’re not going to give up our water rights, so that leaves us in control. If the only way forward would have been for us to give some of our water rights away, I highly doubt we would have continued to talk, [but] we will remain the owner of that water resource up there. And we’ll protect it.” In McCloud, concern about the potential loss of local control over water was a powerful theme for opposition groups. According to the town resident who founded the McCloud Watershed Council and led the anti-Nestlé effort, “The main reason that the people who switched from A More Perfect Commodity — Jaffee and Newman 19 pro-Nestlé to anti-Nestlé [did so] was the fact that in the contract, it stated that if we were to go into drought.... McCloud would have to dig the wells, we would have to drink the well water, and Nestlé would get our pure spring water.” Nestlé’s purchase of the bottling plant site in McCloud did not come with rights to access to the springs, so the firm proposed a long-term contract to purchase the water from MCSD as a customer. Another McCloud resident addressed how this strategy relates to questions of control: “A lot of [water companies] like to own the spring and the rights and everything, because they can do whatever they want. [But] Nestlé in a lot of places prefers to be a customer, because then you can’t really directly blame them for the overpumping.” A third issue—central to the relevance of the frame of accumulation by dispossession to this context—is whether bottled water extraction is understood as constituting privatization of a local water resource. “Sometimes the issue of privatization of water comes up,” said the mayor of Cascade Locks. “Well, it’s not the case. We are essentially selling them a water resource. They will become an industrial customer just like any other, whether it’s them selling me the water that comes out of my tap, or any other large user of water.” This description, however, elides the question of the long-term contractual rights Nestlé insisted on in both communities. When asked whether bottled water extraction equaled privatization, a member of the McCloud Watershed Council answered unequivocally, “Yes, because they were taking from our water supply and they were claiming hold over our water supply. Yes. That is water privatization. That’s taking local control of a water resource out of local hands.” A final theme regards the tactical and strategic choices made by opponents, and the future prospects for Nestlé’s extraction of bottled water. In their claims, the various actors challenging the two bottling facilities drew on (and reinforced) shared understandings of water’s scarcity to argue for the need to erect higher obstacles to accumulation through legal, regulatory, and corporate campaigning strategies, thus raising Nestlé’s costs and changing the firm’s calculus. At the same time, many of these arguments ironically ended up conceding the market frame. When Nestlé withdrew its McCloud proposal in 2009, local opponents and the NGO coalition supporting them had held off the company for six years. The California Trout staff member discussed the question of which themes had found the greatest resonance among residents of


We framed it with two things. That really we are sort of interwoven, that water is more valuable than this [Nestlé plant]. And 20 Rural Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 1, March 2013 that... you guys are getting screwed. You’re getting paid nothing for this water. Nestlé is going to make billions of dollars... and you got treated like a third world nation by them. And you deserve better than that. If selling water is a good idea, then think about what you just did—you just sold the farm for almost nothing.

In analyzing the outcome, several local residents said they had prevailed because of a mix of local opposition, legal challenges, and public relations harm to Nestlé from unfavorable media coverage. However, the California Trout staff member attributed the victory to a different set of


In my most honest moments I think we ran out the clock for them. We had enough hook with CEQA6 to hold them off while the whole thing unraveled. And it unraveled for Nestlé on its own—bottled water, the economy, all those other things. They came because they had a business model that worked, and they left because their business model no longer worked, and I don’t have any illusions about me convincing Nestlé that McCloud was not the place.

Many of the NGO representatives assert that in announcing its plans for Cascade Locks, Nestlé had transferred the McCloud proposal to Oregon, in hopes of finding a more favorable community and regulatory environment. “Their water sources in California are drying up,” said the Oregon Food and Water Watch organizer, “and they just got kicked out of the Mt. Shasta area.... [T]hey don’t have a single water bottling operation in the Northwest and they know that this is a wet region and they want to get a foothold.” Nevertheless, with Nestlé both continuing to pursue the Cascade Locks spring water site and expanding its municipal water bottling, whether local opposition has been successful in significantly raising barriers to future instances of commodification or obliging the firm to fundamentally reassess its strategies is unclear. We now turn to discussing the implications of these local conflicts for our broader analysis of the dynamics of commodification.

Discussion: A More Perfect Commodity As the previous section indicates, bottled water raises intriguing issues regarding the dynamics of privatization and accumulation. The two cases 6 CEQA is the California Environmental Quality Act, which required an environmental impact assessment of Nestlé’s proposal.

A More Perfect Commodity — Jaffee and Newman 21 of proposed water extraction profiled above—if approved—would unambiguously constitute commodification, as Nestlé would tap publicly owned local springs to sell bottled water to distant markets. They would also represent clear instances of accumulation by dispossession, since they would alter public water rights (community ownership in the case of McCloud, or state ownership in Cascade Locks) through contractual obligations that—while technically maintaining Nestlé’s status as a utility customer—would nonetheless give the corporation priority rights to spring water flows over local needs. On the other hand, since the company would acquire legal title to neither land nor water, these examples do not constitute the privatization of water, the opinions of some local residents notwithstanding. This suggests the need for additional interrogation of the boundary between commodification and privatization, both in the case of water and more generally.

These case studies also illustrate the two key contentions made in this article, concerning both the challenge bottled water poses to existing theoretical framings regarding the commodification of water and the relationship between this market commodity and the (largely) publicly provided good of tap water. Bottled water, regardless of its origin, does not present many of the barriers to capital accumulation posed by tap water networks, rendering it—in contrast with Bakker’s (2005) framing of water as an “uncooperative commodity”—a more mobile and more profitable commodity. This, in turn, presents a serious challenge to the prospects of public drinking water. Several examples illustrate these linked arguments.

First, bottled water requires virtually none of the sunk fixed infrastructure costs and obligations of municipal water systems. Private management contracts for municipal networks typically require firms to make substantial investments to maintain water quality and the physical water treatment and distribution network, as well as meet increasing public health and environmental standards, hire and train staff, manage billing, and handle other imponderables that can reduce profit margins or make returns unpredictable. In contrast, bottled water firms have a very limited set of investments (particularly if they use municipal water sources): they frequently bottle water at the same plants as other beverages and distribute them through existing networks. An industry newsletter underscores this point: “Entry barriers are low, and decreasing by the day” (Boreal Water News 2010). These factors enhance profitability.

While the protests in Bolivia and other nations were sparked when private firms raised tap water rates enough to achieve a contractually guaranteed return of 15 to 17 percent (Bond 2005; Castro 2007; Spronk and Webber 2007), profit margins for bottled water are higher, typically 22 Rural Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 1, March 2013 25 to 35 percent and sometimes more for large bottlers (Gleick et al.

2007; Natural Resources Defense Council 1999).

Second, bottled water defies, at least partially, the locality of water.

Bakker asserts that because of its nature as a flow resource, “water is used and disposed of locally,” typically close to the point of extraction (2010:200). However—much as the technological package of genetically engineered seeds removes a crucial obstacle to commodification of the food supply—the plastic integument of bottled water enables it to escape these fundamental constraints. Over one quarter of all bottled water crosses national boundaries, making it truly a global commodity (Barlow 2007:84), and much more travels long distances domestically, beyond local watersheds.

Third, bottled water is characterized by far more price elasticity than tap water. This is true in affluent nations, where bottled water sales are positively correlated with income and families spend hundreds of dollars per year on it (Gleick 2010), but it also pertains to places in the global South where safe public water supplies are lacking. While many of the effective popular protests against tap water privatization in the South were triggered by rate increases of 20 to 30 percent, the (often poorer) residents of the same countries not served by the municipal piped water system already typically pay many times those rates for water from local vendors, much of it bottled (Bakker 2010; Driessen 2008). The inability of the public sector to provide safe tap water to well over a billion people in the global South—often reinforced through debt conditionality—has facilitated the growth of the bottled water market, further exacerbating social inequality. Yet since water is essential for life, people faced with a lack of other options will often pay what the market demands. Where bottled water is the best or only option, its price elasticity—and the resulting profits—can be quite high indeed (Girard 2009).

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