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13:20

Mexico: 'Magic drink' - Chiapas faces diabetes spike as Coca-Cola dries up wells

Mexico, Chiapas
November 15, 2018 at 16:33 GMT +00:00 · Published

Cristobal de las Casas in the Mexican state of Chiapas is running low on safe drinking water, with some households having access to running water just a few times a week.

"In the region, there are highly polluted water conditions, which turn the most vulnerable regions into the poorest ones that have less access to services and resources," says Paloma Mejia of the 'Safe Water in Schools' Programme at the Cantaro Azul Foundation.

As potable water becomes increasingly scarce, local residents resort to soda, drinking on average more than two liters (0.528 gallons) of soda per day.

Coca-Cola, the most popular sugary drink available in Mexico's southeastern state, is often more accessible than bottled water and is almost as cheap, with a 1.5-liter Coca Cola bottle costing around 18 Mexican pesos ($0.88/€0.77), as compared to water, which is around 10 Mexican pesos ($0.48/€0.43) per bottle.

Margarita Gutierrez, Systemic Change and Political Incidence Director at the Cantaro Azul Foundation, argues that Coca-Cola took advantage of the state's failure to provide safe drinking water in the region, which she says "is not a problem of availability but of poor water management" and a lack of wastewater treatment.

Gutierrez says that Coca-Cola's reach is "impressive," noting that "even in the most remote areas, you can find Coca-Cola."

Due to its availability, Coca-Cola has become deeply embedded in the local culture. The Coca-Cola logo is ubiquitous and can be seen everywhere, adorning local pharmacies, restaurants and village entrances.

According to Rigoberto Alfaro, a teacher at the Autonomous University of Chiapas, Coca-Cola's commercial strategy which ensures that the price of the carbonated soda is higher in cities than in suburbs, has resulted in local residents using the drink "as a form of currency."

The carbonated soda is also used in religious rituals performed by the indigenous Tzotzil population. Indigenous healer Maria Lopez, who has replaced the traditional Mayan ritual drink 'pox' with Coca-Cola, says that a sick person needs one or two Coca-Cola bottles in order to heal.

Some churches also see people bring Coca-Cola "as an offering, not as a sugary drink," according to Gutierrez.

"With the introduction of Coca-Cola in glass bottles, [indigenous] communities saw it as something mystical, not only because of its form but also because of its flavour," Alfaro says adding that the indigenous population has adopted it "as if it were something from Gods, a magic drink." He explains that it is challenging to reduce the consumption of Coca-cola in the region as it is seen not only as a consumer product but also as an item that has "a spiritual value."

According to Head of the Nutrition Department at the San Cristobal de las Casas Hospital Luis Alberto Ferrera, five out of ten indigenous people consume soft drinks on a daily basis, which has unleashed obesity and diabetes among the indigenous population.

Mexico ranks second among OECD members for adult obesity, leading the government to declare it an epidemiological emergency. An estimated 13 million people aged over 20 years of age from a population of 121.5 million people are living with diabetes, according to Mexico's 2016 mid-term National Health and Nutrition Survey. The World Health Organization reported in 2016 that diabetes was the leading cause of death in Mexico with 76,000 lives lost to to the disease in that year. From 2007-2017 mortality from diabetes increased by 78 percent.

Health officials and consumer activists say that Coca-Cola's spike in popularity, along with that of other high calorie foods and sugared drinks, have played a large roll in damaging public health.

In 2014, Mexico introduced a 10 % tax on sugared drink, which reportedly provide 70% of all added sugar consumed, in an attempt to decrease consumption. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommended in 2016 a minimum 20% tax to achieve significant changes in consumption and health.

Coca-Cola is produced by Femsa's plant, which bottles and sells Coca-Cola across Mexico. Under a long-standing agreement with the Mexican government, the facility owns the rights to draw out more than 1,135,623 liters (300,000 gallons) of water per day.

Last spring, demonstrators descended on the plant, urging the government to close down the factory, citing the deadly consequences the beverage has on the local population.

Coca-Cola executives have denied the accusations, placing the blame for the chronic water shortage on a lack of state investment, poor planning and crumbling infrastructure.

Ruptly has asked for a comment from Coca-Cola FEMSA, but so far has not received a reply.

In a July 2018 press release on their website, the Coca-Cola Company say they recognise the challenges faced by the San Cristobal community and "we have been working with them for nearly a decade to provide community water tanks, roof-top water collectors, and water conservation projects to help address this issue."

The company also states that their bottling plant pays a market rate set and regulated by the government based on its water use in Chiapas. "No matter where we operate, we are constantly evaluating the sustainability of our water use and ensuring that our business does not interfere with the needs of the community."

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Cristobal de las Casas in the Mexican state of Chiapas is running low on safe drinking water, with some households having access to running water just a few times a week.

"In the region, there are highly polluted water conditions, which turn the most vulnerable regions into the poorest ones that have less access to services and resources," says Paloma Mejia of the 'Safe Water in Schools' Programme at the Cantaro Azul Foundation.

As potable water becomes increasingly scarce, local residents resort to soda, drinking on average more than two liters (0.528 gallons) of soda per day.

Coca-Cola, the most popular sugary drink available in Mexico's southeastern state, is often more accessible than bottled water and is almost as cheap, with a 1.5-liter Coca Cola bottle costing around 18 Mexican pesos ($0.88/€0.77), as compared to water, which is around 10 Mexican pesos ($0.48/€0.43) per bottle.

Margarita Gutierrez, Systemic Change and Political Incidence Director at the Cantaro Azul Foundation, argues that Coca-Cola took advantage of the state's failure to provide safe drinking water in the region, which she says "is not a problem of availability but of poor water management" and a lack of wastewater treatment.

Gutierrez says that Coca-Cola's reach is "impressive," noting that "even in the most remote areas, you can find Coca-Cola."

Due to its availability, Coca-Cola has become deeply embedded in the local culture. The Coca-Cola logo is ubiquitous and can be seen everywhere, adorning local pharmacies, restaurants and village entrances.

According to Rigoberto Alfaro, a teacher at the Autonomous University of Chiapas, Coca-Cola's commercial strategy which ensures that the price of the carbonated soda is higher in cities than in suburbs, has resulted in local residents using the drink "as a form of currency."

The carbonated soda is also used in religious rituals performed by the indigenous Tzotzil population. Indigenous healer Maria Lopez, who has replaced the traditional Mayan ritual drink 'pox' with Coca-Cola, says that a sick person needs one or two Coca-Cola bottles in order to heal.

Some churches also see people bring Coca-Cola "as an offering, not as a sugary drink," according to Gutierrez.

"With the introduction of Coca-Cola in glass bottles, [indigenous] communities saw it as something mystical, not only because of its form but also because of its flavour," Alfaro says adding that the indigenous population has adopted it "as if it were something from Gods, a magic drink." He explains that it is challenging to reduce the consumption of Coca-cola in the region as it is seen not only as a consumer product but also as an item that has "a spiritual value."

According to Head of the Nutrition Department at the San Cristobal de las Casas Hospital Luis Alberto Ferrera, five out of ten indigenous people consume soft drinks on a daily basis, which has unleashed obesity and diabetes among the indigenous population.

Mexico ranks second among OECD members for adult obesity, leading the government to declare it an epidemiological emergency. An estimated 13 million people aged over 20 years of age from a population of 121.5 million people are living with diabetes, according to Mexico's 2016 mid-term National Health and Nutrition Survey. The World Health Organization reported in 2016 that diabetes was the leading cause of death in Mexico with 76,000 lives lost to to the disease in that year. From 2007-2017 mortality from diabetes increased by 78 percent.

Health officials and consumer activists say that Coca-Cola's spike in popularity, along with that of other high calorie foods and sugared drinks, have played a large roll in damaging public health.

In 2014, Mexico introduced a 10 % tax on sugared drink, which reportedly provide 70% of all added sugar consumed, in an attempt to decrease consumption. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommended in 2016 a minimum 20% tax to achieve significant changes in consumption and health.

Coca-Cola is produced by Femsa's plant, which bottles and sells Coca-Cola across Mexico. Under a long-standing agreement with the Mexican government, the facility owns the rights to draw out more than 1,135,623 liters (300,000 gallons) of water per day.

Last spring, demonstrators descended on the plant, urging the government to close down the factory, citing the deadly consequences the beverage has on the local population.

Coca-Cola executives have denied the accusations, placing the blame for the chronic water shortage on a lack of state investment, poor planning and crumbling infrastructure.

Ruptly has asked for a comment from Coca-Cola FEMSA, but so far has not received a reply.

In a July 2018 press release on their website, the Coca-Cola Company say they recognise the challenges faced by the San Cristobal community and "we have been working with them for nearly a decade to provide community water tanks, roof-top water collectors, and water conservation projects to help address this issue."

The company also states that their bottling plant pays a market rate set and regulated by the government based on its water use in Chiapas. "No matter where we operate, we are constantly evaluating the sustainability of our water use and ensuring that our business does not interfere with the needs of the community."

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