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Nestle’s Theft of Water: When Boycotts are Not Enough

April 9, 2018

I’m sure there are plenty of people in Michigan who now know that the state has granted the Nestle Corporation the right to extract 200 million gallons of water a year and will only have to pay $200 in exchange

You read that correctly, Nestle was granted the right to extract 200 million gallons of water a year in Michigan, water that should be left alone, so that the corporate giant can put it in bottles and sell it back to us. For this, Nestle only has to pay the state $200 a year.

This is what corporate power looks like. On top of this, this decision by those in power in Lansing, came on the same day that this same power structure decided that residents in Flint no longer needed to be provided with bottled water.

Many people have no doubt seen various memes calling for a Boycott of Nestle or lists of brand names that the massive multination corporation owns, where in people are also being called upon to boycott these products. Boycotts can be an effective tactic and it certainly is a good mechanism to raise awareness, but boycotting Nestle or just posting images with all their branded products is not enough.

The Nestle Corporation has been the target of boycotts for decades. Beginning in 1977, Nestle was the target of a global boycott because the company was trying to push its baby formula instead of encouraging mothers to breast feed. This boycott involved groups like the International Baby Food Action Network, Save the Children and UNICEF.  Nestle was being accused of unethical promotion of their baby formula, particularly to mothers experiencing poverty and in the global south.

Nestle began extracting ground water in Michigan in 2001, when they announced plans to build their Ice Mountain bottled water plant Mecosta County. It has been clear since then that the State of Michigan, through the DEQ, was willing to grant the multinational corporation rights to extract groundwater for their bottled water sales. The courts in Michigan have generally sided with Nestle on this matter, allowing Nestle to continue its theft of water and to expand bottled water production over the years.

The ICE Mountain brand and other Nestle bottled water products have also been the target of a boycott for over a decade, but that boycott has been ineffective to date.

Boycotts are not enough

While I fully support boycotts as a tactic, it is just that, a tactic. Tactics are tools that we use within a specific strategy that movements adopt to obtain certain goals. For example, the United Farm Workers used the Grape Boycott in the mid 1960s as a tactic to win better wages and working conditions for farmworkers. The UFW did win that campaign to a certain extent, but the ongoing struggle of wages and working conditions for farmworkers is still going on today.

If boycotting Nestle products in a tactic, what is the strategy? It depends on which organization you talk to. Some groups want Nestle to pay more for extracting groundwater from Michigan, while others want better regulatory mechanisms in place. However, another strategy could be to actually stop Nestle from continuing to destroy the aquifers in Michigan and not allow them to extract one more drop for their bottled water profits. Some may say that the company will just go somewhere else and do the same thing. While that maybe true, such resistance would send a strong message to Nestle and to the rest of the world about how we can actually stop corporate capitalism and their push to extract water or oil and anything else from our communities.

What a Campaign to Stop Water Extraction in Michigan might look like

First, I think it is important to think about what tactics have been rather ineffective up to this point with corporations like Nestle. I have been reading Facebook posts over the weekend and many people think if they stop buying Ice Mountain or Kit Kats, we can bring the Nestle Corporation to its knees. This will NOT happen with a boycott.

Again, I support boycotting Nestle products, but that is just one tactic that will mostly provide a mechanism for public awareness around what the company is doing in Michigan.

We know that petitions will not work in this case and DEQ public hearings have failed us. Most people who recently weighed in on the Nestle case expressed opposition, but the state still granted the company the right to extract water.

Legal tactics, like lawsuits can also be useful for raising awareness and at times slowing down the extraction process, but it is not enough to stop the extraction of water.

What is needed and what has always worked throughout history is for people to engage in direct action campaigns to actually stop the water extraction from continuing. Without being too specific, we can certainly learn from other historic strategies that have been used in a fight against this corporate giant.

The Abolitionist Movement was not calling for the regulation of slavery or for better working conditions. They were calling for the abolition of slavery. Why can’t we call for the abolition of water as a commodity? Shouldn’t this be the goal? Everyone should have access to clean, drinkable water at no cost. Period!

If we can agree that this goal, then our strategy should be to do whatever is necessary to stop corporations like Nestle from extracting groundwater from Michigan. This could mean a massive march to the Ice Mountain bottling plant, with a commitment from people to blockade the plant and not allow one truck with bottled water to leave the plant for distribution.

If there were enough people, we could just walk on the Ice Mountain bottling facility and shut it down. We could throw the switch, we could cut the power or we could shut the valve that pipes the groundwater into the bottling plant.

All of these forms of direct action are possible and they would actually achieve the goal of stopping Nestle from extracting water from Michigan.

Of course, there would be consequences, since those with power never willingly give up their power. People would be arrested, which means the local and state police would defend Nestle’s extraction of water from Michigan. This alone should tell us something about the function of governments, which is primarily to defend property rights and the system of economic power in our communities. But this is the beauty of direct action, in that it makes plain for all to see how power functions and who has it.

Therefore, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that signing another petition will stop Nestling from extracting water in Michigan, or that attending another DEQ hearing will prevent the theft of water. We should not wait until the “right” elected officials are in office or work to get Nestle to adopt sustainable business practices. No, we need to used direct action on a large scale to actually stop them from extracting the ground water in Michigan.

Let me just end with an excerpt of a speech from great abolitionist Frederick Douglass in 1857:

Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.

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