The first sign that something was amiss was in the bowl of rice. Residents in the town of Plachimada, in India’s state of Kerala, watched the grains swirl in gluey yellow water before taking a spoonful that left a metallic aftertaste.
Soon, they noticed that water had to be fetched deeper and deeper into the well. Crops withered and decreased in yield as stomach illness and skin rashes spread like a plague.
Eighteen years after their popular uprising shut down a Coca-Cola bottling plant accused of discharging toxic waste, Plachimada’s residents have taken to the streets again to denounce the company’s sponsorship of this year’s UN Climate Change Conference.
“Criminal Cola polluted our water and the same company is now sponsoring COP27,” a 50-year-old resident who identified himself as Thankavelu told Al Jazeera. “That’s why we are extremely angry.”
Thankavelu was among a group of protesters who burned the company’s symbols in front of the defunct plant run by Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Limited – the Indian subsidiary of the Atlanta-based company – as the annual climate summit kicked off in Egypt last week.
For the past 20 years, their popular action group – the Anti-Coca Cola Struggle Committee – has demanded compensation from the company to no avail, despite the extent of environmental damage documented in several scientific studies.
In 2010, a High Power Committee mandated by the Kerala government found evidence of over-extraction of groundwater and indiscriminate disposal of sludge containing cadmium and lead.
“It is evident that the damages caused by the Coca-Cola factory at Plachimada have created a host of social, economic, health and ecological problems,” the report concluded.
The community of mostly landless agricultural labourers such as Thankavelu relied on the local well for basic needs including drinking, cooking and washing. As the water quality deteriorated and local authorities declared it unsuitable for domestic use, they had little choice but to carry weighty jerrycans from further afield.
When the government began distributing water to the area by truck in 2003, Thankavelu’s wife cut back on her working hours to wait for the delivery. A pipeline was later built and residents say they were required to pay 3,500 Indian rupees ($43) for the installation, and 150 rupees a month ($1.85) for the water provision.
KV Biju, the convener of the Anti-Coca Cola Struggle Committee, said many in the community contracted an inflammatory skin disease as many more abandoned the area and their homes.
The group sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on November 4 to request the company’s removal from the COP27 sponsorship.
“This conference is for environmental protection and Coca-Cola are the polluter, not only here but in many places in India,” Biju said. “We are requesting that the UN take the reasonable step of removing the company from the climate negotiations.”
Coca-Cola’s climate commitments: pledge or mockery?
The government of Egypt announced on September 30 that it signed an agreement with Coca-Cola, introducing the company as a COP27 sponsor in Sharm El-Sheikh.
During the signing ceremony at the foreign ministry in Cairo, Ahmed Rady, Coca-Cola’s vice president of operations for North Africa, said it was the company’s “firm belief that working together through meaningful partnerships will create shared opportunities for communities and people around the world and in Egypt”.
A Coca-Cola spokesperson told Al Jazeera “in all our business activities, our bottling partners and we ensure compliance with all applicable laws as stipulated by the Government”.
The Plachimada litigation was settled in 2017 when Coca-Cola relinquished its license and informed the Supreme Court that it did not intend to resume production.
The company also stated its sponsorship of COP27 was “in line with our science-based target to reduce absolute carbon emissions 25 percent by 2030, and our ambition for net zero carbon emissions by 2050”.
Watchdog organisations, however, argue its involvement runs counter to the United Nation’s frameworks and principles.
“Plachimada is one of many heart-wrenching examples of how Coca-Cola has historically exploited communities and further exacerbated struggles [caused by] the climate crisis,” Ashka Naik, the research director at Corporate Accountability, told Al Jazeera.
“The fact that our most vital intergovernmental forum for addressing the climate crisis is being sponsored by big polluters and its enablers makes a mockery of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC),” Naik added.
A 2022 “Brand Audit” released on Wednesday by the Break Free From Plastic movement found Coca-Cola to be the worst plastic polluter for the fifth year in a row. After identifying 429,994 pieces of plastic collected by 14,760 volunteers in 44 countries, the movement found Coca-Cola to be the top plastic polluter by a significant lead.
“Over those five years we consistently found more Coca-Cola pollution than the next two top polluters combined,” Emma Priestland, the movement’s campaign coordinator, told Al Jazeera. “So the amount of plastic waste being made by the company is simply enormous.”
Overall, Break Free From Plastic counted more than 80,000 discarded pieces of plastic branded Coca-Cola in 78 countries across the world.
Coca-Cola has admitted producing 120 billion throwaway plastic bottles a year – 200,000 every minute – amid urgent calls to cut back on fossil fuels to meet the goal of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit).
The company has pledged to cut back on single-use plastic by 2025 as part of its World Without Waste strategy [pdf]. A report by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation assessing companies’ progress against their pledges, however, found the volume of virgin plastic it used increased 3.5 percent between 2019 and 2021.
“Coca-Cola have a long history of greenwashing their image to try and look sustainable when actually they are getting worse and worse,” Priestland said.
“We need to see Coca-Cola making real efforts to switch away from single-use plastic and move their products into reusable packaging, which has been proven to reduce plastic pollution and also help the climate.”
Coca-Cola is not the only company whose track record has raised concerns about corporate influence on political decision-making at COP27.
Out of a total of 20 sponsors or partners at the climate summit, Corporate Accountability and Corporate Europe Observatory jointly identified 18 as either directly supporting or partnering with the fossil fuel industry.
Bill Gates’ Microsoft was found to be the biggest tech partner to the oil and gas industry, providing artificial intelligence to help fossil fuel giants discover and extract oil. Its own workers went on strike in 2019, saying they were being made “complicit” in contributing to climate change.
Vodafone’s Chairman Gerard Kleisterlee served as deputy chair on Shell’s board of directors for nine years. The Mansour Group, which describes itself as “no stranger to oil and gas”, has a decades-long history of selling drilling equipment, with further plans to “take a more proactive role in this lucrative field”.
EgyptAir launched its first “climate-friendly” flight in January, reducing single-use plastics served on board rather than addressing the emissions from its jet fuel. It created a special green logo to use at the climate conference.
COP hosts have a history of choosing big corporate sponsors. Last year, Scotland picked Unilever – which consistently appeared in the top five in Break Free From Plastic’s audits – to sponsor COP26 despite longstanding accusations of destructive deforestation and the exploitation of workers and Indigenous people.
“Unfortunately, the fossil fuel industry still carries a sway on the politics and policies of climate action,” said Naik from Corporate Accountability.
“Until the UNFCCC adopts strong safeguards against these corporate sponsorships, the flooding of the space with fossil fuel lobbyists, industry propaganda, and the annual greenwashing extravaganza around such COPs, the progress inside will be deeply limited, highly coopted, and dangerously absent.”