The Battle for Ice Mountain: A Global Trade War in our Backyard
Aug. 14, 2002A bluegrass band plays the theme to the Beverly Hillbillies inside a festival tent adorned with red, white and blue balloons. Hundreds of people wait in line in front of a sumptuous catered buffet. It could be a county fair, a wedding, some public fest, but something is odd about this event. Everyone is a winner at carnival games which are staffed by Cub Scouts imported from two counties away. A glossy poster of the hydrologic cycle hangs over the food at the back of the tent. This is the grand opening of the Ice Mountain water bottling plant in Stanwood, Michigan, and the Nestle corporation is buying everyone lunch.
Two radio-equipped security men sit next to us with plates piled high. They greet friends and neighbors, sometimes sheepishly, as the tent fills.
They say things like... “Last time I was in this field I was baling hay...“ “Yeah, last time I was in this field, I was stepping in sheep patties. And wistfully... “Twenty years ago who would‘ve thought you could make a living selling water?“
THE WATER WARS
“What are you planning to do about the Water Wars?“ one security man asked the other across the red checked table cloth.
“We could get out a tanker and spray them....“
Nestle‘s Ice Mountain PR has not won everyone over.
Outside the plant, demonstrators stand under scorching sun holding signs that spell out WILL... YOU... ACCEPT... CORPORATE... CONTROL... OF... YOUR... WATER?. The activists say that they get supportive honks and encouragement from 75% of those leaving the Ice Mountain event.
SHOULD CORPORATIONS CONTROL THE WATER?
With more than a billion people living in water-scarce conditions and a fifth of the world‘s fresh water in the Great Lakes, Michigan is emerging as a hot spot.
World Bank Vice-President Ismail Serageldin has said that the wars of the 21st century will be over water. Vandana Shiva, a prominent Indian physicist and environmentalist, says that global water wars are already happening. In Shiva‘s book “Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution and Profit“ she explains that the water wars are both paradigm wars and traditional wars.
The paradigm wars are between those who see water as sacred and it‘s provision a duty and those who see it as a commodity to be traded by corporations.
Traditonal gunfighting wars have broken out in water scarce regions such as India/Pakistan, Isreal/Palestine and Bolivia.
Water wars pit people against global corporations, and instituations such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the governments of the richest nations.
NESTLE IN MICHIGAN
In Michigan a battle is shaping up over whether the people will allow corporations to take and control Great Lakes water.
Lured by abundant water, lax environmental enforcement and tax abatements, and after getting kicked out of Wisconsin, Nestle came to Michigan last year. With 72 brands in 130 countries Nestle is a leader in the bottled water market worldwide.
Nestle is no stranger to controversy. Nestle inspired one of the most famous boycotts of all time when a campaign to discourage breastfeeding and push expensive baby formula caused infant deaths across the Third World. Now Nestle markets Pure Life brand water in Asia where clean water is unavialable.
Desite Nestle‘s poor environmental and social record, Michigan welcomed the company and its plan to pump and sell the equivalent of an 126 acre lake, six feet four inches in depth.
Nestle bought a 99-year water rights lease from Patrick Bowman, a businessman/developer who runs a private deer hunting ranch called The Sanctuary. They bought an $85 well permit from the DEQ, built a 12-mile long pipeline and a $100 million bottling facility, and started business bottling and selling Ice Mountain brand throughout the Midwest.
State Attorney General Jennifer Granholm advised the governor that the project
amounted to a violation of the Water Resources Development Act of 1986, a federal law which says all Great Lakes governors must consent to any Great Lakes water diversion. Though Engler has cited this act to prevent other Great lakes area communities from diverting water,
he dismissed Granholm‘s opinion in this case.
Engler‘s own advisor, Dennis Shornack warned the governor that Nestle Waters of America (formerly known as Perrier) “does not enjoy a good environmental record.“ He also warned that citizens might not be happy about the Michigan Economic Development Corporation‘s plan to give $10 million in tax abatements to a corporation that stands to make up to $1.8 million per day off the water they extract from the aquifer in Mecosta County.
Engler, who promised in his 2000 State of the State address, “I will not sell Great Lakes water,“ decided instead to just give the water away. If the tax abatements are taken into account, his administration actually paid for the water to be taken away.
HELD IN TRUST
Michigan law says that water should be held in “public trust.“ According to Jim Olson, attorney for the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, the law dictates that water should be used reasonably, that one‘s use should not diminish another‘s use of the water, and the legislature must consent to water diversion.
On these grounds MCWC is suing Nestle Waters of America in Big Rapids Circuit Court. The case is scheduled to be heard in late October.
Although their actions appear illegal under state and federal law, Nestle is moving forward with it‘s operation. Michigan sourced Ice Mountain water is saturating the market, underselling other brands across the Midwest.
Nestle appears to want to establish their operation before the legal issues are worked out. They‘re also playing hard ball. When the Green Party publicly supported a boycott of Ice Mountain water based on evidence that water diversion is damaging local wells and degrading a stream, Nestle lawyers threatened legal action. Lawyers demanded that the Green Party recant their statements.
Across the state a diverse crowd of people are learning about water privatization and organizing to take action. Students, farmers, retirees, sportspeople, environmentalists, children - water drinkers of all stripes have formed the Sweetwater Alliance to “liberate essential resources from corporation control.“
The Sweetwater Alliance has organized demonstrations at the bottling plant, and is coordinating an Ice Mountain boycott. In July Sweetwater carried out 330-mile informational bike tour across western Michigan.
On July 22, Sweetwater Alliance activists put their bodies on the line to stop water extraction. Seven people chained themselves together and blocked the shipping and receiving entrance at the Ice Mountain plant. Fifty others staged a legal picket in support of the blockade. Business at the plant was brought to a halt for seven hours.
“They (Ice Mountain) said we didn‘t have any effect,“ said participant Edmund Frost,“ but when we got up we saw all these semis waiting, so we know, we did have an effect.“
“When we target and explicitly expose the Ice Mountain problem here, it will have a domino effect,“ said Robert Bartle, a Sweetwater Alliance organizer. “People will begin to see privatization as a global
“One of our mantras is ‘remember Cochabomba‘“ said Bartle, “This is an
international struggle we are getting involved with.“
In Cochabamba, Bolivia, the World Bank convinced the government to hand over the municipal water system to the Bechtel corporation and water prices skyrocketed to a fifth of a family‘s average income. Outraged and thirsty, a citizens alliance mobilized and shut down the city for four days while millions of Bolivians held a general strike and issued a
declaration calling for universal water rights. Though the Bolivian government has tried to crush water protests and Bechtel is suing Boliva Cochabamba stands as a lesson that water privatization is not inevitable.
Emily Posner will speak on the stuggle against water privatization in Bolivia at the Traverse Area District Library at 6 p.m. on an upcoming date.
Maude Barlow, author of Blue Gold, will speak in Mount Pleasant on September 12th.
Sweetwater Alliance will have a presence at Friday Night Live events in Traverse City.
for info on the boycott, the lawsuit and other events see www.waterissweet.org