Mexico: Communities want Bonafont water gone

Issue 
"Water belongs to the people" says a mural at the entrance to the Bonafont water bottling plant in Mexico's Puebla state. Photo: Tamara Pearson

United States and European water bottling companies are making huge profits from packaging and selling Mexico’s water resources, while leaving locals without water.

Indigenous and local communities in Puebla state united in a 24-hour peaceful blockade of a Bonafont plant, which has continued for weeks.

People from Almoloya, Tlautla, Colonia José Ángeles, Ometoxtla, Zacatepec, Cuanalá, Nextetelco, Coronango, Tepalcatepec, Cuachayotla, Cuapan, Xoxtla and Cuautlancingo have shut the plant down and are demanding it pack up and leave.

“Things were wonderful 20 years ago, but now the Bonafont plant is here working day and night, drying up our wells and rivers. There were fish and frogs before, but now it is all dried up.

“Bonafont is an act of death, because now we can’t get any water from our wells … we have to buy water from pipas (privately owned trucks that sell water) and it’s expensive and isn’t enough to last the week,” said Gloria Mejias Cinto, a member of the Land and Water Defenders.

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Protesters have blocked the entrance to the Bonafont plant with rocks and dirt. Photo: Tamara Pearson

I am talking to her at the protest. Behind us, is a giant mural that says: “Water belongs to the people.”

Behind the food table are lots of children’s drawings about the importance of water. On the other side, people rest near their tents.

People from the different towns rotate on guard duty at the protest night and day. Large piles of rocks and concrete stop any company trucks from getting in or out.

“We’ll hold this protest until there is a resolution, until Bonafont leaves our country. Then we’ll hold assemblies of all our towns (in the area) and decide what to do,” said Mejias.

“Our water isn’t for sale, it’s not merchandise.”

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Inside the Bonafont plant. Photo: Tamara Pearson

The big and pointless business of bottling water

According to workers at the Bonafont plant, it extracts 1.4 million litres of water a day from the nearby Iztaccíhuatl volcanic springs, in the east of Puebla state. 

One worker, who spoke anonymously to La Jornada de Oriente, said the pandemic emergency measures resulted in a 30% rise in demand for the 19-litre containers of filtered water.

The Bonafont plant has been in the area since 1996, and it legally has access to two drill sites to extract water, but locals say it is secretly extracting water in a third location, without the required permits.

Bonafont is a brand owned by Danone, a Paris-based food corporation. Danone claims it is taking steps to “tackle global water challenges” and its message in Mexico and other countries is of “healthy hydration”. However, bottling spring water hinders rather than helps water supply or hydration.

And while the company profits from taking locals’ water in practice, its spin is about “matching every litre of water sold with a litre for people in need … to help 50 million people in developing countries access safe drinking water”.

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Gloria Mehias Cinto. Photo: Tamara Pearson

There are some 16,000 water purification and bottling plants in Mexico. The country is the biggest consumer globally of bottled water, though it is worth noting that most bottled water comes in recycled 19-litre containers.

Danone, Coca-Cola and Pepsico dominate the bottled water market nationally, at 82%, while in Puebla state, Nestle Water and US company, Keurig Dr Pepper also profit from the market. Nestle takes water from the springs of the Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl volcanos.

These companies pay, on average, 2600 pesos (AU$168) per year for a concession to extract water.

Depending on the size of the bottle and local water rates, bottled water can be up to 3000 times more expensive than tap water. Treating tap water also involves much less energy than producing or recycling plastic bottles, cleaning them, labelling them and transporting them.

In addition, about six litres of water are used to produce 1.5 litres of bottled water. 

It is the profits, rather than “healthy hydration” or the environment that drive this market. Globally, the bottled water market was valued at US$217.66 billion last year and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 11.1% from 2021–28.

Here in Mexico, foreign-owned bottling companies aren’t the only ones leaving locals without water. Thousands of largely US- and European-owned factories and mines benefit from the resource, while contaminating the water supply with total impunity.

A Coca Cola plant in Chiapas, for example, extracts more than 1.14 million litres of water a day, leaving indigenous and poor locals forced to consume the soft drink, as they are left without water, and it is often cheaper and easier to get than bottled water.

Some 60% of the rivers and catchment areas in Mexico are polluted. But with politicians and water and environmental monitoring bodies accepting bribes from foreign and local factories and corporations, and with the pressure from the US via trade agreements to make Mexico as agreeable as possible to foreign companies, it is unlikely the water situation will change soon.

[Tamara Pearson, @pajaritaroja, is a journalist living in Puebla, Mexico, and author of The Butterfly Prison. Her writings can be found at her blog resistancewords.com.]

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Part of the permanent protest outside the Bonafont plant in Mexico's Puebla state. Photo: Tamara Pearson

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