San Cristobal de las Casas, the Mexican town that drank more coke than water

San Cristobal de las Casas is a picturesque mountain town in the state of Chiapas, Mexico. Heavily influenced by Spanish colonization and the Mayan culture, the town is home to one of the largest indigenous populations in Mexico. But San Cristobal de las Casas also holds a ghastly world record regarding soda consumption, especially coke.

Unsplash | Azzedine Rouichi

Coca-Cola’s operations rely on access to vast supplies of water. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, regular cola contains about 89 percent water. The world’s leading provider of soft drinks opened its first bottling franchise in Mexico in the 1920s. In addition to its proximity to the United States, the country was then known for its extensive availability and the quality of its fresh water. By 1934, there were already eight Coca-Cola bottlers spread around the country. Mexico’s soda industry quickly emerged in the middle of the twentieth century when the economy began to liberalize.

Coca-Cola progressively became a big part of Mexicans’ daily life. As Mexico joined the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, tariffs on many commodities exported by the United States were eliminated. It soon became cheaper to buy coke in the country. In 2001, Mexico surpassed the United States for the country’s title with the highest per-capita consumption of Coca-Cola products. Coca-Cola is king in some of the country’s poorest states, so it is in Chiapas.

A hulking Coca-Cola bottling plant lies on the edge of San Cristobal de las Casas. Built in 1994, the then Latin America’s largest Coca-Cola plant, which has been permitted to draw water from one of the leading groundwater sources in the country, attracts widespread criticism. In 2016, the company was estimated to use over one million liters of water a day. 

The locals blame Coca-Cola’s operations for having dried out the aquifer. Potable water has become increasingly scarce and expensive in the area yet known for its constant downpours and abundant springs. During the dry season, all the rain that replenishes the aquifer is much less than it used to be, mainly due to global warming. But the water shortages faced by the town are largely due to the overexploitation of the spring by the multinational. 

As a consequence, the residents regularly have to ration their water use. Some collect rainwater in cisterns and store it in plastic bags. One of the indigenous communities inhabiting the Mexican town has to walk two hours to get clean drinking water. Although some households have running water a few times a week, many residents are forced to buy extra water from private tanker trucks or drink the more readily available beverage: Coca-Cola. 

Many inhabitants have no choice but to turn to soft drinks for essential hydration. According to a study conducted by Cimsur, the sugary drink consumption rate in Chiapas is more than five times higher than the national rate of 150 liters per person per year. In San Cristobal de las Casas, the average resident drinks more than two liters of Coca-Cola daily. Even very young children are accustomed to drinking carbonated beverages. According to a study conducted in an indigenous community, three percent of babies under six months and 15 percent of children aged one or two regularly drink soft drinks. 

Adam Jones | Flick

Unsurprisingly, the effect on public health has been devastating. By drinking soda, children ingest between 315 and 420 percent more than the maximum amount of daily intake of sugars recommended by world organizations. In addition, the consumption of high amounts of sugar is associated with health issues such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, dyslipidemia, pancreatitis, obesity, and liver dysfunction. In Chiapas, diabetes is the second-leading cause of death after heart disease. Even diabetics can’t imagine life without sugary drinks.

Since bottles of Coca-Cola arrived in the Mexican town, soda has been deeply intertwined with the local culture. Some residents believe that carbonated soda has the power to heal the sick. “It is considered a holy drink. It helps purify the soul. This is the power of Coca-Cola“, trumpets one of them. It is also used for religious rites: in St. John the Baptist church, Coca-Cola bottles are used for decoration and even to perform religious ceremonies. No wonder the church is now colloquially known as the “Coca-Cola Church.” Coke also began to replace pozol and pox, two traditional nutritious drinks trendy among Mayan communities, the former made of fermented corn dough and corn, and the latter being a liquor made of sugar cane, corn, and wheat.

The omnipotence and omnipresence of the iconic red label brand have created a town revolving around the soft beverage drink. The company employs about four hundred people and contributes around two hundred million dollars to the state economy, making it one of the main economic forces in the region. Therefore, some residents are torn between working for the company to make a living and denouncing the horrendous practices of the multinational.

Coca-Cola’s local market penetration has also been aided by aggressive marketing strategies targeting vulnerable Chiapas residents. The company used to produce giant billboards depicting indigenous models and religious references with slogans written in local languages. By forming emotional ties with the product, Coca-Cola soon created addictions to the inhabitants of San Cristobal de las Casas: “Because I like it; it fills me up; I miss it when I don’t drink it; I can’t stop drinking it.

Lucile Guéguen

The New York Times | En una ciudad con poca agua, la Coca-Cola y la diabetes se multiplican
The New York Times | In town with little water, Coca-Cola is everywhere. So is diabetes
Mexico Daily News | With average daily consumption of 2.2 liters of Coca-Cola, Chiapas leads the world
Truth Out | Coca-Cola sucks wells dry in Chiapas, forcing residents to buy water
Vimeo | Sous l’emprise du Coca
Praxis Makes Perfect Blog | Cola-Colization: San Cristobal de las Casas – Chiapas, Mexico, by Vienna Alvarez

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