July 18, 2008

Protecting water resources - lessons from a Brazilian success

A few years ago I worked with Brazilian water campaigners trying to stop Nestlé from exploiting water in São Lourenço, an historic spa town. Nestlé's operation broke federal laws regarding demineralisation of a precious resource, which formed the basis of tourism in the town. Nestlé had sunk two boreholes and was pumping volumes of water that was affecting the springs used for treating various ailments. Subsidence was also reported in the water park, where chapel-like buildings were built over the springs, some a century old.

It took ten years of campaigning to force Nestlé to stop pumping and to gain some level of compensation for the town, in the form of renovation of the park.

A key element of the campaign, was the civil public action brought by citizens. They collected petition signatures and presented these to the public prosecutor who, under Brazilian law, had to investigate to see if there was a case to answer. He concluded that there was and took Nestlé to court for a variety of irregularities. Nestlé's was ordered to stop pumping immediately. This was over-turned just days later by a higher court that ruled that Nestlé could continue pumping while the case was heard. Campaigners received the backing of members of Congress, where a hearing was held that took evidence from officials veryifying that laws had been broken. A legal opinion was commissioned from a federal prosecutor, who not only supported these views, but called for an investigation of possible corruption as Nestlé had not been required to stop pumping by the authorities responsible for mineral water resources.

The campaign came to Europe and I played a part, in my position with Baby Milk Action, in bringing it to the attention of UK development organisations (who backed a public meeting on the topic, with Franklin Fredrick from the Brazilian campaign). I also worked with the BBC radio, which made a programme on the case. See:

Campaigners did well in publicising the case in Nestlé's home country of Switzerland and, when questioned, the then Chief Executive Officer, Peter Brabeck-Letmathé (who continues as Chairman), would give encouraging signs that they were in the process of complying with the law, only for further challenges to be made by the company in Brazil.

Finally the company gave in to pressure and, no doubt mindful that it was likely to lose the court case, settled out of court, agreeing to stop pumping or face punitive fines. It has now stopped.

Nestlé claims that it did nothing wrong and says it commissioned an independent audit that confirmed it was in compliance with the law. When I contacted the auditors, Bureau Veritas, and brought to their attention some of the illegalities, they commented: "our work did not constitute a legal audit as such, nor did it include a review of the on-going civil action."

Here is an image from the environmental impact assessment, commissioned retrospectively by Nestlé, which shows its bottling plant was built in the red of area of high risk to the aquifer.

This case was one of those informing my chapter on holding corporations accountable in the book 'Global Obligations for the Right to Food' - available to order on this blog - and the proposal for a World Transnational Corporation Regulatory Authority, put forward for inclusion in the Simultaneous Policy. See:

I particularly like the idea of a citizens' petition, which was instrumental in resolving the case of Nestlé in Brazil, though this took far too long. If national measures are ineffective, I propose that citizens be permitted to bring such as petition to the World TNC Authority to prompt an investigation. If it is found that there is a case to answer, this would go forward to the prosecutor of a reformed International Criminal Court or other specially-created court.

Around the world, communities are battling to protect their water resources. A couple of significant campaigns are being run by the Polaris Institute and Action for Corporate Accountability. Feel free to add comments with other resources.

Simpol-UK has held policy fora on protecting the right to water, for example at the European Social Forum in London in 2004. A past newsletter includes an article from Franklin Fredrick of the Brazilian campaign.

This can be downloaded from the 'campaigns' section of:

Or directly from:

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