Mexico is the country that consumes more soft drinks per person in the world and Chiapas one of the places where not only the most is drunk but also where malnutrition and obesity prevail.
Experts warn, with 70% of Mexicans overweight, 30% of them obese, and diabetes the primary cause of death, that the health system will collapse by 2020.
Any hopes? That Congress passes the initiative supported by The UN and 47 other organizations to increase beverage company taxes and that The PRI´s current “Crusade Against Hunger” is taken into account.
It´s a festival day in the Altos de Chiapas, the mountain range that surrounds San Cristóbal de las Casas. San Pedro Chenalhó´s school is the center of activities because they have a large gymnasium that converts into a multiple-use meeting area. Regardless of the celebration, or the village participating, this scene invariably repeats itself. It´s ten o´clock in the morning and the number of cases of Coca-Cola that are piled up at the doorway is astounding. The audience settles in early getting good seats to watch their children´s performances. Various volunteers proceed to open and offer soft drinks, which thanks to the City Hall are usually the largest size available in the city, and everybody grabs one. The only requirement is that you are able to finish the half-liter bottles which often seem bigger than the children that are holding them. Of course if not, there´s another option: their mothers can either hold the bottle or pour it into a baby bottle to make it easier to drink.
Next, some little kids go to center court where they dance around the Coca-Cola brand symbol drawn on the floor. If an extra-terrestrial arrived at this moment, surely they would think that Coke was something very important to the earthlings. Everyone is pleased that a woman is offering some cookies to accompany their soft drinks between performances. All the children are doing very well and today they will save their lunches, something important in a region where poverty affects eight out of ten people and malnutrition and hunger three out of ten.
The school in San Pedro Chenalhó is on the road that joins San Cristóbal de Las Casas with Pantelho, a bit further than 60 kilometers from the colonial city. During the trip, the red and white colors stand out against the green mountain landscape. Almost all the shops, but not the normal houses, are painted in these colors because this way the paint is free. Coca-Cola Femsa (the Mexican subsidiary that is Coca-Cola´s largest bottling plant in the world, with 2.6 billion cases produced in 2011 and which supplies all Latin America) knows that these indigenous and impoverished areas are an important market. Femsa opts for advertisements in native languages and have changed over the traditional welcoming billboards to villages into large publicity posters.
The strategy comes from afar. As the social anthropologist Jaime Page Pliego explains, in research about to be published in the magazine, Liminar, soft drink companies looked for local party leaders who had been supported by the PRI and who were in charge of pox production (a type of clear brandy made from sugar cane and used in Mayan ceremonies) and gave them exclusivity for Coke and Pepsi. Soon they became rich. Page Pliego cites the example of the Lopez Tuxum family from San Juan Chamula – a village today known for a large Syncretist Church where Mayan ceremonies take place in front of its altars of various virgins and saints. This family was offered the exclusive selling rights in 1962 to both brands and later both companies wanted the sole rights which Coca-Cola ended up winning. The Lopez Tuxums established themselves as money-lenders, controlled all transportation, and handed down the businesses from one generation to another. “The social prestige that Coke and Pepsi acquired in Chamula, primarily for Coke, at the family festivities and patron events, spread all over the Altos de Chiapas”, writes Page.
Little by little these refreshments have become an important focus for the communities of los Altos. Nowadays, it´s not only a beverage but rather almost a currency to pay debts or dowries and in fact even part of Prehispanic ceremonies and religious rituals. Since Evangelical churches have proliferated in the area they have also encouraged the local natives to replace their alcoholic drink pox with Coke or other sodas.
2-5 LITERS PER PERSON PER DAY
Mexico is the country where the most soft drinks are consumed worldwide and Coca-Cola Femsa are the leaders. When the heat bears down in some villages of northern Mexico´s Sonora Desert, a person can drink up to five liters of Coke, according to Page Pliego´s data. The average in the country, his research found, stands at 0.4 liters daily per Mexican, a figure that multiplies in Chiapas. In los Altos, each inhabitant drinks 2.25 liters daily and is the reason why the bottles there are extra-large and not sold anywhere else.
The Coca-Cola Femsa bottling plant in San Cristóbal de las Casas is, furthermore, one of the two largest in Mexico (the other is in Tlaxcala, near the capital) with guaranteed water access since it´s situated on the slopes of the Huitepec, known as the “volcano of water”. Page Pliego says that besides the actual well, which is used to supply all Chiapas and part of Oaxaca and Tabasco, another is being built. Various organizations have denounced agreementsbetween the company and officials for being able to access the water at a very low cost in a state where having rights to this resource causes major legal problems among communities.
That´s why Chiapas is the best example of what has become known as “Coca-Colization”,or the invasion of the soft drinks. While maybe not the only cause of what experts term as “the new war of the twenty-first century” or the obesity epidemic, it is clearly one of the main reasons why in Mexico, according to expert studies, 70% of the population is overweight and 30% of them are obese.
Yet for UN Food Program spokesperson Oliver de Schutter, the point where a marked change in the Mexicans´ food habits and also an increase in sugar and processed fats intake occurred, is when on the first of January 1994 The North American Free Trade Act was signed. Food imports soared and, in just a decade, Coke consumption doubled among children, according to Schutter.
SOFT DRINKS + MALNOURISHMENT= ALARM
In Chiapas this makes for an explosive combination: high soft drink consumption and high levels of malnourishment. “Most Mexican adults were malnourished as children, so their bodies are programmed for less and when suddenly there is an excess of sugar the metabolic damage is terrible” explains Dr. Abelardo Avila, researcher for The National Institute for Health and Nutrition. The consequences range from diabetes to heart-disease, blindness, amputations and lower work output.
According to the 2012 Health and Nutrition Survey, diabetes is the primary cause of death in the country, with an estimated 13 million affected and only half diagnosed and treated. This survey found that 70% of households demonstrated some level of food imbalance.
Nutritionist Marisol Vega knows what the combination of these factors mean. She has spent more than ten years working in several communities in los Altos de Chiapas with university or NGO projects and has seen “how traditional diets have been replaced by soft drinks and junk-food that is cheaper and easier to prepare”.
“For ten pesos (half a Euro) they can buy a large bottle of soda for the whole family to drink for breakfast, later another for lunch and perhaps even one more for dinner, because it´s cheap(less than bottled water)and thirst-quenching, especially when served with tortillas. In addition, it is also socially respected”, adds Vega. The researcher warns of the danger that this implies in some communities where there exists historically-inherited malnutrition. Breastfeeding is being given up early and soft drinks are even being served to infants. The result is that in the same family there are under-nourished children and obese adults. Not only has the rate of diabetes shot up, but Vega warns that the problem will multiply in the future.
CHEAPER AND MORE ACCESSIBLE THAN WATER
“Many schools, not only in Chiapas or Yucatan where the problem is more apparent, but also in the metropolitan area of the Mexican capital, haven´t got drinkable water and the children hydrate with soft drinks. This is a horrible problem”, points out Dr. Abelardo Avila. “I have even seen mothers who fill their baby bottles with Coca-Cola”, he adds. Also, schools have been converted into “junk-food paradises” even though their sale has already been prohibited. You only need to go to the schools´ entrances to see that what used to be sold inside, now has moved outside. “Right, during a few months we couldn´t sell” – says Señora Juana while she loads her small carriage with sweets at a centrally located school near the capital –“ but now there´s no problem”.
All experts agree, that although in some places like the capital anti-obesity and some nutritional programs have been launched, in general the state has not done enough to control the overweight epidemic and the diseases related to these problems. With diabetes at the top, the problems have grown so much that “if continued at the current rate, in 2020 the financial and public health damage for México will be unsustainable, a catastrophe” predicts Dr. Ávila.
“Coca Cola and the rest of the soft drink companies has done everything that the government has let them do”, protests Alejandro Calvillo, Director of the NGO “The Power of the Consumer”.
On several occasions their group has denounced the excessive permissiveness of the authorities regarding the expansion of beverage industries who have operated with very low costs and taxes and even with unfair practices. “We can demonstrate that agreements between Coca-Cola and school directors from Chiapas permitted their exclusive beverage sales on school property and that they paid them with bottles of Coke that were later resold for their own personal gain”. Calvillo also remembers that the relationship that this company has with the powers to be is very strong. “You just have to recall that not long ago, from 2000 to 2006, Mexico had a president that was the director of Coca-Cola (Vicente Fox)”.
Demands of the civil organizations and the UN itself to alleviate the problem have been the same for some years and they follow two directives: prohibiting soft drink and junk-food publicity aimed at children and raising taxes on the industry. But companies in the sector, very powerful and with double moral standards (some, for example, support nutritional programs developed by NGOs), have managed to skirt the measures by committing to self-regulation, stating that the problem isn’t soft drinks or some foods but rather nutritional habits, as Jaime Zabludovsky, President of ConMéxico and sector employer, explains.
Up for debate, the next Mexican Congressional Sessions will answer to the demands of 47 organizations to raise the taxes on the soft drink companies and to try to counteract the consumption of sweetened beverages. These groups also know that it will be necessary to invest in nutritional education as much in rural areas as in the urban ones and also to recover traditional diets with produce grown in their own community when possible.
UN Secretary Schutter agrees with this diagnosis. México must ”study the possibility of levying taxes to discourage energy-rich diets, especially soft drink consumption” he said this past March.
Mexico should also “grant subsidies so poorer communities are able to have water, fruit and vegetables” and work towards “agricultural and trade policies” which have a good effect on population diet, namely, policies supporting individual production in agricultural communities instead of imports.
As the experts agree, this should be one of the basic objectives of the “Crusade against Hunger“, which has just been set up by Enrique Peña Nieto’s government with 30,000 million pesos (about 1,800 million euros) focused on 400 highly marginalized towns in the country.