Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Nestlé’s contempt for Brazilian law - my São Lourenço hat part 2

A while back I explained why in my mug shot on this page I am wearing a baseball cap. Someone has suggested I change the picture. Take the cap off, effectively. Well, I like it and it is a reminder of São Lourenço, in Minas Gerais state, Brazil.

São Lourenço is on Brazil's famous 'water circuit' of historic spa towns, and is built around a water park full of mineral springs credited with healing properties. For over a century people have visited the town to take the waters and, until the pharmaceutical companies expanded into Brazil after the second world war, doctors were taught 'crenology' - using mineral waters for health.

I first visited São Lourenço on a honeymoon tour of Brazil in 2001 and did not realize at that time that the eerily humming concrete building we strayed across in one corner was owned by Nestlé. The park fell into its hands when it took over the Perrier bottled water company in 1992. It was only later that I was contacted by residents of the town who had come across the boycott we promote over Nestlé's aggressive marketing of baby foods and were looking for help with their campaign. Then I learned of the destruction of this wonder of nature through Nestlé's sinking of two massive wells to extract water for supplying its Pure Life brand across Brazil. The volumes drawn off were affecting the other springs. One of which dried up. Others changed their mineral composition and long-time visitors started to complain and to stop visiting. The ground started to subside and the chapel like buildings over the springs began to crack.

Residents raised a petition, gaining thousands of signatures, and presented this to the Public Prosecutor, who had to launch an investigation. When he found many irregularities, he brought legal action against Nestlé calling for an immediate end to pumping and compensation to the town. That was in 2001. Campaigners went to Brasilia and there was a congressional hearing, investigations by a federal Public Prosecutor - again finding multiple breaches of regulations - and, in 2004 an order was published calling for Nestlé to paralyze all activities at the well it had sunk, within 30 days. The well was known as the 'Primavera well' ('Primavera' is Portuguese for Spring, the season). There is an original Primavera spring with water coming from the same level in the aquifer. Each spirng has a chapel-like building above. Nestlé demolished the oldest, above the Orient Spring, dating from 1892, to build a massive wall around the bottling plant to hide what it was doing and to penetrate deeply into the ground to stop rain water that was now entering through the earth disrupted by the subsidence from contaminating its bottled water source. You can see the picture and a wealth of information in Portuguese at

Nestlé continued pumping despite the order, bringing a legal challenge against it.

There were repeated hopes of a breakthrough. One of the campaigners, Franklin Fredrick, began travelling to Switzerland to bring the case to Nestlé's doorstep and found a similar situation had occurred there, but the media attention to a Swiss campaign had quickly stopped Nestlé's damaging activities. It seemed the same would work for São Lourenço, as when Franklin questioned the Chief Executive of Nestlé, Peter Brabeck-Letmathé, at a public meeting in January 2005 Mr Brabeck said Nestlé would stop pumping. It was headline news. But the promise was worthless. Nestlé continued pumping.

We raised the issue when relevant in the UK. Such as in an article I wrote for Corporate Watch, given the title: Steal the water, Push the powder. See

When Franklin was in Switzerland we raised a little money to bring him to the UK to meet with water campaigners and development organisations here. We had him as a speaker at our event on Nestlé at the European Social Forum in London in 2004. We put him in contact with the organisers of the Tap Water Awards, the alternative to Nestlé's Perrier Comedy Award at the Edinburgh Fringe and they included information about São Lourenço in their materials.

We also saw the value in a wider campaign Franklin was heavily involved in. Something to make a lasting and wide-reaching difference. He was working with campaign organisations and faith groups in calling for water to be recognised as a human right and public good and for there to be a convention setting out responsibilities. While there had been some work on the rights angle in the UK, the water campaigners here were not linked into the Brazil/Swiss campaign, which was gaining momentum. Seeing the value of this approach from our experience with the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, we included promoting it in a project we put together on corporate accountability. I have just finished the report to one of our funders today, which has prompted me to revisit this case.

So with a bit of money, earlier this year, in March, we held a joint seminar in London with Franklin, ActionAid, Christian Aid, War on Want and the World Development Movement, organisations that had endorsed a declaration based on the Brazil/Swiss one calling for water to be recognised as a human right and for there to be a convention.

Nestlé reached into its usual armoury of tricks to try to undermine the seminar. It wrote to the directors of the organisations claiming it had an independent audit conducted by Bureau Veritas showing the allegations of illegal activity were false. It included a letter from the Mayor of São Lourenço saying Franklin was not born in the town, did not live in the town and had no right to speak on behalf of the town.

Well, I had a mass of documents showing that the claims of illegality were true and had met and spoken with prosecutors, members of congress, hydrologists and so on while in Brazil and on a return trip to São Lourenço when the BBC were recording a radio programme (which you can hear by clicking here and read the transcript by clicking here). Nestlé were bang to rights. The seminar went ahead.

A little later I was able to question Bureau Veritas about their audit. Know what they said: "our work did not constitute a legal audit as such, nor did it include a review of the on-going civil action." So the audit was a pile of pants (to use the technical phrase) because Bureau Veritas had not even talked with the Public Prosecutor or mentioned the legal action. They also seemed unaware of the Federal Prosecutors legal opinion which led to the 2004 paralysation order. But Nestlé misrepresents the audit saying: "a third party audit by Bureau Veritas confirms that we have acted in accordance with Brazilian legislation". Laughable, if it wasn't people's livelihoods we are speaking about. As we have told Bureau Veritas, they can download the documents from our website at, but they refuse to revise their audit.

Two things happened subsequently in Brazil. Firstly when news of the Mayor's letter reached Brazil it caused a bit of a stink and the town council introduced a motion to make Franklin an honorary citizen!

Secondly, Nestlé met with the Public Prosecutor and agreed to settle the case! It was coming to a head after 5 years in the courts. There was a suggestion to call in an independent hydrologist. At the meeting to discuss this, Nestlé instead said it would stop pumping and by way of compensation would renovate the park.

Ten years after it sank its well, it finally agreed in a written agreement to turn off the pump. That's all it had to do. Flick the switch. In the agreement, failure to comply would require it to pay a fine of R$ 55,000 per day.

What a great victory! Franklin came once more to the UK in August and was able to attend the Tap Water Awards in Edinburgh this year. There was a celebratory air as Nestlé had also abandoned the Perrier Comedy Award following the bad publicity it attracted to its baby food marketing practices and the Brazil case. The Tap Water people gave Franklin a special prize for the work of the campaigners.

Franklin receiving his Tap Water Award 2006

Today we received an endorsement for our petition of solidarity with the Philippines from São Lourenço. The Friends of the Water Circuit of Minas Gerais Movement's message was sent on to our partners there as they battle to defend their baby food regulations from attack by the industry and US Chamber of Commerce. You can now see images of the baby milk labels from Nestlé and other companies on our Campaign for Ethical Marketing action sheet, which demonstrate one aspect of the aggressive marketing they use. See

But this story does not have a happy ending, I'm afraid. Not yet. Because I learned something else today from São Lourenço.

It seems Nestlé has not turned of its pumps.

I have before me the official government record of pumping rates from 11 May 2006, after the agreement to stop pumping was signed. It was still pumping at over 10 m3/hour on that date. You can see the record here:

That's equivalent to ten thousand 1 litre bottles of water every hour of every day. But apparently Nestlé is just throwing the water away, because it is illegal to demineralise it and sell it. Last we knew it was extracting the carbon dioxide to put into other drinks.

So now to force Nestlé to comply with the agreement it signed, they have to try to levy the fine of R$55,000 per day. Does Nestlé care? Has it just incorporated the fine into its business plan? Does it know it will take years more to take it through the courts again, years while it will continue to make a profit?

An all too familiar story of denials, deception and profits before people.

There's not much I can do with everything going in with the baby milk campaign, which has to be our priority.

But I can at least keep on wearing that baseball cap so São Lourenço is not forgotten.

(Though, if you really hate it and want me to take it off, leave me a message).

1 comment:

curetheplanet said...

Hi Mike!

Please don't throw away the baseball cap!

Thanks for the wonderful text.
all my best ,
Luciana Lee