The walls of the water bottling plant have been repainted in white, but the plaster does not hide the graffiti written in black letters: “Criminal Danone.” In San Juan Crisostomo Bonilla, located in the state of Puebla and three hours east of Mexico City, masked and armed policemen greet visitors when they get too close to the factory entrance. Their appearance may be threatening, but in reality, they are only guarding an empty shell. The factory was shut down, after having been occupied for 11 months in 2021 by the inhabitants of 20 villages in this region, in order to close the well.
Between the buildings, there are still orange plastic water cans: a well-known color in Mexico, belonging to the Bonafont brand owned by the French food group Danone. Those of its competitors (Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nestlé) are blue. In this country of 130 million inhabitants, the vast majority of city-homes use 20-liter drinking water cans. Danone ones in particular with 450 million produced in 2022.
Bonafont is in fact the leading company in the bottled water market in Mexico, with 38% of sales, followed by Ciel, a subsidiary of Coca-Cola (25%), and E-Pura, the PepsiCo group’s brand (19%), according to economist Raul Pacheco-Vega. Pacheco-Vega, a researcher at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, estimates that together, these three multinational companies control 82% of the sector in the country. However, conflicts such as the one in San Juan Crisostomo Bonilla could call into question the strong performance that Danone is achieving in the water business – sales are up 6% in Latin America for the first quarter of 2023.
To explain the battle that is being played out in this locality of Puebla, Fidel Lopez, a farmer, was keen to show the water basins in the shade of large trees, where children were noisily cooling off. “You see, the level is 1.70 meters now compared to 30 centimeters at the time of the Danone factory. In less than two years, our water sources have recovered to a proper level, even if it is not the original level,” said this 76 year old, pointing to an embankment that would correspond to the original banks.
‘We used to have fruit trees’
A little farther on, Lopez stopped in front of the canals that wind between the corn and bean fields. “We have watercress growing at the bottom of the water again. It is a plant that had totally disappeared with the water shortage and that we used a lot in our diet,” said this man who belongs to the Nahua people.
These canals, a legacy of the region’s traditional farming techniques, “had only a trickle of water until ,” said Camilo and Adela Tecpatl, a young farming couple who actively participated in the occupation of the factory alongside Lopez. On the 3 hectares they own, the Tecpatls scrape together a meager salary from the sale of animals and keep corn and beans for their own subsistence: “We used to have fruit trees whose harvest supplemented our income, but we had to uproot them for lack of water. Today, we are thinking of replanting them because we have water again,” said Adela, with a broad smile.
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