Saturday, 27 December 2008

Book Review: Belching out the Devil

I've just finished reading Mark Thomas' Belching out the Devil, which is a book about Coca Cola.

More specifically, it's a book about how the world's top brand [Belching, p.4] is complicit in intimidation, union breaking, poor working practices, environmental destruction, oh yes - and murder. And it has jokes, rather incredibly. Thomas is a British comedian and political activist, and he doesn't hesitate to mix the two to get your attention. The book is written in a jolly, witty tone which occasionally cracks open to reveal Thomas' deep sense of anger at the injustice of Coke's behaviour. It is also decently researched, however, with a wodge of endnotes and an appendix which contains - hilariously - Coke's response to the questions Thomas sent them, with their lawyer's notes and strike-throughs included; someone sent him the wrong version. Well done that man!

Thomas visits the US, India and Turkey, but also Mexico, El Salvador, and Colombia, so it's a Latin-American-relevant read. In Mexico, he visits communities where Coca Cola has become incorporated into traditional indigenous religious ceremonies (hence the title of the book). In El Salvador, a little wandering around is enough to come across child labourers in the sugarcane fields; so how many are there really?

It is Colombia, though, where the story gets really hot. Isidro Gil was shot by paramilitaries inside the Coca Cola bottling plant in Carepa. He was the fourth union leader to be killed in the area. The bottling company was, naturally, devastated by this unfortunate turn of events which led to the collapse of the union within the plant - and as a sign of mourning, promptly cut wages from around $400 a month, to just $130. Remaining union activists continue to receive death threats.

The thing is that The Coca Cola Company denies any and all responsibility for such events because, it claims, they just supply the concentrate. The work of independent bottlers and distributors in developing countries is nothing to do with them and they cannot be held responsible for it. Which is a point, except that 1) they hold decisive amounts of shares in many of these 'independent companies' 2) if Coke asks them to sack people, the people are sacked. If Coke says 'jump', the companies say 'how high?', so clearly Coke has a huge influence on the behaviour of these enterprises, and 3) it's Coca Cola on the label. Thomas argues that just as Nike, the Gap and the like should be held to account for sweat shops that make their clothes as part of the supply chain, so should Coca Cola be responsible for everything that goes into making one of their little bottles of brown caramel-sugar-water. You might choose to agree with him.

This book keeps the facts clear, carries you along nicely and is, in general, a good read. My only quibble: was it even proofread at all? The typos are everywhere, including, embarrassingly, in proper names. I hope they sort this out for future editions. I'm not generally hugely into boycotts, but I can tell you I haven't bought a Coke since I started reading it and I don't have plans to either. I mean, if you are really looking for a book about injustice in Latin America and you haven't already read it, then you can't beat Tina Rosenberg's Children of Cain, and you should run and order that instead. But, assuming that classic is already on your shelf, and you feel like another book along the same lines as Amaranta Wright's Levi's, Latin America and the Blue Jean Dream (which I also enjoyed), then by all means give Belching out the Devil a try. Just be warned: the next oversweetened 'sparkling beverage' you drink might leave a bitter taste in your mouth.

More info: - the company's own 'straight-talking' site on labour and environmental issues. Thomas calls into question many of these 'facts' in his book. - has the details on the campaign against Coke in Colombia.

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