Key parties absent from MSA’s forum on Coca-Cola

JP Leider

There were three tables on the Coffman Union Theater stage Wednesday evening. On one side sat Coca-Cola representatives, who came to defend their corporation from alleged violations abroad. In the middle sat the debate’s moderator and host.

One table was empty.

That table was intended for representatives of the anti-Coca-Cola movement.

But instead of an impassioned debate, forum-goers only heard Coca-Cola’s side of the issue.

Fewer than 30 attendees, most of them affiliated with the event’s host, the Minnesota Student Association, or Coca-Cola, heard Coca-Cola staff members rebut the allegations – namely, that Coca-Cola had depleted groundwater and allowed a high level of pesticides in Coke products in India and had been complicit in violence and intimidation against union members in Colombia. The representatives also lauded advancements they said the company has made in these areas.

Early in the week, a key member of the anti-Coca-Cola movement reneged on an agreement to participate in the forum. Amit Srivastava, coordinator of the India Resource Center, said his group withdrew because MSA failed to bring representatives from the Colombian cause to the forum.

“We are not going to sanction a process that is flawed, because we know we can do it right,” he said

The India Resource Center is waging a campaign to bring Coca-Cola’s alleged violations to the public eye.

Recently, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida dismissed a lawsuit against two Colombian Coca-Cola bottlers. The International Labor Organization is setting up an office in Colombia to address the company’s alleged misdeeds.

Amelia Smith, a member of Students United for Corporate Responsibility and Ethics, said a forum without the Indian- and Colombian-issue representatives is “a complete joke.”

Smith said members of the group boycotted the forum to protest the fact both groups weren’t represented. She said her group will host its own forum on the issue, tentatively scheduled for Oct. 25.

MSA President Max Page, the event’s host, said he chose not to reschedule the event because of the months of work put into it and because many people familiar with the Colombian issues were contacted but did not respond or could not attend.

“Those on the India side were very cooperative and communicative. Those on the Colombia side, I would say, were not cooperative,” he said.

Because the anti-Coke movement elected not to attend the forum, its voices were not heard, Page said.

Coke and the University

At the urging of MSA, the University administration formed a working group in spring to investigate Coca-Cola’s alleged violations abroad and how colleges and universities nationally have reacted.

The group, led by University administrators Jerry Rinehart and Kathleen O’Brien, is slated to release a final report of its findings within a month.

Rinehart, vice provost for Student Affairs, said that while there are numerous allegations against Coca-Cola, the judicial standing of the accusations are “inconclusive at this point.”

“People are going to have to read and do their own research,” Rinehart said of the report. “There is not going to be a single answer that is going to satisfy everyone.”

Coca-Cola’s exclusive contract with the University is estimated to be worth $28 million for the University and lasts until 2008. The process for renewing the contract or finding a new vendor is already underway. Bids are expected to open in the first quarter of 2007.