Coca Cola is killing indigenous people
By Administrador Regeneración on 5 October, 2016
An alarming epidemic of overweight and obesity is causing serious illness among indigenous populations. Big soft drinks companies like Coca Cola-Femsa and Pepsi-Pesico – with their junk food products – are the cause.
This September, a group of students studying nutrition at the Tec de Monterrey university have been carrying out blood tests among the indigenous Mazahua inhabitants from San Jose del Rincon, in Mexico State.
While there are houses in this town without a supply of drinking water, you can still find a red soft drink bottle on their table. Guadalupe Sanchez provides an example of the resulting problem. At 47 years old, the glucose level in her blood is already twice the safe limit, a common occurrence in this town.
“We find high levels of hyperglycaemia. It’s a result of the high consumption of sweet drinks and processed food, and the lack of necessary nutrients” says Yaremi Gutierrez, the professor leading the study. The Mazahua people of Mexico State are abandoning their millennia-old diet, based on vegetables and plants, in favour of junk food. This marriage of poverty, exclusion and junk food is lethal. “It affects children in particular. What we’re finding here is are two causes of illness: malnutrition combined with overweight.
Mexico is experiencing an epidemic of fat and sugar. Seven out of ten adults are overweight or obese, as are one in three children. It is the second most overweight country in the world, exceeded only by the United States. According to OMS, Mexicans consume more soft drinks than any other country – 163 litres per year – and have the highest mortality rate from diabetes in Latin America.
“Diabetes used to be a rare disease which only affected those with genetic disposition to it, and older people”, says Abelardo Avila, a doctor at the Salvador Zubiran National Institute for Medical Science and Nutrition. “But in the last 30 years, cases have grown explosively, to the extent that half a million Mexicans have died from diabetes in the last six years. Within this overall panorama, the indigenous population is the most vulnerable, and presents one of the highest incidences of the disease. Previously, they were protected by their poverty, because it meant they had to feed themselves from what they could grow. From 2010 however the soft drink companies expanded, with the aim of placing refrigerators in villages where there is electricity, and by encouraging the use of public subsidies to promote consumption of these products.”
In the small convenience shops, which are found in every village street, a litre of milk – when it’s available – costs sixteen pesos. A three litre bottle of Coca Cola costs thirty-five pesos, and unbranded soft drinks cost twenty pesos. Diabetes in turn unleashes a series of other maladies. These include blindness, caused by diabetic retinopathy, and, kidney malfunction, leading to what is known as “elephant’s foot”– where a glut of glucose affects the nerves, leading to a loss of feeling in the joints. This latter illness has led to 75,000 amputations in the last year, according to Consumer Power, an NGO.
“The worst of it is that while diabetes is a controllable illness, lack of access to medical services leaves this population very exposed” says Yaremi Gutierrez from the Tec de Monterrey. A group of women have walked an hour down the mountain from their village to reach the only clinic in the area, but the doctor isn’t there. The nearest hospital is another hour’s drive by car. Furthermore, dialysis isn’t covered by Seguro Popular, the government health insurance programme for informal workers such as peasants. Paying privately costs between 2,000 and 6,000 pesos [i.e. beyond the means of the poor].
Ildefonso Alvarez has worked for two years with communities through his NGO, Concreta. “It’s easier to find Coca Cola here than it is to find medical services, clean water or good health” he says. Oliver de Schutter, the UN’s envoy on the Right to Food has spoken of the cocacola-isation of consumption habits in Mexico. “In 2017, public services will need to spend 5.6 billion US dollars a year to treat diabetes. This is the result of public policies that have failed to address the seriousness of this problem” he said in a recent documentary produced by NGOs in Mexico.
Last year the government introduced a special tax on sugary drinks, following the example of other countries. Though this has generated resources, consumption has barely fallen.
There’s no drinkable water in the house of Tomasa Rodriguez and Hilario Cruz. They buy a 20 litre container of water from the shop each week. They have asked the mayor to build a well for years, as other communities in the area have these. Cruz has just come out of hospital: “I was in a very bad state, I could hardly eat” he says. “He has soft drinks, and also pulque and beer” says his wife. He had to have his intestines cleaned after suffering severe constipation. He has been forbidden from drinking soft drinks or alcohol, and only drinks water and a herb known as Donkey’s Leaf. Eaten raw or taken as an infusion, its bitterness invades the mouth, and is more effective than kryptonite.