So far, 2011 has been a tough year for scandal-prone California agribusiness giant and holding company, Roll International, which might be part of the reason for the company’s recent yet minor name change to Roll Global. (Of course, I'm kidding. It’s for tax purposes, right?) After all the bad press last year about how Roll
International Global – the parent company of luxury bottled water brand FIJI Water, among other well-known businesses – established itself as a community-draining water-taker extraordinaire, it’s not unexpected that the corporation might want to distance itself from…itself. Belief in corporate personhood aside, it’s actually the Beverly Hills-based, billionaire socialite couple, Stewart and Lynda Resnick, who are probably dismayed.
2011 tasted sour from the start for the Resnick’s equally loved and derided FIJI Water brand thanks to the publicized scuffle over a new Fiji government-imposed 8 cents per liter tax. A negligible-looking cost from the outside, this royalty is a huge increase compared to the teensy 1/3 cent per liter tax that had previously been levied. In November 2010, a row over the tax erupted between the government and FIJI Water. The company shut down bottling operations in dramatic protest, only to accede and get back to bottling a couple days later.
In California, when Roll claimed water rights along with land purchases, they and other wealthy landowners created the Kern Water Bank using public funds, giving them unlimited withdrawals and the ability to resell water for big profits, neglecting nearby residents without clean water access.
Despite FIJI Water’s indignation about any form of taxation, there are signs that the new tax revenue might benefit the citizens of Fiji, of whom slightly less than half have access to clean water. To reduce the problem of clean water access and to comply with the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals, the Fiji Water Authority has committed to providing 60 percent of its inhabitants with clean drinking water by 2014. Here’s hoping the ruling military government puts the tax revenue towards improved drinking water quality and access, a moral imperative and a fundamental for building any healthy, stable and prosperous society.
More recently, Roll Global experienced another dent to their image, this time here in the States, in an all-too-familiar form: a lawsuit. The problems flow from the company’s immense 125,000-acre Paramount Farms in California’s San Joaquin Valley which, according to their website, is the “world’s largest grower and processor of almonds and pistachios.” In this case, Paramount Farms, along with other politically powerful farmers in the area, began withdrawing so much groundwater from the two water banks they control that it drastically dropped water levels for residents of a small, local utility. The Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District is now suing the water banks' authority, Kern County Water Agency, because of a revoked Memo of Understanding that gave certain rights to the utility.
One of the banks – the Kern Water Bank – was established under particularly sketchy circumstances and is no stranger to lawsuits ever since the Resnicks – through Paramount Farms – began buying up area land and water rights “Chinatown-style” in the 1980s-90s. After Roll claimed these water rights with the land purchases, they and other wealthy landowners created the water bank using public funds, giving them unlimited withdrawals and the ability to resell water for big profits, neglecting nearby residents without clean water access in the process.
Most galling to Roll Global must be the coverage by The New York Times of the pending Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District lawsuit. While there was already media scrutiny about the secretive circumstances surrounding the transition of the Kern Water Bank to Paramount Farms ownership, the buzz has stayed mainly within the borders of California where, one might imagine, Roll Global hopes it will remain.
As an agribusiness and water bottler, water is the lifeblood of the corporate giant. The Resnicks rightfully own their businesses and can operate as they see fit. Besides going after cheap water no matter the means, Roll Global is like other companies, especially in the food and beverage industry, that promote their greenness and health-consciousness, even though their products may not be all that green or healthy. Their Foundation and community-building projects do provide some genuine support to worthwhile causes, but the entirety of their programs in combination with their marketing and PR campaigns don’t wipe away all that they've wrought.
The pursuit of water is the hidden pea in Roll Global’s corporate shell game. The company uses its multiple businesses and subsidiaries to evade corporate accountability while actually engaging in business practices that both undermine its stated values and obfuscate the many negative effects of these decisions. By making the connections between the unseemly behavior exhibited by the Resnicks, Roll Global, FIJI Water, Paramount Farms and Kern County Water Agency, we get a fuller picture of what is going on behind the scenes and, in the end, are given the opportunity to make consumer choices consistent with our principles.