FIJI Water and its Parent Company Leave Locals High and Dry

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FIJI Water and its parent company, Roll International, are using a lot of water at the expense of surrounding communities.

The popular face of excessive bottled water use, FIJI Water, recently shut down operations on the Pacific Island nation of the same name over a kerfuffle with the Fijian government involving a stiff(er) water withdrawal tax. The closure was short-lived—the next day the company agreed to the higher tax and reopened the water bottling plant. The whole event turned into an odd sort of economic brinksmanship between FIJI Water (which was trying to maintain its extraordinarily low, 20-year-long, government-subsidized water withdrawal rates) and the Fijian government, which had been trying to increase taxes on the company since at least 2008.

The government of Fiji is precarious and has been in a state of constant turmoil for quite some time. In fact, the dictatorial military junta currently in power is the most recent of four regimes installed by coup since 1987. But, FIJI Water is economically powerful on the island nation, controlling a whopping 20 percent of its exports and generating 3 percent GDP. The impact of the shutdown weighed heavily on the 400 shocked workers who feared job loss; some openly wept.

As far as we know, there was no public weeping by top-level FIJI Water executives, though they did cry foul when pressed to move from the minuscule 1/3 cent per liter the company had been paying to a paltry 8 cents per liter. Before succumbing to the tax increase, FIJI Water’s President, John Cochran accused the government’s action as “a taking of our business” and warned potential investors of the instability of the Fijian government. Notably absent from coverage of the FIJI Water standoff are the company’s billionaire owners, Stewart and Lynda Resnick, who, it turns out, know a thing or two about taking, particularly when it comes to water (expanding on the legal concept of taking where, in this case, the private sector, rather than the government, takes another’s property).

Taking is taking no matter how powerful the interest, and if the Resnick family and Roll International wish to be as socially responsible as they claim, it makes sense to first evaluate their own operations before making any wider judgment.

The Resnicks privately hold the conglomerate Roll International—parent of POM Wonderful juices, Teleflora flower delivery service and Paramount Farming (one of the biggest growers and processors of almonds and pistachios in the world), among other businesses. The Resnicks boast of their commitment to the betterment of their workers and the surrounding communities and are even in the running for the U.S. State Department’s 2010 Corporate Excellence Award.

The sad irony is that, even as the luxury-marketed FIJI Water is pumped in large volumes from the island’s aquifers (to which the company has almost exclusive access), many Fijians, including FIJI Water’s own workers, don’t have an adequate supply of quality freshwater for their own use.

But it doesn’t stop there.

Stateside, in the arid yet agricultural Westside of the San Joaquin Valley, California, the Resnick-owned Paramount Farms is “taking” water from a surrounding community in a deal that is now the subject of a lawsuit. More than 20 years ago, Paramount Farms, in a sketchy deal with the state, quietly gained ownership of a 20,000-acre parcel of state land with senior water rights. Along with the land and water rights came a big prize—48 percent control of the partially government-developed and tax payer-subsidized Kern (County) Water Bank. This underground reservoir stores 755,868 acre feet (one acre-foot is the approximate amount of water a family of four uses in a year ) and now provides irrigation water to the huge and profitable almond and pistachio orchards of Paramount Farms.

The area surrounding Paramount Farms is populated by poor farm workers and other residents who lack access to safe, public drinking water and instead rely on expensive bottled water. Meanwhile, water of higher quality than the local tap flows through irrigation canals, and the crops drink better than the residents.

In both Fiji and California, the social obligations of the Resnick-owned businesses come into question around the issue of water, the lifeblood of each venture. Even though the Resnicks tout their socially responsible programs and foundations, both of which do provide some benefits, real ethical questions remain around making money – in fact, fortunes – from water supplies while locals go thirsty or purchase water at exorbitant prices. By no means should Roll International be expected to be the sole supplier of water to all workers and residents in the vicinity; much of that responsibility falls on the government. But certainly Roll International shares some responsibility to provide the basic needs of its workers and the community, a position that they acknowledge through their statements and initiatives. But both situations demonstrate how powerless community members lose out when unscrupulous corporations and negligent governments don’t consider their needs when brokering deals. Furthermore, residents in any part of the United States who are left without access to clean, reliable water service are in an intolerable situation, and blame for not providing that basic human need goes to all involved, whatever the level of government or other powerful entity.

Taking is taking no matter how powerful the interest, and if the Resnick family and Roll International wish to be as socially responsible as they claim, it makes sense to first evaluate their own operations before making any wider judgment.

That means that FIJI Water (and Roll International) would be wise to avoid accusing the Fijian government of “taking” their business when their business has been built on the expropriation of freshwater from the vulnerable communities surrounding them and from many of the workers who help make them successful.

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To learn (and hear) more about the plight of farmworkers in California’s Central Valley and their lack of access to high quality, freshwater supplies, click over to these great interview podcasts:

  • A Conversation with Susana de Anda, co-founder of the Community Water Center.

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