Coca-Cola’s Raid on a Sacred Mountain

Huitepe Mountain, Chiapas.

Thrust like a huge furry green thumb into the big Chiapas sky above San Cristobal de las Casas, the jewel-box capital of the Mayan highlands (“Los Altos”), Huitepec mountain, “el cerro de agua” (“hill of water”), contrasts sharply with the logged-out, bald-pated hills that line the Valley of Jovel.

As the source of water for San Cristobal and the neighboring municipality of Zinacantan plus dozens of Zapatista rebel communities nestled in the valleys of Los Altos, Huitepec is both revered by the highland Maya as a sacred site, and besieged by national and transnational capital seeking to suck the Hill of Water dry.

Huitepec, with its lush oak forests (unlike surrounding mountains where pines predominate), wild orchids and bromeliads, songbirds and small game animal population, is an inviting habitat for the transnational tourist and real estate interests who wield the political clout down in San Cristobal. Forcing native Tzotzil villages to sell off communal land to developers, the lower slopes of the sacred cerro have been invaded by the luxury homes of prominent politicos, ex-municipal presidents, and an increasing number of well-heeled foreigners.

Meanwhile, a privatized state nature reserve attracts busloads of careless tourists and wood poachers pick incessantly at the oak forests. But the prize up on the Hill of Water is the water itself.

Riding the ridge between San Cristobal and Zinacantan, Huitepec’s water wealth is drained off to feed expanding urban needs in the big city below. Foreign-owned greenhouses in Zinacantan that grow flowers for the global market drink up much Huitepec water. But the great predator here is the Coca Cola plant operated by Mexican bottler Femsa that sprawls at the foot of Huitepec Mountain like a temple to consumer greed.

“Coca Cola is a hydration company – without water we have no business,” an in-house document ” Our Use of Water” unearthed by the NGO War on Want, bluntly states. Chiapas, the source of 65% of southern Mexico’s water, figures prominently in Coca’s plans. To underscore its mission, Coca-Femsa has obtained a 20 year concession from the city of San Cristobal, which claims jurisdiction over Huitepec water, to siphon off five liters a second of the precious fluid for the next generation, for the manufacture of its noxious brew and the commercialization of bottled water whose plastic husks have become the most littered item on Planet Earth.

San Cristobal’s claim to ownership of Huitepec water is contested by the Tzotzil Maya in neighboring villages. Indeed, under the provisions of the International Labor Organization’s Resolution 169 (OIT 169 by its Spanish initials), the legal benchmark for what defines Indian territory (habitat) and territoriality (what goes on in that territory), Huitepec is the collective property of the people who live on this land.

Last March 13th, under the aegius of the Zapatista administrative center (“caracol”) in nearby Oventik and its Junta de Buen Gobierno (Good Government Committee), the rebels declared Huitepec a “Zapatista Ecological Community Reserve” and set up a camp near the summit of the Hill of Water. “We do not defend Huitepec for the mal gobierno (“bad government”) but for our grandchildren” the ski-masked members of the Junta declared, “fighting for our mother the earth and all of the living beings and natural resources is to defend our lives and our communities against the capitalist system.”

A tattered banner announcing the location of a “Peace Camp” (actually two – one for non-Zapatistas and the other manned and womanned by rebels) signals the turn-off to the community reserve. Up a muddy track straddling the mountain ridge, the Zapatistas and their supporters fight to save the sacred Hill of Water. The rebels now patrol the forests to prevent the “talamontes” (wood poachers) from cutting the thick oak forests. Other crews work on stream restoration. Volunteers from Zapatista communities throughout Los Altos come to live in the camps and learn conservation skills that they take back to their own villages.

“I am here to defend Huitepec” one camper told La Jornada correspondent Hermann Bellinghausen. “This is my place. My father, who is 80, was born here. My grandparents too. These hills are all we have to leave to our children.” Bellinghausen found the response a clear “expression of the primordial, collective, and sacred right to this mountain” the neo-liberals falsely claim is theirs.

The neo-liberal icon that sucks up Huitepec’s bountiful water, the Coca Cola Corporation of Atlanta Georgia, is a powerful political player in Mexico – former president Vicente Fox was president of Coca-Mexico before he became president of Mexico. Mexicans drink more Coke per capita than any other nation on earth and Chiapas and its Indians are an important market. One reason for heavy sales in Los Altos: Coca Cola is often the only option to scarce or undrinkable local water.

Driving through the highlands, one is inevitably slowed to a crawl following double trailers of La Coca groaning up the steep mountain roads. Coke has put a full court press on the Tzotziles of Los Altos, offering discounts (two pesos a can that sells for five in San Cristobal stores) and deals – 50 Coke tab tops can be traded for a kilo of beans. The Coca Cola Foundation to which Fox remains heavily connected hooplas its plans for reforestation and boasts of building schools in Indian villages. Although some communities endorse a boycott advocated by noted intellectuals and artists like actress Ofelia Medina, and keep the Coke trucks away, opting instead for Pozol, a native Indian corn drink, Coke is still king in the highlands of Chiapas.

Ironically, despite the Zapatistas’ efforts to defend Huitepec hill from the depredations of demon Coke, the rebels are some of La Coca’s biggest boosters. Although drugs and alcohol are permanently barred from the rebel zone, Coca Cola, a beverage concocted in 1893 by a drug-crazed pharmacist, is the Zapatistas’ drug of choice. Because the use of “posh” (sugar cane “white lightning”) is prohibited, Coke is substituted during religious ceremonies, apparently with God’s blessing. The Che Guevara community store in Oventik, displays rows of the familiar red cans. At a cultural forum “in defense of humanity and against neo-liberalism” during the Zapatistas’ 1996 Intergalactica, each speaker was seated with a can of this neo-liberal cola at the ready.

Criticism of the rebels’ fondness for La Coca irks their loquacious mouthpiece Subcomandante Marcos who lashed out at the anti-Cokers during a July forum at San Cristobal’s University of the Earth for trivializing the Zapatista struggle by reducing it to a debate over a corporate logo.

Ambar Past is an expatriate North American poet who has lived for years in a tree house in San Cristobal from which each morning she watches Huitepec emerge from the mountain mists. Recently, she wrote a letter/poem to the “Senor Owner of Coca Cola” whose words formed the curvaceous figure of the classic Coke bottle. “Under the sacred mountain/Huitepec/ we guard water/ for our grandchildren/and your grandchildren too.

“Money washes the brains (“coco”)/ of Coca Cola/ drinker-upper of our inheritance/ that would make us into a desert.

“Huitepec/ blood of our future/born in the hollow/of a leaf/ where your vampires/ open a hole in our hearts.”

JOHN ROSS is in Mexico City, plotting a new novella. If you have further information contact


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