Nestlé takes primitive accumulation to a whole new level in Pakistan

From Sum of us

In Pakistan Nestlé is draining drinking water, bottling it and selling it back to people. This is your classic primitive accumulation in action. But there’s lots more going on too.

First off, what’s happening? Nestlé has set up water processing plants for their “Pure” water and locals are claiming that they are draining ground water and essentially stealing their water. Nestlé denies they’re doing anything wrong, and even if they were they’re providing water for the locals too, so there.

Here’s your primitive accumulation, as Marx called it. Or accumulation by dispossession, as David Harvey named it. I think Harvey’s is better because primitive implies it has stopped happening, when it hasn’t. The process describes the seizure of what was public and its transformation into private property. The classic example is the enclosure of land in Elizabethan England, but water in Pakistand fits the bill too. What was public becomes private.

I don’t think this particularly makes Nestlé the villain. I mean sure, they are a villain, but their behaviour is normal for a capitalist firm. Formula milk is the most famous, but E.coli scandals abound, child labour features and of course they use palm oil too. In this case though there was capital lying around used inefficiently, so they rounded it up told everyone it was theirs and put it to profitable use.

It looks like the locals haven’t been adequately compensated, they’re poor Pakistanis with poorly defined rights to nearby water without proper legal representation. They never had a chance. This is bad, but this is normal. This is what the creation of a capitalist system looks like. In a historical context the seizure of previously community managed water isn’t a scandal as a well documented stage in capitalist development.

Three further points spring to mind.

One, it wouldn’t really matter if Nestlé stop or don’t. At the local level they’ll be very harmful. Nationally, they’ll be paying tax and exporting water a reasonably high value product. This is my inner bastard coming out. So I apologise if I sound callous. Part of me has always felt: fuck it, let’s dispossess the peasants and be done with it.

Two, Nestlé isn’t even close to the biggest offender when it comes to water waste. One cruelly efficient capitalist company is as nothing compared to millions of well meaning but capital and knowledge poor farmers. While at Bhati Dilwan Nestlé is a major water users, nationally 90% of Pakistan’s water is used in agriculture, and only 30-35% of this reaches the crops. The rest is lost to seepage, evaporation and field run-off.

Three, the real reason Nestlé is being so damaging is because they are using water in an unconventional way. There are systems both formal and informal for managing farmer use of water. Draining the immediate area’s ground water is something new Pakistan doesn’t have rules to deal with. There are several capitalism. All of them contain things like accumulation by dispossession but they are all instituted in different ways so that certain uses of property can be managed and others cannot. 

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