When Nestlé Comes To Town

It’s been an intense few days. As I write this, I’m in Cascade Locks, Oregon with a crew of filmmakers from Let Media to film a short video about yet another Nestlé water grab. I have been both inspired and distraught, listening to the story of another community fighting a company hell bent on doing one thing—owning the world’s water.

In California, Nestlé takes water from public lands affected by a historic drought. In Michigan they drain lakes and rivers and fight any attempt to lessen their footprint. In Pennsylvania they bribe communities with ‘community development funds’ and try to buy politicians to change zoning laws on the down low. It is part of a suite of tactics aimed at crushing local resistance.

Nestlé is clever, running newspaper and radio ads that claim the mantle of a good, down home country corporate citizens who care about the community. On the ground, beneath the misleading propaganda, they aren’t so civic-minded. No, this is a company that succeeds by hoodwinking small, economically depressed communities with promises of new industry and money.

What emerges is a pattern—variations on a Nestlé-authored theme, where small town voices feel intimidated, overwhelmed and alone in the face of corporate greed posing as ‘the good guy.’

A Community Fights Back

Cascade Locks is heaven on earth; a small town nestled in the awe-inspiring Columbia River Gorge. The town is situated amongst old growth conifers and crystal clear snowmelt-fed streams. It is an unspoiled reminder of earth in its primeval form, lost in time, imbuing visitors with a sense of peace and wonderment. It is a place to sit on a porch and stare at beauty, for hours. For eons, massive volumes of water have flowed to the sea some hundred miles away, ever deepening the gorge that serves as the Washington and Oregon border.

On both sides of the river, it is an outdoor adventure wonderland with thousands of miles of pristine hiking trails, waterfalls, and tributary rivers teaming with salmon and steelhead. It’s also home to one of the best destinations on earth for kite-surfing and windsurfing. All these things are what the good folks of Cascade Locks pin their future on—a sustainable, recreation-based economy versus the boom and bust of extractive industries. They’ve already endured the death of one extractive industry—timber—and remember what it did to the community the first time.

Our crew has spent four days listening to gut-wrenching stories of ordinary citizens fighting for their way of life, working to protect their town from becoming an industrial wasteland. How can their charming old town thrive in a future where Nestlé carts water away in trucks through it at the astonishing rate of one every four minutes.

These are unlikely heroes, (or “resisters” as we call them at The Story of Stuff), who have worked for nearly a decade to keep Nestlé out. They aren’t professional activists—they are just normal people, taking a stand, daring to speak truth to power by flexing their citizen muscles, regardless of the consequences.

And there are consequences. The division between local government and citizens has sown serious strife in the community. One city counselor who dared to oppose Nestlé lost her job tied to a tourism contract with the city. This is how Nestlé operates—they come in, host a few community picnics with hot dogs, hamburgers, and oh yes, bottled water, and promise big money for economically strapped communities. They even pay ‘stipends’ to local politicians or prominent community members to carry the Nestlé message. They prey on a citizen’s natural desire to improve their situation, or just put food on the table for their family. And when their bluff is called, they marginalize dissenting voices, painting those people as outliers. As we filmed the stories from these voices, I was moved to tears again and again.

WaNaPa: The River People

I am sitting in the home of Klarice Westley, a Native American matriarch working to preserve a threatened way of life. The source that Nestlé wants to tap is Oxbow Springs, a breathtaking water source that expresses at the base of the forest. These are sacred waters to the confederated tribes of the Umatilla. These waters have been a centerpiece of ritual and reverence for thousands of years and are part of their identity as a people.

Klarice, clad in traditional Native American dress, tells me through tears about her hunger and water strike last summer across from City Hall that helped galvanize the resistance, an act that endangered her very life. That’s how important this water is to her identity. With every word she utters, I find myself astonished at how heartless Nestlé has been with her concerns—they have never even acknowledged the tribe’s claim to these spiritual waters. In the background, stewing at his mother’s words, Klarice’s son, a strong young man angered by a multi-national corporation that disregards his family and tribe, utters expletives under his breath. To him, Nestlé poses an existential threat to his entire world.

But to Nestlé, there is no story. There is no ‘people’. There is only a commodity going to waste as it flows into a tributary river that could be bottled for massive profit.

By The People, For The People

But these town folk aren’t taking this lying down. They’ve finally figured out an end-game to save their community and preserve any chance they have at building a sustainable economy. Recognizing that local government representatives were compromised, the citizens figured out a way to go around them. By mounting a campaign to gather signatures to refer the Nestlé proposal to ballot, they have reclaimed their power to change the story.

The measure on the county ballot later this spring will prohibit extraction of water from the county for export and prohibit it from being bottled and sold. In the coming weeks before we release our film documenting the truly inspiring work of these ordinary citizens, you’ll hear some of their voices through our social channels. When the film is released, it will serve as both a cautionary tale and a how-to manual to stop companies like Nestlé.

The Story of Stuff Project is committed to raising the voices of people like Klarice Westley, and we’re building a powerful Community of people working together, advising each other not just locally, but everywhere, to repeat good ideas that can stop corporate greed. Together we can recognize the worth of water before the well runs dry. Won’t you join us?

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