Signs of Life

Small Stories about Big Change



Multinationals deplete local resources and cause pollution in the developing world. India takes a stand.

Coca Cola sign on wall along the Ganges in Varanasi, India
Along the Ganges in Varanasi, India. Photo by Margre Mijer.

Indians Just Say “No” to Cola

The state of Kerala, India, banned the production and sale of Coca-Cola and Pepsi products after reports of pesticide contamination. Researchers with the Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment (CSE) found pesticide residue—exceeding European standards by 24 times—in both Coke and Pepsi bottled in India.

Six other states banned soft drink sales in their educational and government institutions, making over 10,000 schools soft-drink free. Kerala's total ban has been overturned by the state's High Court, but Kerala's chief minister, V.S. Achuthanandan, says his government is exploring legal steps to reinstitute the ban. Bans in the other six states remain in effect.

Water extraction and pollution from bottling plants have been longstanding concerns for India's rural communities. A permanent vigil initiated by the local community outside Coca-Cola's facility in Plachimada, Kerala resulted in the plant closing in 2004.

The vigil raised awareness of ground water depletion. According to Vandana Shiva, a bottling plant can use as much as 500,000 gallons a day. Protests and community-led research have expanded to several states. During Jalyatras—water walks—groups of farmers and environmentalists visit bottling plants and measure water levels and pollution to document the effects of soft drink production on local water supplies.

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TIAA-CREF, the largest pension fund in the United States, dropped Coca-Cola from its $8 billion Social Choice Account in July 2006. The decision came after KLD Research and Analytics removed the company from its Broad Market Social Index (BMSI). Coke's actions in the areas of worker rights, marketing soda products to children, and environmental issues related to water usage led to the removal, Karin Chamberlain, manager of KLD Indexes, told Reuters.

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Nigerian Fishermen have taken the bottling company producing Coca-Cola drinks in their area to a Lagos high court seeking damages. The Ajeromi-Ifelodun Farmers and Fishermen Association says the bottling plant has been discharging toxic waste into adjoining rivers and ponds ever since it began operations 15 years ago, severely polluting the water and adversely affecting wildlife and fishing operations.

— Lilja Otto

Interested? The Centre for Science and Environment: or


Election fraud is a significant threat to democracy. Mexicans protest a potentially stolen election. Princeton scientists show how U.S. voting machines are at risk.

Election protests in Mexico City's central square.
Election protests in Mexico City's central square. Photo by Abelardo Ojeda Flores Alatorre.

Fraud Claimed in Mexico Vote

On September 16, the anniversary of Mexican independence, over a million disaffected Mexicans convened a “democratic congress” and declared illegitimate the Electoral Tribunal's decision that Felipe Calderón had won the presidential election. They designated Andrés Manuel López Obrador president of their parallel government and vowed to remain a permanent opposition to Calderón and block his December 1 inauguration.

This action followed months of massive street protests by Obrador's supporters after the July 2 razor-close presidential election that pitted the conservative Calderón of the National Action Party (PAN) against the populist Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD).

Obrador's supporters charged election fraud. Observers and civil society groups agreed that there is ample evidence of vote shaving, local fraud, and meddling by the PAN ruling party. Obrador's supporters took to the streets and to Mexico City's central square (the Zócalo) with the demand: Count every vote!

The election's closeness reflects a deep and troubling fault line between Mexico's northern and southern regions. Voters in the more affluent and industrialized northern states voted for Harvard-educated Calderón, a champion of U.S.-backed free trade, foreign investment, and low inflation policies. Voters in the southern, poor, and agricultural regions of Mexico teamed up with Mexico City's urban residents to vote for Obrador.

On July 30, more than two million Mexicans began a series of actions that included encampments and blockades on the main streets of Mexico City, and massive gatherings in the Zócalo. Tens of thousands remained in these encampments until they intentionally disbanded in mid-September to set up a parallel government, their response to the controversial partial recount that declared Calderón the winner by fewer than 200,000 votes, with more than 41 million votes cast.

— Chuck Collins

Chuck is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies. He lived in Oaxaca, Mexico for the last year where he observed the election.

The Diebold AccuVote-TS voting machine in the Princeton lab
The Diebold AccuVote-TS voting machine in the Princeton lab

Scientists Reveal Electronic Voting Security Flaws

Although a growing number of direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machines are being used in U.S. elections, manufacturers have never made the machines available for independent third-party testing. Recently, however, a team of Princeton scientists gained access to a Diebold DRE voting machine from an undisclosed source. In September, the Princeton team, led by Edward W. Felten, Professor of Computer Science and Policy Studies, released the results of their independent security testing on the Diebold machine.

The researchers designed a vote-stealing program that can be installed on the machine in less than one minute by anyone who has access to the machine or to the DRE memory cards. The vote-stealing program can be spread to other machines through memory cards and is undetectable. The Princeton team also designed an easily installed denial of service program that, when triggered, crashes the voting machine and erases all its vote records.

The machine the researchers examined was the AccuVote-TS, the very machine about which Diebold said, in 2003, “The assertion that there are any exploitable attack vectors is false. The implication that malicious code could be inserted into the system is baseless.” Just as the researchers had predicted, Diebold issued a similar response to the Princeton report.

The Princeton team concludes that paperless DRE machines have serious security vulnerabilities, and that making them safe “will require safeguards beginning with a voter verifiable paper audit trail and truly independent security evaluation.”

— Doug Pibel

Full text of the Princeton report, as well as Diebold's response and the researchers' rebuttal.

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Rep. Rush Holt (D-New Jersey) introduced a bill in 2003 requiring all voting machines to produce a voter-verifiable paper trail. The bill had 157 cosponsors at the end of the session, but did not come up for a vote. Holt reintroduced the bill in 2005. By late 2006, the bill had 219 cosponsors. “Although the bill now has the support of a clear majority of the House, including 20 Republicans, the House leadership has not seen fit to bring it to the floor for an up-or-down vote,” says Pat Eddington of Rep. Holt's office.


Peace activists organize a worldwide day of demonstrations to help end the genocide in Sudan.

September 17: The world shows its support for Darfur
September 17: The world shows its support for Darfur. Photo of London rally by Damian Counsell.

Global Rallies for Darfur

An estimated 30,000 people gathered in solidarity for the Global Day for Darfur in New York City on September 17. Meanwhile, similar rallies were held in at least 50 other cities around the world.

Since 2003, hundreds of thousands of people have died in the Darfur region of Sudan in what some have labeled genocide. The United Nations estimates that 1.9 million people have been driven from their homes and 3 million currently depend on international aid.

Sixteen of the 29 organizations sponsoring the Global Day for Darfur called for strengthening the African Union peacekeeping force in Sudan, which is scheduled to be there until the end of this year. They also called for a transition from the African Union Peacekeeping force to a 20,600 troop U.N. peacekeeping force in the Darfur region, as promised by U.N. resolution 1706. In addition, they say increased levels of aid, better access for humanitarian workers, and implementation of the Darfur Peace Agreement are all needed to restore order to the region.

The rallies marked the one-year anniversary of the 2005 U.N. World Summit Outcome Document, which includes the “responsibility to protect.” This responsibility entails taking collective action if a national government cannot protect its people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.

Sudan's president, Omar Hassan Ahmad Al-Bashir, has refused help from the U.N. Darfur peacekeeping force. But the U.N.'s “responsibility to protect” could mean sending troops against his wishes.

Meanwhile, seven states have passed divestment legislation, and legislators in 15 others are considering it, according to the Sudan Divestment Task Force website. More than two dozen universities either have active divestment campaigns or have already chosen to divest.

— Michelle Wallar


The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issues yet another anti-union ruling.

The NLRB recently ruled that private hospitals could categorize as “management” any nurses that perform “supervisory” duties, even if these duties constitute only 10 to 15 percent of their typical workday and the nurses lack true management power.

Classifying more experienced nurses as “supervisors” prevents them from joining unions under the National Labor Rela?tions Act. This ruling could jeopardize the union status of a significant number of the nation's 2.6 million registered nurses.

William Gould, former chairperson of the NLRB, criticized the decision because it doesn't distinguish between merely directing or assigning work and having actual authority over other employees.

— Lisa Farino


Despite the media's fascination with the “red state, blue state” divide, most Americans actually agree on fundamental values—including the need to stop global warming.

Terminating Global Warming

NASA scientists announced in September that the world's temperature is the warmest it's been in the last 12,000 years. Two days later, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law to fight the trend. It's the first statewide attempt to target greenhouse gas emissions from all industries.

The California Global Warming Solutions Act seeks to bring the state's greenhouse gas emissions down to 1990 levels by 2020—an estimated 25 percent reduction.

California's Air Resources Board will determine the emissions caps and develop new regulations by 2011. The Board will monitor emissions and begin enforcing new regulations by 2012, after which point a violation will be a criminal offense.

The final plan may include gradual annual reductions and/or a cap-and-trade system. The cap-and-trade system would allow companies that reduce emissions more than the cap requires to sell those “credits” to other companies who have not met the mandated levels. Such a system is already in place in Europe, where companies can profit from keeping greenhouse gases out of the air.

To address fears that poor communities will be harmed by a market-based system, an environmental justice advisory committee will also participate in California's process.

California is not the only state to tackle climate change in the absence of national leadership. Last December, a coalition of seven northeast and mid-Atlantic states agreed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 10 percent by 2019 with their own cap-and-trade system.

Underlying state efforts are 319 American cities that have pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And behind it all is a growing acceptance of the human role in global warming.

— Michelle Wallar

A recent survey by the Center for American Values shows that voters' priorities are not as polarized as the “red state, blue state” labeling would indicate. While a small percentage of voters fall at either end of the political spectrum, the majority of voters agree on common values.

When asked to pick one of eight issues as the most important in determining their vote, jobs and the economy ranked first; gay marriage and abortion were last, each chosen by 5 percent. More than eight in ten agree that religious leaders spend too much time denouncing loaded, hot-button topics when they should be advocating love of one's neighbor and concern for the poor.

For the majority, voting based on moral values means the following: examining a candidate's honesty, integrity, and responsibility (39 percent); protecting personal freedoms (23 percent); or eliminating poverty and guaranteeing access to health care (21 percent).

— Doug Pibel


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