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Perpetrators of modern slavery are devastating our environment too

November 13, 2015 / Media, Op-eds Nick Grono / @nickgrono

Criminal gangs who employ slave labour are often involved in deforestation or pollution. Fighting slavery will also protect our natural resources.

Read the op-ed on the Guardian or in full below.

In many poor countries, environmental destruction is the tipping point that pushes vulnerable families into slavery. Unseasonal droughts, encroaching deserts, extreme flooding, the death of livestock, or illegal deforestation have a devastating impact on families already living on the brink. As their fragile livelihoods become unsustainable, such families may start to gamble with their liberty.

Desperate parents accept offers from unscrupulous “recruiters” to employ their daughters in hotels, often suspecting that the offers are too good to be true, but hoping against hope that their daughters won’t end up in the sex trade, or that sons who are offered “light work” and access to schooling won’t be forced to work double shifts in embroidery factories or road building. Sadly, and all too often, however, that is the outcome.

In India, Nepal and Pakistan, entire families forced off the land end up working as bonded labourers in brick kilns or stone quarries after they are coerced with fraudulent loans into years – and often decades – of servitude.

Slave labour is also deployed in work that destroys the environment – thereby perpetuating the cycle of devastation and exploitation. In Thailand, desperate migrants from Myanmar and Cambodia are enslaved on fishing boats to strip the oceans of fish, damaging the marine environment. Or in Brazil, gangs of young men are trapped by debt in work illegally logging the Amazon forest (pdf), endangering the livelihoods of indigenous groups. Brick kilns in India, operated by bonded labourers, are fuelled with old tyres and used motor oil, spewing carcinogens and other pollutants into the air.

Slave labour is used for such work because destroying the environment for profit is often difficult, dirty and dangerous. The criminal gangs perpetrating these abuses are not willing to pay the wages required to attract and retain workers for this difficult and unpleasant work. Instead, they deceive and coerce vulnerable men, women and children into servitude so that they can extract maximum profit from their exploitation.

More often than not, the destruction is also illegal so perpetrators have an incentive to use illegal, forced labour – thereby avoiding the scrutiny of authorities.

So what should done to end these abuses? Clearly, there are no easy answers to such complex and deep-rooted problems. But just as clearly, groups fighting modern-day slavery and those striving to protect the environment will make much more effective progress if they collaborate more closely on their mutual goals – and their shared objective of increasing the resilience of vulnerable communities and their environment.

In his recent address to the US Congress, Pope Francis referred to this kind of collaboration, saying: “Cooperation is a powerful resource in the battle to eliminate new global forms of slavery, born of grave injustices which can be overcome only through new policies and new forms of social consensus.”

Many conditions are in place for this collaboration. Environmental defenders are often already working in communities that are vulnerable to human trafficking, creating a strong opportunity to collaborate and deploy basic resources to mitigate the risk of modern slavery. Likewise, those working to prevent servitude can benefit from conservation efforts, which retain local natural resources that provide economic benefits.

Furthermore, the development of shared resources – such as maps of affected areas or training resources on risk indicators – can equip a new army of frontline workers to protect the most vulnerable people and conserve fragile ecosystems. This is certainly the approach of the organisation I lead, the Freedom Fund, in its efforts to combat slavery in the Thai seafood industry and end the use of forced labour to illegally deforest the Amazon in Brazil.

We have to understand that perpetrators of modern slavery are devastating our natural environment. By tackling slavery – one of the world’s great evils – we’ll also significantly reduce destruction of the environment. Those are outcomes we can all agree on.

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