The Human Slavery-Ecocide Connection


– By Mitzi Perdue

Has it ever occurred to you that there’s a direct and appalling connection between human slavery and environment destruction? Kevin Bales, a Professor of Contemporary Slavery at the University of Nottingham, studies this connection.

His research demonstrates that added to the atrocity of human slavery, the practice enables almost unthinkable amounts of environmental damage. Let him explain.

“If the 40 million slaves in the world today were united into a single country,” he begins, “that country would be the size of Angola or Bulgaria, and it would have a GDP of $150 billion. However, even though it would be a small and poor country, it would be the world’s third largest emitter of carbon dioxide.”

If you were talking with him, you’d be entitled to challenge him on this. After all, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

He’d answer you, “Here’s why I know it’s true. Slave labor is typically used for illegal activities such as logging. Using the United Nations deforestation database, I calculated the amount of carbon dioxide slave-based deforestation causes. I found that only the United States and China are responsible for more carbon dioxide pollution than what comes about because of slave-based deforestation plus other slave-based practices.”

The figure he came up with was actually so much larger than he was expecting that he redid his calculations. He got the same results.

He still doubted his own figures, so he sent his calculations to Bill McKibben the climate change professor at Middlebury College. “I told him, ‘You’ve got a team that works on this kind of thing. Where am I wrong?”

KcKibben had his experts study Bales’ figures; they couldn’t find a flaw. In fact their conclusions were unanimous: it’s not cars or airlines that are causing the major amount of carbon dioxide pollution. It’s illegal slave-based deforestation.

It isn’t just deforestation. Slaves are frequently used to turn forest products into charcoal, a process that releases still more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  In in addition, in South Asia, 50,000 slave-based brick kilns emit vast amounts of CO2, along with other noxious and carcinogenic chemicals.

How Did All This Come About?

Bales has seen that there’s a particularly ugly pattern at work. Criminals can make huge profits using environmentally destructive practices. Industries were this is particularly prevalent include illegal logging, illegal mining and illegal fishing.

Since the people responsible for these activities are motivated by profit and aren’t constrained by morals or the law, the temptation to use unpaid (that is slave) labor has proven irresistible. The consequences of this are almost beyond belief.

As an example of the almost inconceivable results of enslaving people for illegal deforestation, members of law enforcement in Brazil showed Bales the shallow, unmarked graves in the forest where slaves were murdered and buried. Here’s why were they murdered.

In the Amazon there are forest preserves where legal loggers can’t go. With their legal “competition” gone, the illegal loggers moved in.

The criminal loggers logged everything of value, and then, before leaving, murdered their slaves. They did this to ensure the slaves could never testify against them.

Bales has also visited the gold miners in illegal gold mines in Ghana, where the average slave is dead within six months. They die from silicosis added to the lethal chemicals involved in mining – not least mercury which then saturates the local environment and the water sources of local villages.

Between human suffering and environmental catastrophe, human slavery has to be one of the worst scourges to afflict mankind – and now we know that they are mutually reinforcing. Environmental destruction drives indigenous and other people into extreme vulnerability. Criminals enslave the vulnerable and force them to commit more illegal destruction.

An Encouraging Attitude

Why is Bales willing to spend his life working in an area so dark? “If we shy away from it,” he answers, “we’ll never fix it.”

Bales isn’t shying away, and he does see a road map for fixing it. “We know that all of this environmental destruction and human slavery is funded by global supply chains. It’s a vicious cycle where criminals can make extraordinary profits while creating extraordinary misery.”

However, there’s another side to this equation. “With any vicious cycle,” he points out, “you can reverse it and turn it into a virtuous cycle.”

To the extent that people can look into their supply chains and not buy products that come from slave labor, not only will individuals suffer less, the planet will suffer less.

Bales recommends that we all do the following:

1.  Make clear in both law and policy the tight link between slavery and environmental destruction – including bringing a “slavery lens” to environmental project funding. Many climate-justice leaders are now including slavery in their research and practice, likewise anti-slavery leaders have recognized the inextricable tie to environmental destruction. Fostering this mutual and complementary interest creates a synergy and new areas for effective change.

2.  Support projects that demonstrate how freed slaves can return to livelihood while restoring the natural world they were forced to destroy. If such projects focused on reforestation, they could support building new lives for ex-slaves while increasing carbon sequestration and potentially generating carbon credits that would fund further reintegration/reforestation projects.

3.  Given that the ultimate destination of many of the products of slave-based and environmentally destructive crime is the homes of first-world consumers – work to help corporations free the supply chains from both the crime of slavery and of environmental destruction.

About The Author

Mitzi Perdue is a businesswoman, author, and Founder of Win This Fight, Stop Human Trafficking Now. She holds a B.A. degree with honors from Harvard University and a Master's from George Washington University. She's a past president of the 40,000 member American Agri-Women, and she was a U.S. Delegate to the United Nations Conference on Women in Nairobi. She was also a Commissioner for the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science. Her Scripps Howard column, The Environment and You, was for years the most widely syndicated environmental column in the U.S.

She is the founder and president of “Win This Fight! Stop Human Trafficking Now,” an organization that raises funds and awareness for other anti-trafficking initiatives.