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Slavery and Ecocide

There is an extensive relationship between slavery and environmental destruction. Watch Kevin Bales explain how solving one problem solves the other.
For almost 20 years now, I’ve been traveling around the world looking at people in slavery, looking at situations in which people are enslaved, trying to understand the system of slavery as it’s played out and in different countries. Now, one of the things that’s been interesting is that as I’ve done that work and as I’ve been with people in slavery around the world, I’ve always focused very hard on exactly what they were saying and what their lives were like. And I was trying to really understand the live nature of slavery.
But it was after I would be away from the situations, after I would come home, after I would look at the pictures that I might have taken when I was meeting people in slavery that I began to noticed something that was real, frankly, rather ominous. And that was wherever I went in the world, when I met people in slavery, all around them in the background as it were of the photos, their environment was devastated. The destruction of the environment in which they lived was just patently obvious. I began to wonder if these two facts were related.
I began to wonder is this just an anomalous situation where it happens that people who are caught up in slavery are also caught up in slavery in situations where the natural world is being destroyed? Or are people in slavery being forced as slaves to destroy the natural world? So I set off on a piece of research. It was a piece of research that took almost seven years to complete. And what I discovered along the way was a big surprise to me.
One, was that I discovered that in fact, all over the world and particularly around the center of the world and around the equator, in the forests around the great equator, slaves were being used to destroy the natural world, particularly through illegal deforestation. In other words, around the world criminals were taking slaves, putting them in places that should not have been cut– forests that have not should not have been cut because they were protected national forests or UNESCO World Heritage Sites– and they were forcing them to destroy these forests, not to selectively and carefully cut timber, but literally to clear cut them and destroy them, leading to terrible species loss, leading to terrible environmental destruction.
Or slaveholders for using slaves to mine, to rip away the trees and the foliage in the natural world and to dig at the minerals below, or to cut those forests to establish fish processing camps or shrimp farms in Southeast Asia. I discovered that there was a very distinct pattern, and it was a triangular pattern. Slavery was being used in ways that would destroy the environment. The destruction of that environment was being accomplished in order to provide slaveholders with a way to bring products, raw materials, and commodities out which they could sell for a big profit, but especially– and this is in a sense the third part of the triangle– products that would be sold into the global economy.
So in other words, slavery went to environmental destruction. And that ended up in your household, in your telephone, in the shrimp that you might eat, and so forth. It was all about global supply chains providing the resources by which slaveholders would then use slaves to create enormous environmental destruction. As I begin to dig into this and to analyze it even further, I found something that shocked me.
Which was that as I computed how much forests were being destroyed and began to compute how much CO2 was being emitted into the air when you cut down a forest and burn a forest to get at the minerals below, I discovered something that was, in fact, a big surprise to most environmentalists around the world as well. It turns out that if slavery were a country– if you can think of slavery as being an individual country– it would be a country with a population somewhat bigger than the country of Canada or, say, the American state of California, something around 45 million people.
If slavery were a country, it would have the GDP– that is, the economic output of a country as small and poor as Angola, something like $150 billion US dollars per year or about, interestingly, the state of Kansas in the United States has a GDP of about $150 billion per year. So if slavery were a country, it would be a small poor country. But it turns out that if you calculate up how much CO2 and other noxious and polluting gases are being emitted by slave labor into the atmosphere every year, slavery a country would in fact be the third largest emitter of CO2 in the world after China and the United States.
Now, that’s a horrific thought on one level and interestingly a very hopeful thought on another. Because it tells us that the terrible global problems of environmental destruction and slavery are in fact interlinked. And that if we find ways to unpack slavery we may find a way through to slow or even stop climate change and carbon emissions. Likewise, if we address the environmental concerns that are creating situations in which that slave labor can be used by criminals, we might also be able to end the slavery that’s been in that circular way of destroying the environment as well. That’s one of the key ideas that you’ll be reading about this week in our course.
Kevin Bales’ recent book Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide and the Secret to Saving the World (2016) argues that slavery is not only morally unacceptable, it is also a major contributor to climate change.
In this film, he explains the connection between environmental decline and slavery: the two almost always go hand-in-hand, whether in the gold mines of Ghana or the mangrove forests of Bangladesh. Exploring the interrelationship of environmental issues and enslavement, he discusses why working to solve one can help to solve the other.
After watching the film, you can also dip into a longer lecture by Kevin about this topic.
Tell us in the comments what you think of this idea that we can tackle both slavery and environmental destruction at the same time. Does it surprise you to learn that if slavery were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of C02 (after China and the United States)?
You can also start preparing your responses and questions for Kevin’s live session as our “expert in the hot-seat” later this week.
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Ending Slavery: Strategies for Contemporary Global Abolition

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