By Kevin Bales, author of Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret Weapon to Saving the World (Spiegel & Grau, January 2016).
For years I traveled the world meeting people in slavery. Whenever I spoke with slaves I focused intensely, trying to understand the depth and truth of their lives. What I saw, what I heard, and what I learned changed me, and led me deeper into the work of ending slavery, but I was missing something important.
Concentrating on their words, gestures, and feelings, I failed to see what was happening all around slaves. Only later did I notice a theme, a common element stretching around the world and touching all types of slavery. Wherever there were slaves, the environment was under assault, forests were being destroyed, endangered species were dying, and climate change was worsening—and all of this destruction was driven by profits from products we buy.
I began to wonder, “what if?” What if slavery and climate change were tied together? What if we were paying for this deadly combination? What if climate change was driving people toward slavery? What if a way to fight global warming was to free slaves?
Answering those questions meant digging deeply into the supply chains of the things we buy. I found slave-filled mines in Ghana producing gold for our jewelry and wedding rings. I met children enslaved in protected national forests in Bangladesh producing the fish and shrimp that’s in our salads and pet food. In Congo and Brazil and almost everywhere around the earth’s equator, I learned the same lesson: Slavery matters, and the environment matters, and the dark and violent connection of slavery and environmental destruction matters even more.
I met nineteen-year-old Shumir in a village on the coast of Bangladesh. Just the night before he had escaped from slavery by hiding in a fishing boat. He was lured into slavery, he said, when, “A recruiter told my parents he would give them 2000 taka [$29] if they’d let me come and work. He said the work was easy, and there was plenty of food to eat. My parents needed the money and I wanted to help, so I left with the recruiter.”
It was a lie. Shumir and dozens of other boys often worked twenty-four hours straight. “The longer I worked,” he said, “I’d get exhausted and clumsy. Sometimes I’d cut myself with the gutting knife or slip and fall from the drying rack. Whenever I made a mistake the boss would hit me.” Yet more feared than the bosses were the tigers. Every boy I met from the fish camps reported having seen or known another child who had been eaten by a tiger.
Tigers were eating these children because criminal slaveholders had carved fish processing camps from the protected forests of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This vast mangrove forest and home of endangered species is the largest carbon sink in Asia, as well as a crucial buffer against cyclone damage. But when criminals force slaves to clear-cut the forest, CO2 floods into the atmosphere, and children and protected tigers are set on a collision course.
To stop this crime, we have to understand it. In fact, when we discover how this vicious cycle of human misery and environmental destruction works, we will also know how to stop it. The new challenge of climate change and the age-old challenge of slavery, both seemingly insuperable, turn out to have a linked solution.
A new way of seeing the world doesn’t come along very often, and when it does it can be a jarring awakening, a responsibility as well as a privilege. Ending slavery is an aspiration we all share. Protecting our beautiful and life-sustaining natural world is something we all know is right. The possibility of attaining both ideals at the same time has come at the dangerous crossroads of opportunity and crisis.
But surely our little choices don’t really change anything, right? But in fact, we repeat the act of choosing every day of our lives, impacting far into the future. And we know conscious decisions on our part can bring families out of slavery, stop deforestation and pollution, slow climate change, protect endangered species, unleash the creativity and productivity of free workers, and help end systems of cruelty and exploitation that have plagued us for centuries. What we don’t know, however, may be just as important. How would making those decisions change us?
Kevin Bales is the co-founder and former president of Free the Slaves, the largest abolitionist organization in the world. He has also served as a trustee of Anti-Slavery International and as a consultant to the United Nations Global Program Against Trafficking in Human Beings. He is the author of numerous reports, monographs, and scholarly books on modern slavery, including the acclaimed Disposable People. He lives in Brighton, England.