Friday, January 15, 2010

Human Trafficking and the Environment

In December, the world watched the progress of the Copenhagen United Nations Climate Change Conference. While the conference may not have been front and center in the anti-trafficking community, the impact of environmental degradation on slavery and human rights cannot be ignored.

This issue is particularly pressing in light of the recent tragic events in Haiti resulting from a 7.0 earthquake. Haiti already faced extreme hardships and poverty, making the devastation even greater. Haiti also has a significant problem with trafficking of children called restaveks for forced domestic labor, often in situations of extreme abuse and neglect.

Environmental catastrophes, from Hurricane Katrina to the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean to a cyclone in Myanmar, wreck incredible damage on people's lives. Sadly, the devastation often impacts the most vulnerable, leaving them even more susceptible to abuse and exploitation. According to the United Nations Climate Change Conference, while it is hard to predict the extent of the consequences of climate change, we can expect more droughts, more flooding, and increased incidence of extreme weather, all of which could negatively impact people's lives in extreme ways.

According to
Linking Human Rights and the Environment, by Romina Picolotti and Jorge Daniel Taillant, "victims of environmental degradation tend to belong to more vulnerable sectors of society - racial and ethnic minorities and the poor - who regularly carry a disproportionate burden of [human rights] abuse. Increasingly, many basic human rights are being placed at risk, as the right to health affected by contamination of resources, or the right to property and culture comprised by commercial intrusion into indigenous lands." Such people are also extremely vulnerable to trafficking.

In The Slave Next Door, Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter make the link between the environment and human trafficking even more explicit with a slightly different perspective. In their discussion of slavery and consumer goods, they point out that trafficking victims are often forced to contribute to environmental degradation to produce products. Bales and Soodalter describe teh horrific conditions endured by slaves in charcoal camps in Brazil: "slaves suffer burns and cuts, the heat is ferocious, and their flesh wastes away. . . Unknowingly, the US consumer provides the incentive for this destruction of both human life and the environment" (146).

A report entitled
Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States by the Southern Poverty Law Center, shows another point of intersection between environmental issues and human trafficking. They highlight a trafficking case where a company exploited guestworkers from India to fill hotel positions vacated by people who evacuated after Hurricane Katrina. Threatened with massive "debts" and unable to leave their employee because of visa restrictions, they were ripe for exploitation.

Environmental degradation and slavery exist in a vicious cycle where people can be trafficked for labor that harms the environment or as the result of environmental issues, and where such environmental degradation places additional burdens on those who are already the most vulnerable to trafficking. Ending slavery and promoting human rights will require addressing this cycle.


  1. Anonymous6:38 AM

    Environmental conservation will help reduce cases of vulnerability and thereby reduce the number of human trafficking victims. Consolation will carry out a clean up activity cum Human trafficking awareness creation in Nairobi Kenya on World Environment Day, June 5th 2010. The location will be Kawangware, a slum in the outskirts of the city.

  2. Anonymous6:15 PM


    Wow, you are so right! And wouldn't this be the same scenario if it happened to, say, the countries of Sweden, France, or even America? (which I'm sure it has, already. In fact, I'm sure it's prevalent in most countries, today)

    What would you do to help combat these slave traders/ buyers, etc? How would any human being be able to stop an Act of God, as they call it, while saving these human's rights? Since you can't prosecute these people outside of a court of law, how else would they be tried? Sadly, there are also sports figures, politicians, anyone you could think of, joining the band-wagon to exploit men, women, and children. Did you also know that women make up a large percentage of human traffickers? I guess, it helps them make a lot of filthy money?

    Sorry, just throwing some questions out about this human and environmental atrocities.