Linking Human-Trafficking and the Environment

“Today more than ever, society has come to recognize that the anthropogenic destruction of our planet’s sustainable biodiversity negatively impacts humankind, placing human life at risk.  The cause-and effect relationship that exists between environmental collapse and the subsequent risk to our existence can no longer be ignored.” – Romina Picollotti, Linking Human Rights and the Environment

Rarely do we associate human-trafficking with the degradation of the environment.  It is generally believed that human-trafficking is a human rights abuse, which fundamentally can be disaggregated into a political issue, or an issue of inequality.  On the other hand, the fall of the environment is seen as a problem with infrastructure, and associated with poor agriculture, fishing, mining, or forestry practices.  In the world of non-profit organizations, we do not often connect the two; the two movements are often disparate and in turn target different demographics and actions for change. 

What we fail to realize is how the two are so closely linked.  Where poor human rights exist, we often see the fall of environmental conditions.  When looking at the products that surround us everyday, we can see that poor enforcement of worker rights including health, safety and environmental standards can lead to environmental degradation.  Here are some examples:

Mining –

Human: In the Democratic Republic of Congo, civilians (including children) are forced to mine for conflict minerals by the Congolese National Army and various armed rebel groups.  Violence and rape are used to control the population, and people in the area are illegally taxed, extorted and coerced into working in these mines.  People are forced to work up to 48-hour shifts in tunnels prone to soil erosion, leading to mass landslides and cave-ins.  These individuals are forced to mine for cassiterite, wolframite, coltan, and gold: minerals that are used in our everyday electronics including our laptops, iPods, and cell phones. 

Environment: Mining of any kind will lead to the degradation of the environment – soil erosion, contamination of groundwater, surface water and soil by chemical extractors, and poisonous tailing ponds: all byproducts that must be effectively managed.  Without proper working conditions, safety equipment, and mandated protocols, communities living around this area will be hazardously exposed for decades to come, ultimately leading to even more unstable living conditions.    

Fishing –

Human: In the oceans around Sumatra, children are falsely promised “good” employment working on some 1,500 fishing farms.  Each farm imprisons on average between three to ten children, whose only exit route is a twenty-mile swim to the closest coastline.  Children are exploited and abused, and live in a constant state of insecurity.  The fish caught by these children are sent for export to countries such as America, one of the top destinations for shrimp, fish, canned tuna, and tilapia from this area. 

Environment: Poor fishing practices have lead to the draining of our oceans of its mass biodiversity.  Mangroves, home to some of the richest ecosystems, have been wiped out due to the implementation of profitable fish farms.  These mangroves also act as a natural buffer zone for coastal impact, and once eliminated no longer provide this protection.  This is the case around the coastlines of Sri Lanka where the 2004 tsunami took its deathly toll, thus creating more unstable and vulnerable communities at risk of exploitation.   

Forestry –

Environment: In the forests of Brazil, some vastly biodiverse areas of the Amazon are being cut down and replaced by mono-crops of Eucalyptus.  Any surviving native plants or animals in this region soon die off as plants compete for soil nutrients and resources, and animals starve due to lack of food or from consuming the noxious poisonous leaves of the Eucalyptus trees.  The crop is used to create charcoal, which makes the steel and iron we use in our vehicles and appliances.

Human: Eucalyptus is in many cases harvested by forced and child laborers illegally hired by labor brokers.  These workers are forced to hurl the lumber into mass piers, which is burnt to make a special type of charcoal used to make iron and steel.  Charcoal camps are rampant with human exploitation and labor abuse, and many workers face risk of severe burns and injuries.

All around us we see human value degraded alongside our environment.  But there are tangible and effective actions we can take to ensure that companies are making an effort toward empowering their workers, strengthening their protocols and monitoring standards, and providing proper and up to date best practice training to their suppliers.  When a company has begun to make real efforts in implementing a slave-free supply chain, we’ll ultimately see better environmental practices.  The Free2Work App highlights the initiative that certain companies are taking to better protect the rights of humans; these actions will hopefully in turn impact the sustainability of our planet.