Slavery Hasn't Stopped: The Simultaneous Abuse of People and The Planet

9th July 2020


By Lucy Phillips, President


Illustrations by Rashi Agarwal, Creative Director

Important note r.e. content: This article contains descriptive writing about slavery, as well as several images depicting slavery which may be shocking and/or disturbing. 

Statues are falling. The tragic murder of George Floyd by police officers has prompted a re-examination of whom we memorialise. The news has been filled with reports about statues of slave owners, slave traders and anyone perceived as having been historically involved with slavery being torn down or vandalised. In Bristol, a state of the slave trader Edward Colston has been pulled down; in Belgium, statues of King Leopold have been defaced; the London Mayor Sadiq Khan has announced a commission to revise what should happen to all landmarks, such as statues and street names, in the city. This is, unquestionably, an incredibly important and long overdue issue. However, whilst educating ourselves about the horrors of slavery in the past is crucial, we need to consider the shocking range of modern slavery that still happens in 2020.

 

According to the 2018 Global Slavery Index, an estimated 136,000 people are living in modern slavery in Britain alone.


Globally, this figure was estimated to be 39 million people (2015). An eye-opening figure, to say the least.


Despite the scale of this issue, we don’t understand modern slavery terribly well – perhaps more so now than in the past, but not well. Anyone able to read this is likely to have had a reasonable education, so why have we not been exposed to the extent and depth of this horror?

 

It is because those who are enslaved rarely have voices. The types of slavery around the world are very complex yet, universally, it is the same kind of slavery as that which has happened throughout history: one person completely controlling another person, using violence to maintain control and using that control to usually exploit them economically but possibly sexually and in other ways as well.

 

Map of the percentage of the population that is enslaved, measured by country (2014)

This is a map of global slavery. As it shows, slavery is pretty much in every single country in the world. The darker areas of the map are areas of higher density of slavery, measured as the proportion of the population that is actually enslaved. Mauritania in North West Africa is believed to have the highest density with an astonishing 4% of the population in slavery. Haiti is believed to be the second highest with 2% of the population.

 

The one thing that has changed about slavery, though, is the complete collapse in the price of acquiring a person; Kevin Bales, co-founder of the NGO Free the Slaves and author of Disposable People, estimates that the average price of a slave over the past 4,000 years has been $4,400 (£3,500). Today, due to the rapidly increasing global population, there are a vast number of people – Bales purports that this means, unfortunately, there are a vast number of people who can potentially be enslaved.

 

Today, a human being can be acquired for a mere $7-15 (£5-12). Bales makes an unabashed analogy for the treatment of these individuals: like Styrofoam cups, you buy them cheaply, you use them, then when you’re finished you crumple them up and throw them away.

 

A slave owner points to his enslaved workers on a quarry in northern India.

Two enslaved children working in the quarry.

To add to the fact that slaves are often horrifically abused, they are often also being used to horrifically abuse the environment. The first image (above) is a protected National Forest but the slave owner (pictured) bribes the forest rangers so that he can force his enslaved workers to destroy the protected land. 


The second image (above) is of enslaved young children. Children in South Asia are often hereditarily enslaved - this boy and girl never known anything else, as the families who own the quarry have held their parents, their grandparents and so on.

A National Forest in Ghana, destroyed by enslaved gold miners.

This is another protected National Forest, this time in Ghana. It has been ripped to pieces by open cast gold mining, destroying the trees, topsoil, plants and the animals that live there. On top of this, the area has been poisoned with Mercury, the chemical used to extract gold flecks out of the river bound sands, to a depth that means the land will not be farmable for at least three generations. This Mercury will pass through the food chain - into the soil, fish, crops, cattle, and into the food and water of the humans that live around the area.

 

These commodities are things that we wear, that we eat, that we use.

A satellite image of the Sundarbans UNESCO National Heritage Site in Bangladesh.

This UNESCO National Heritage Site (pictured above) should be completely forested, as it is on the right, yet on the left is a fish-processing base. What looks like buildings from above are actually enormous racks where enslaved children dry the catch of the local fishermen for the local fish markets. The same process happens for shrimp.

Zoom in: two enslaved children dry fish on racks in Sundarbans, Bangladesh.

Here, a slave overseer beats children to make them work faster.

A few individuals who had come out of slavery a few years previously were asked about their health. Shockingly, they said that the second most serious health problem - after life-threatening diarrhea - was that they had all seen or knew someone who had been eaten by a tiger.

 

The endangered species of Bengal tiger that lives in Sundarbans is there to be protected by the UNESCO World Heritage funds. Yet slave masters push into the territorial areas where the tigers live, cutting down the largest mangrove forests – as well as the largest carbon sink - in South Asia. The deer are pushed out and another prey animal is introduced. Small children.


What does this all mean? It means that:

Slavery generates approximately 2.54 billion tonnes of carbon emissions a year, after China at an estimated 7.03 billion tonnes and the United States at an estimated 5.46 billion tonnes.

 

The astounding thing is, there is a solution in the very problem. If those 39 million people who are enslaved today were liberated and employed to replant the forests they have been forced to destroy, it would generate a carbon credit of $50.6 billion on those replanted forests.


It is estimated that it would cost approximately $15 billion over a 20 to 30 year period to bring almost all the people in the world out of slavery.

So, this potential carbon credit is three times the amount needed for the act of worldwide liberation.

 

All around the world human beings need freedom: freedom to replant the trees voluntarily, if they so chosose, that they have been involuntarily forced cut down.

This is a clip of the children and their families pictured above at the quarry in north India after they had been freed from slavery. The first thing they did was to build a small school and the second was to replant the forest.


They asked for help to buy the seedlings and brought back new life to the land; to re-seed the land that they were forced to destroy.

The destruction of human lives and the natural environment are both very real, very present issues. They are also interconnected which means a solution might be able to solve them both at the same time.

 

So, whilst the recent explosion of anti-slavery movements has been incredibly powerful in increasing awareness about historical slavery, modern-day slavery has gone slightly under the radar. Slavery hasn't stopped.

 

What we preserve from the past translates into what we are upholding today and we intend to project into the future. Revising who are memorialised is a crucial first step towards more widespread awareness, and therefore rejection, of slavery. However, present and future pain caused by slavery needs to be central if slavery is to be abolished from our world, once and for all. 

 

As the world’s temporary injuries from COVID-19 are slowly healed, we need to remember that the gaping wound of global inequality remains open as we #BuildBackBetter.


 

[This article is an adaptated version of the visual and verbal content of the author Kevin Bales’ talk entitled ‘Modern Slavery’. The full version can be found online at: https://tinyurl.com/yc2zv8cd]

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