Modern Slavery: A Green Issue?


Monday sees the launch of Not For Sale, a high-profile campaign to eradicate modern slavery. The campaign organizers claim there are as many as 27 million slaves world-wide, and 50% of these are children. In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I have been personally involved in this as part of my work with The Change, a company specializing in design and brand strategy for good-for-the-world businesses and non-profits. One of the questions we have been asking ourselves is this — is slavery an environmental issue? How could we actively engage the environmental community in the fight against slavery? While many environmentalists care about human rights and fair trade issues, they are still seen by many as 'human concerns' — and therefore removed from strictly environmental issues. On the other hand, however, it can be argued that if we are to move towards sustainability, we must recognize ourselves as part of the natural systems we inhabit — and accord each other the same respect that we are advocating for the natural world. Either way, this is a fairly abstract argument. Digging a little deeper, however, we discovered evidence of what we suspected anyway, that there is a very real, very contemporary link between the abuse of natural resources and the abuse of our fellow humans. The link? Deforestation of the Amazon.

As most Treehuggers will be only to keenly aware, corporations such as Cargill, ADM and Bunge have long been accused of involvement in the destruction of the Amazon for soy cultivation (apparently now the leading cause of deforestation). According to a recent Greenpeace report, many of the farms that Cargill and others buy their soy beans from have been proven to practice debt-bondage, often enslaving the very same indigenous people whose lands have been grabbed by the farmer:

"On the 370,000 acre Roncador Farm in Querencia, Mato Grosso, where more than twice the legal limit of forest cover has been cleared, government inspectors freed 215 slave laborers between 1998 and 2004. Working 16 hour days, seven days a week, workers were forced to live in plastic shanties without beds or sanitation. Water for drinking, cooking and bathing was drawn from a cattle watering hole and stored in barrels once used for diesel oil and lubricants. Unable to leave the farm, and forced to buy food at extortionate prices, workers were held in debt bondage until the government intervened. Even as the farm owners are being prosecuted, Roncador continues to grow the soy market."

There are some signs of hope. The Brazilian government has been encouraging major companies to support its anti-slavery efforts, but ADM, Bunge and Cargill have all refused to sign Brazil's National Pact for the Eradication of Slave Labor.

It seems then, that environmentalists and abolitionists have more in common than some may think. In fact, this may always have been the case. Way back in the 1800s when the struggle against slavery was hotting up in the US, one out-spoken critic of slavery was none-other than Henry David Thoreau. The following is from an address given to an anti-slavery gathering, protesting the forced return of a fugitive slave from Massachusetts into bondage:

"Slavery and servility have produced no sweet-scented flower annually, to charm the senses of men, for they have no real life: they are merely a decaying and a death, offensive to all healthy nostrils. We do not complain that they live, but that they do not get buried. Let the living bury them; even they are good for manure."

Maybe now, over 150 years after these words were spoken, the world will finally take heed and bury this abomination for good.

Sami Grover is Director of Sustainability for The Change, a company that is working on the media strategy for the Not For Sale campaign.

[Written by: Sami Grover]