Can environmentalists end human trafficking?
by Sister Ann Oestreich, IHM
Finally, it’s April. In northern Indiana, where I live, April’s arrival means that the grey, cold, snowy days of winter give way to the tender greens of spring, daffodils and flowering trees. People are outside, walking and biking again, and tilling the soil for their gardens. Creation is coming back to life! On April 22 we celebrate the grandeur, beauty and fragility of our planet on Earth Day, and re-commit ourselves to reverencing and preserving what Pope Francis calls “our common home.”
In his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Sí, Pope Francis challenged us all to recognize that care for our Earth and care for people who are poor and vulnerable are not separate concerns. They are interconnected, inter-related, in what he calls an “integral ecology.” When we think about the elegance of creation and human trafficking, a horrific abuse of human dignity and human rights, where do we see that interconnection?
Kevin Bales, co-founder of the organization, Free the Slaves, makes this connection convincingly in his latest book entitled “Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide and the Secret to Saving the World.” As Bales traveled the world documenting and working to end human trafficking, he noticed that where slavery existed, so did “massive, unchecked environmental destruction.”1.
We’ve known for a long time that environmental change and human trafficking/slavery are linked. Whether it’s the slow desertification of sub-Saharan Africa or the devastating force of a southeast Asian tsunami, both cause people to migrate away from their homelands, and people on the move are vulnerable to traffickers. Once captured, they may be forced into mining gold or coltan, cutting down forests or working on brutally demanding shrimping/fishing boats for months or years at a time.
But Bales goes beyond pointing out the mutually reinforcing evils of slavery and ecocide. He posits that “slavery is at the root of much of the natural world’s destruction.”2. How can that be, given that there are an estimated 35 million slaves, a horrific number, but still a small fraction of our global population?
Bales argues: “Slaveholders are criminals, operating firmly outside of any law or regulation. When they mine gold they saturate thousands of acres with toxic mercury. When they cut timber, they clear-cut and burn…leaving behind a dead ecosystem. Laws and treaties may control law-abiding individuals, corporations, and governments, but not the criminal slaveholders who flout the gravest of laws.”
He continues, “When it comes to global warming, these slaveholders outpace all but the very biggest polluters. Adding together their slave-based deforestation and other CO2-producing crimes leads to a sobering conclusion. If slavery were an American state it would have the population of California and the economic output of the District of Columbia, but it would be the world’s third largest producer of CO2, after China and the United States. It’s no wonder that we struggle and often fail to stop climate change and reduce the atmospheric carbon count. Slavery, one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas producers, is hidden from us. Environmentalists are right to call for laws and treaties that will apply to the community of nations, but that is not enough. We also have to understand that slavers–who don’t adhere to those laws and treaties–are a leading cause of the natural world’s destruction. And to stop them…we need to end slavery.”3.
In Laudato Sí, Pope Francis reminds us that “the human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation.”4. It seems that Bales and Pope Francis are of the same mind. Modern day slavery and environmental destruction are both increasing. We need to be aware of the connections between these sins against humanity and creation, and work to root them out. To save our planet, we have to end human trafficking. To end human trafficking, we must reverence and protect Earth, our common home.
I close with some recommendations for reading and reflection. For every environmentalist, please consider reading “Blood and Earth” by Kevin Bales. For everyone who works to end human trafficking, ponder the words of Pope Francis in Laudato Sí. (You can find it online at https://laudatosi.com/watch)
And for every person who has ever experienced the indignity, despair and unspeakable abuse of human trafficking/modern-day slavery, I wish you the rebirth of April, the new life of Resurrection.
- Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World by Kevin Bales. Random House: New York, 2016. Quote from the inside book jacket.
- Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World, p. 9.
- Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World, p. 9-10.
- On Care for Our Common Home – Laudato Sí. Chapter 1, #48.
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