By Rebecca Brown
*Note: modern slavery here is used as an umbrella term that encompasses exploitation, human trafficking and forced labour.
As a child growing up in Devon, there was never any shortage of leafy woodland walks filled with snuffling hedgehogs and deer. I grew up with a genuine curiosity and appreciation of nature, spending my summers picking strawberries on farms as a treat, and my evenings watching animal documentaries with my father, or reading about strange birds and fish in distant lands. In school, I learned in horror about deforestation in a far away place called the Amazon, and how harmful farming chemicals were bringing animals like the Peregrine Falcon to extinction in the UK. Such facts affected me profoundly, but the ‘damage chain’ of climate destruction and my place within it were never really explained to me.
As a young adult, I discovered and fell in love with fashion. I was a typical teenager, spending hours in High Street stores browsing for whatever would make me look more like Shirley Manson or Siouxsie Sioux. There’s a distant memory of the term ‘sweatshop’ being on the news at some point in the late 90s. For those too young to remember, the scandal involved the discovery of factories in Indonesia manufacturing clothes for Adidas, with children and adults barely paid and suffering from regular physical and sexual abuse. I don’t think I particularly understood the controversy or my role in its being enough to pay it heed.
Then in 2010, I discovered ‘new abolitionist’ Kevin Bales, and learned a life-altering new term: modern slavery. Suddenly, the world brought new curiosity: were the foundations of London architecture made by children working over kilns in Pakistan? Were women dying in cramped, unsafe Bangladeshi factories so that I could look like the rock stars I so idolised? There are an estimated 40.3 million men, women, and children survivors of modern slavery. Was not slavery abolished in the 19th century? In Bales’ latest book, ‘Blood and Earth’, he reveals the horrific nexus between modern slavery and climate change, both inextricably linked, increased and exacerbated by our overconsumption and exploitation of human and natural resources. For the first time, my place in that ‘damage chain’ became clear, and as recently pointed out by KCL PhD student, Elias Yassin, it is communities of black, indigenous, and other people of colour (BIPOC), who are largely paying the price – again.
Deforestation is a high-risk driver of modern slavery, and enslaved people are not only regularly used to deforest for timber, but also for the construction of new farms and natural resource extraction operations. NGO Repórter Brasil, estimates that from 1995-2019, over 54,000 people in the Amazon were rescued from farms dealing in animal produce, vegetables and cotton. In 2017, following a 48-hour journey through the rainforest, a police raid managed to rescue seven enslaved men who had been enslaved into farming work under highly unsafe and unsanitary conditions, and who testified to having been beaten and threatened with murder. Slavery is common practice amongst ranchers in the area and raids of this kind are not unheard of, but rarely result in punitive measures. The rescued men were all illiterate and, whilst the report does not mention their current condition, it is likely that without prospects and an adequate support network, that they remain in a precarious situation. In March 2020, another investigation by Repórter Brasil linked the world’s biggest meat companies, JBS and Marfrig, to a farm where nine men were found dead in the Amazon, in what was described as one of the most brutal Amazonian massacres in recent history – their bodies showing signs of torture and of having been stabbed or shot.
These same Ranchers forgo traditional indigenous forest-burning tactics for an August burning season, where the dry weather is used to haphazardly prepare land for crops and pasture, resulting in major fires which devastate indigenous homes and natural habitats. Indigenous activists have been fighting back, with leaders such as Nemonte Nenquimo recently honoured with the 2020 Goldman Environmental Prize for her success in protecting 500,000 acres of rainforest from oil extraction. But the fight for climate preservation against exploitative organisations has come at a huge cost of life, with a record number of environmental activists murdered in the Amazon in 2019 alone by illegal logging gangs, which Human Rights Watch has described as “only getting worse under President Bolsonaro.”
In 2015, following decades of discussions, the UK finally enacted the Modern Slavery Act in an effort to prevent, prosecute and protect individuals caught up in serious exploitation and the associated abuses. There are many issues with the Act, in particular an overreliance and focus on law enforcement, immigration and deportation, but it has nevertheless been hailed as ground-breaking, and last year alone led to the referral of 10,627 potential survivors. There is still a long way to go before it is survivor-focused, but the UK Modern Slavery Act is not all-talk: It is being implemented. 26% of the individuals referred claimed they had been exploited overseas, with the majority of cases in both adults and children covering labour trafficking. In an ideal world, every country would have a well-implemented modern slavery act, and the UK ‘s influence cannot be denied. The Act has achieved international influence, imprinting itself in legislation such as that of the 2017 “Corporate duty of vigilance law” in France and the Modern Slavery Act (2018) in Australia, with Canada now looking to follow suit. But there is still much to be done.
The nexus between modern slavery and climate change is still barely discussed or explored, particularly in terms of gaining policy-related acknowledgement. There have been high-level discussions on climate change and disaster displacement, and in early 2020 a United Nations human rights committee ruled it unlawful for governments to return ‘climate refugees’ to countries where their lives might be threatened by the climate crisis. UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Filippo Grandi recently shared that the world needs to prepare for millions of people being driven from their homes by climate change. But without adequate legislature and a sufficiently financed support-infrastructure, who or what will ensure these individuals do not fall prey to climate slavery and into exploitative practices which compound climate change itself?
Modern slavery and climate change are transnational issues which desperately require improved cross-border cooperation. The issues have for too long been addressed separately, but if individuals and governments are serious about preventing either, it is time we acknowledged and fixed the fragmented dialogue surrounding them.
Rebecca is the Events Officer at Policy Institute and Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London. Prior to this, she worked in PhD Registry Services at King’s whilst also undertaking events management consultancy work. Previously, she worked for various think tanks, organising events in Europe, North America and Africa, mainly focusing on human rights, security and defence, international development and healthcare policy. She is a self-confessed “modern-slavery geek” and is setting up an educational not-for-profit, the “Universities Against Modern Slavery Alliance (UAMSA)’, which focuses on education and movement building within our Universities to prevent modern slavery and human trafficking. Rebecca has a Master’s degree in International Relations and the European Union (with Mandarin Chinese) from Aston University, and a BA in Spanish and Italian from the University of Bangor, Wales. Rebecca dreams of one day undertaking a PhD and getting a job as a researcher specialising in human trafficking and modern slavery.