Can Anti-Slavery Tools Assist Environmental Conservation Efforts?

2 April 2020
Research Innovation

Nesrien Hamid  | Progamme Officer - Delta 8.7

What is the relationship between tree loss and modern slavery? This is the question addressed in a recent paper by researchers at the University of Nottingham.

The study uses data from a variety of sources, including the 2016 Global Slavery Index (GSI)—which provides modern slavery estimates per country—and Global Forest Watch (GFW)—which has since 2014 monitored the rate of tree loss globally—to draw out the connection between modern slavery and tree loss. It focuses in particular on the “contribution that modern slavery could be making to deforestation-related tree cover loss and the challenges it presents for conservation management and planning.”

The study suggests there is a link between slavery-like practices and activities such as illegal logging and commodity-driven deforestation that result in tree loss. This has important implications for conservation, development and anti-slavery policy.

Modern slavery and the Environment

In 2016, Professor of Contemporary Slavery Kevin Bales published Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World. This book details the coincidence between environmental destruction and human trafficking and slavery. From mines in the Congo to mangrove forests in India and Bangladesh being cleared for shrimp farming, Bales documents the use of slave labour by enterprise destroying natural environments, threatening biodiversity and heightening climate change. “If slavery were an American state,” he writes, “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.”

Subsequent studies have explored how climate change may drive vulnerability to modern slavery. A recent report by Royal Holloway, University of London explores the intersection between climate change, rural to urban migration and bonded labour in brick kilns in Cambodia. Climate change has had a negative impact on agricultural production in Cambodia, and as demand for labour on farmland diminishes, whole families are driven to migrate to urban areas in search for work—which often takes the form of bonded labour in brick kilns that supply Phnom Penh’s booming construction market.

The new study from the University of Nottingham identifies a “two-way cyclical relationship between modern slavery and tree loss” wherein decreases in biodiversity “due to tree cover loss” lead to increases in vulnerability to slavery, which, “in turn increas[e] modern slavery’s contributions to tree cover and biodiversity loss.”

Model of the GSI 2016 modern slavery estimates per country against the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) 2016 score. Cited from: Jackson B, Decker Sparks JL, Brown C, Boyd DS. Understanding the co-occurrence of tree loss and modern slavery to improve efficacy of conservation actions and policies. Conservation Science and Practice. 2020; e183.

The study examines four countries: Brazil, Ghana, Indonesia and Mozambique. These were selected by overlaying the 2016 GSI slavery estimates and the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) scores—which measures a country’s performance vis-à-vis established environmental policy goals— to determine the “areas with high levels of predicted tree loss, moderate-high estimated slavery levels and illegal logging, as well as documented evidence of slavery within their forestry sectors.” Using illegal logging as a proxy for the presence of slavery, the study found a positive correlation between lower slavery estimates and stronger environmental protections.

In Brazil—which has comparatively stronger environmental protections among the four countries examined —industries such as cattle ranching and timber are known to produce widespread deforestation, often with the use of slave labour. According to this study’s calculations, there are an estimated 24,000 people labouring in slavery-like conditions in activities associated with tree loss in Brazil. In Ghana—where climate change has resulted in persistent droughts that imperil the livelihoods of thousands—approximately 15,000 people in modern slavery are working in activities related to tree loss, which include cocoa, rubber plantations and mining. An estimated 112,000 people are working in conditions of slavery in Indonesia in activities related to tree loss, the most well-known of which is the palm oil agribusiness—an industry rife with worker exploitation. In Mozambique, where an estimated 22,000 people are labouring under slavery-like conditions in activities associated with tree loss, some of the primary culprits are construction, commercial agriculture and charcoal production.

For each country, the authors identify possible synergies in anti-deforestation and anti-slavery policies. In the case of Brazil, for example, they note that anti-slavery organizations can provide training “for front-line responders undertaking labor inspections and conservation activities, to simultaneously respond to deforestation and modern slavery,” which would equip them with the tools to provide assistance to survivors. This collaboration across areas of concern would allow for a more efficient deployment of limited resources to accelerate progress towards concurrently achieving multiple SDGs by 2030. In Ghana, where the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) programme is supporting national efforts to combat deforestation and environmental damage “by reducing the burden of poverty and supporting sustainable development”—in other words, the very same underlying conditions that constitute drivers to slavery—the authors suggest that antislavery frameworks be integrated into REDD+ programming.

“While antislavery tools alone will not halt all tree cover loss,” the authors note, “they could help mitigate illegal clearing and deforesting—activities that undermine conservation policies and make sustainable goals and targets difficult to achieve.”

Nesrien Hamid is a Programme Officer for Delta 8.7. 

This article has been prepared by Nesrien Hamid as a contribution to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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