Breaking the Vicious Circle: Climate Change, Environmental Destruction and Contemporary Slavery
Climate change is negatively affecting many of the poorest people in the world and is increasing vulnerability to exploitation and abuse. In my recent report with Anti-Slavery International, From a Vicious to a Virtuous Circle, I draw on research from Bolivia and Peru to outline how climate change and environmental destruction are destabilizing livelihoods, driving unsafe migration and worsening vulnerability — and propose recommendations to break this vicious circle.
Many parts of the world are already experiencing the damaging effects of climate change. Sudden-onset disasters like floods, fires and storms, and slow-onset events like soil depletion, water shortages, loss of biodiversity and extreme temperatures, are worsening the existing social, economic and environmental pressures experienced by marginalized communities.
One outcome of this situation is migration. Climate change is the primary cause of displacement globally. In Bangladesh alone, the World Bank estimates that over 13 million people could be displaced, while the climate crisis is also driving northward migration from Central America. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of climate-induced migration is internal and in the right circumstances, represents an important method of climate adaptation.
But climate change is not the only environmental factor driving precarity and unsafe migration. An issue highlighted over and over by research participants was the impact of extractive and export-oriented industries such as mining, oil and industrialized agriculture. These sectors are associated with land concentration and displacement; pollution of air, soil and water; and significant deforestation. Research indicates that products like soya, palm oil and sugar cane are responsible for “staggering” deforestation.
A vicious circle: climate change, environmental destruction and exploitation
These phenomena represent a serious threat to the most vulnerable people in society. Up to 90 per cent of the world’s poorest people depend on the availability of natural resources, while 75 per cent rely directly on subsistence farming or fishing for survival. For these people, climate change and environmental degradation can represent the “last straw”, forcing them to abandon traditional livelihoods and migrate in search of subsistence.
For example, small-scale farmers in Bolivia and Peru rely heavily on water from melting glaciers for irrigation, human and animal consumption. But rising temperatures mean that glaciers are fast disappearing, making water increasingly scarce. At the same time, mining and agro-industry — both highly water-intensive — enjoy unrestricted access to this diminishing resource, with state support including favourable laws. This competition for water causes conflicts, but is also displacing communities. In the words of a community anti-trafficking activist in Cusco, Peru: “The farms are abandoned; no one lives there anymore.”
Migration in such circumstances is unsafe and can expose people to exploitation and abuse, including contemporary slavery. Migrants can face discrimination and are frequently pushed into debt and hazardous work. I found evidence of these dynamics in Bolivia and Peru. Some of those forced to abandon traditional livelihoods end up employed, directly or indirectly, in environmentally destructive activities that worsen pollution and deforestation, and contribute to climate change. This is the vicious circle that the report identifies.
The clearest example involved alluvial gold mining in Peru’s Madre de Dios region. Migrants — predominantly from the Cusco region — were subjected to labour and sexual exploitation, trafficking and forced labour. According to a report from the International Labour Organization, many worked up to 70 hours per week in sub-human conditions. Nevertheless, the same report revealed that almost half the workers surveyed would return. The reasons relate to conditions in rural Cusco, where decades of large-scale mining has polluted soils and waters, and where climate change is further crippling small farming and worsening food insecurity.
According to the leader of a small farmers’ movement, “people are obliged to migrate to other regions, above all to Madre de Dios, where they work in the mines.”
Toward a virtuous circle?
Negative outcomes are not inevitable, but depend on policy and finance decisions at national, regional and international levels. Many communities are already acting to reduce vulnerability and build resilience. Research shows that traditional knowledge is central to solving the biodiversity crisis, while a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization considers indigenous forest governance a key tool in mitigating climate change. Brazilian forests under indigenous territorial control produce 27 times less emissions than others, according to ILO. Rather than support and empower these communities, however, global businesses and national governments are increasingly implicated in the intimidation, criminalization and even murder of environmental and land rights defenders on the frontlines of the climate emergency.
How can the anti-slavery sector respond? An important step is recognizing these complex interlinkages. Contemporary slavery forms part of a spectrum of abuse and exploitation that has various drivers. This research reveals that climate change and environmental destruction are two important elements. While prosecuting exploiters is important, it falls far short of the legal and ethical obligations of States and businesses to prevent foreseeable harms.
My report proposes an holistic approach in line with Agenda 2030, which treats the Sustainable Development Goals as an “indivisible whole”. In particular, it advocates a rights-based approach to climate change and contemporary slavery that includes social, economic, cultural and collective rights. This requires a break with siloed thinking and openness to more creative forms of tackling vulnerability. For example, in Bolivia indigenous self-government and land redistribution helped to radically cut the prevalence of slavery among indigenous Guaraní.
Other innovative approaches are available. COVID-19 has revealed the urgent need for a “social protection floor“; and abuses in supply chains indicate the need for mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence. Rather than impose technocratic or market-based fixes, the sector should listen to affected and at-risk communities. Climate action needs to happen fast, but it also needs to be participatory and fair. We need a Just Transition — an integrated social, economic and environmental response that will build resilience to climate change and slavery.
It also means recognizing both the power and limitations of national governments, particularly in the poorest countries. Wealthier countries bear historical and contemporary responsibility for this vicious circle. Furthermore, the architecture of the global economic system actively constrains poorer countries from taking action and incentivizes weakened environmental regulation and human rights.
Both justice and expediency require that the burden of breaking the vicious circle and tackling the drivers of exploitation be radically realigned.
Read the full report here.
Read more about Anti-Slavery International and its work here: https://www.antislavery.org/
This research has received funding from the Irish Research Council and from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 713279.
This article has been prepared by Dr Chris O’Connell 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 author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.