Assessing the Interconnections and Gaps between SDG 8.7 and the Environmental SDGs

19 August 2021
Research Innovation

Bethany Jackson  | Research Associate & Fellow in Antislavery Social-Ecological Systems Modelling, the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham

There is increasing evidence in specific industries — namely fishing, manufacturing, agriculture and forestry-related sectors — that the modern slavery-environmental degradation-climate change nexus is present and permeates supply chains. We are aware that there is a link between modern slavery and the environment. However, a framework is needed to understand the scale and scope of these connections.

To fill the gap in the antislavery movement’s understanding of the nexus in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we undertook a review of relevant literature to identify those areas where action to address modern slavery could benefit the environment, and where seeking to improve environmental protections may inadvertently produce negative social impacts.

Using the SDG targets as indicators, our new perspective paper identifies trends in interactions between modern slavery and environmental conditions (based on a framework by Nilsson et al.) — whether positive or negative — through which gaps in knowledge can be highlighted. We assessed the interconnections between Target 8.7 (ending modern slavery) and other SDG targets that pertain to the environment, which include factors such as water, energy, sustainability, hazards, natural resources, climate change and marine and terrestrial systems.

Justus Menke on Unsplash

Trends Identified

Within the data, it is clear that there are benefits to ending modern slavery for the environment, and vice versa. Overall, most interactions had positive outcomes for both people and nature where modern slavery and/or environmentally degrading practices were mitigated.

However, there were interactions where this was not the case, notably in working to achieve clean and renewable energy — which falls under SDG 7 (affordable, reliable and sustainable energy). Progress towards this goal requires the extraction of large quantities of natural resources to manufacture green energy sources, such as cobalt for battery technology. Such sectors are prone to modern slavery, and in working to achieve SDG 7, we may inadvertently cause increased risk of modern slavery practices.

Assessment of impacts over time is lacking within the data (e.g., slow-onset impacts such as drought, versus immediate-onset impacts like flash-flooding). In order to truly understand the links within the nexus, a longitudinal approach to data collection is required, which can feed into long-term interventions to address the varied vulnerability drivers that arise from both acute and long-term environmental impacts. This is also needed to extrapolate the lessons that may be learned from historical slavery and apply them to monitor and mitigate against modern slavery in its current forms, and across multiple sectors.

These trends are similarly identified in the geographic distribution of the research focusing on the potential nexus interactions, which are concentrated in a small number of countries. Brazil, for example, had the highest number of interactions between modern slavery and environmental factors in the SDGs. Similar trends were noted in Southeast Asia and the central belt of Africa. This highlights a bias in the investigation of the nexus in terms of such locations, where a “colonial lens” may be attributed. For example, research related to the nexus is commonly produced in Global North countries, yet most of the focus of this research occurs in nations within the Global South. This is also an issue as many of the commodities linked to modern slavery and environmental degradation, such as cobalt, palm oil and timber products, are key components of global supply chains.

Moreover, interactions in countries considered more economically wealthy may be overlooked in terms of the gains that could be made both socially and ecologically in their countries. For example, labour exploitation within the UK fishing sector may be ignored, whilst issues in the Thai fishing sector have been overly focused-upon.

Further, our findings suggest that overwhelmingly research and interventions are at risk of “parachuting” practices whereby local knowledge is ignored — this should be avoided. Workers, survivors and local communities should be centered at the heart of research and social-ecological protections linked to SDG achievement.

Identifying these trends provides the necessary understanding to develop interventions that protect both ecosystems and communities whose livelihoods are intimately tied to the environment, and who may be subject to modern slavery.

Links to Sustainable Development

Additionally, highlighting these connections means that policy interventions can be integrated to more efficiently address overlapping environmental and modern slavery issues. Thus, the potential for inadvertently causing more harm in one part of the nexus while attempting to mitigate it another is likely to be reduced.  Achievement of such integration should include the centering of antislavery and anti-human trafficking tools and efforts — where appropriate — at the heart of sustainable development programming.

Without the elimination of modern slavery, sustainable development cannot be realized. In addition to the exploitation experienced by individuals whose lives as a result are severely constrained, modern slavery also enables the financing of some illegal and destructive activities, such as deforestation and forced labour, that impede legitimate, sustainable development. Further, striving to combat modern slavery can help create opportunities to support sustainable development on both a social and ecological level by engaging with communities and creating equitable access to natural resources, whilst protecting biodiversity. Thus, an “antislavery” lens is required in order to develop a strong policy response and to holistically achieve sustainable development for all by 2030.

This article has been prepared by Bethany Jackson as a contributor 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.

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