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Today's Slaves Often Work For Enterprises That Destroy The Environment

A child gold miner in Watsa, northeastern Congo. 2004
Marcus Bleasdale
A child gold miner in Watsa, northeastern Congo. 2004

A 2014 report by the United Nations estimates that tens of millions of people in the world are currently enslaved. Most of them are in the developing world, where they work in mines, quarries or shrimp farms for no money and without hope of escape.

"Slavery is the complete control of one person by another, and violence is used to maintain that control in all forms of slavery," author Kevin Bales explains to Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "The adults in that situation know that if they attempt to leave, they may be killed."

Bales is the co-founder and former president of the organization Free the Slaves. His new book, Blood and Earth, chronicles the lives of people living in bondage and the environmental devastation he says the practice of slavery causes.

From the mineral mines of eastern Congo to the tidal mangrove forests of Bangladesh and India, Bales says that slavery and environmental degradation are often linked. "Every place I was finding slaves I was finding them in situations in which the local environment ... been destroyed," he says.

It's kind of hard to describe how powerful job satisfaction can be when you know if you put in a good week some people have come out of slavery.

Bales spent seven years researching his book, during which time he visited slaves in a number of countries. He acknowledges that his work is often heart-wrenching but adds: "It's kind of hard to describe how powerful job satisfaction can be when you know if you put in a good week, some people have come out of slavery. That in a sense is the tonic, it's the balance, it's what allows me to keep going in those areas where I see the horror, but I also see the triumph of freedom and that's just worth it."

Interview Highlights

On the generations of slaves who work in the quarries of northern India

They're in hereditary slavery, and that means the people in that quarry have never known freedom. They were born into slavery, and when you've never known freedom, when you've never been outside the quarry, you've never been to another village, you've never seen a school, you've never had a doctor's appointment, you've never seen a newspaper, all the lists of all the things we expect in freedom don't apply to these people. And they simply say, if you talk to them, "My family has always belonged to that family and this is where we are and this is what we do."

On why slavery still exists in the Congo

In the eastern part of Congo we've got two key problems: The first is that it's a war zone and one of the first casualties of war is always the rule of law. So to say "What is law doing about this?" when the rule of law is, in fact, absent or disintegrated, it answers its own question pretty well. But the second part ... is that the Congolese government [and] army has had its own problems with corruption and lawlessness. So it's very difficult at times to get any sort of enforcement. Now it is true that after the United States passed the Dodd-Frank Act and put embargoes on conflict minerals from Eastern Congo, the government had to step in and start working at the local level to stop government officials and Congolese army officials from taking bribes and enslaving people themselves. So there's been a diminution of the problem over the time, but that's a work in progress, I have to say.

On the slaves at Bisie, a mine in Eastern Congo that provides minerals for cellphones and other electronics

They do the washing and preparing of the minerals. A lot of them, as I say, are living and sleeping in tunnels, which they've been digging through the mountains and so forth, and then there are a few structures, but those structures are controlled by the armed gangs that control the mines and enslave all the people in the mines ....

The jobs that they're doing are divided up in two or three categories. One is simply the digging — digging into the side of mountain or digging down from the top — and you're just hammering away with hammers and chisels and shovels to pull these minerals out. Another job will be hauling those minerals on your back out of the tunnels and out of the holes to take them down to the river, where they'll be handed over to more women workers who will then wash the minerals to get a lot of the clay and other dirt off them. They just put them in giant tin cans with lots of holes poked in the can to shake around in the water and clean them up a little bit. Then there'll be people who put those [minerals] into bags and then those people who carry those bags and stack them up and store them. And then, ultimately, there will be people who are enslaved whose job it will be to put those bags on their back and walk for 20, 30, 40, 50 miles to get them out of there and into the supply chain that brings them to our cellphones.

On common diseases and injuries at Bisie in Congo

You can imagine that if you have people with no medical care and no opportunity to even bathe what happens when ... those people sleep together in big piles in tunnels. So there's all the types of injuries that you can get in mining, so broken bones and being smashed with hammers and shovels and picks and pikes and holes put in you. There's what happens when the tunnels collapse, which happens often because this isn't industrial mining with careful supports and hardhats or anything like that, so people are crushed to death or desperately injured or a big rock falls on your head. There are scabies and other infectious diseases that sweep through the camp. Occasionally something like cholera will break out and it means that there'll be a very intense spike of deaths from that cholera. And then there are the sexually transmitted diseases, because the women on the camp really have no control over their bodies whatsoever. Once they've come there, perhaps even hoping to find real work or honest work, they discover that they've been caught in a web of slavery as well, and really any member of the armed gang that controls that mine can take any woman and do anything he likes.

On the connection between modern slavery and environmental damage

This whole book for me is about exploring and illuminating that relationship between slavery, environmental destruction and climate change. ... I was amazed to discover the role that slavery plays in CO2 emissions and in the simple and basic fact of how global warming takes place ....

When we calculated up, very conservatively, how much CO2 is coming from slavery, it worked out like this: That if slavery were a country it would have the population of Canada, but it would be the third-largest emitter of CO2 after China and the United States ....

I can point to ... the gigantic mangrove forests at the bottom of Bangladesh, India, Thailand and Burma that's called the Sundarbans forest, and it's the largest carbon sink in Asia, in other words, a place where carbon is taken out of the air and sequestered by the trees, both into the sea and into the trees themselves, so this is a very important forest for removing atmospheric carbon. This is also a place where slaveholders are using slaves to clear cut these mangrove forests, to put in shrimp farms, to put in rice paddies, to burn the wood, to do a lot of different things with it, but it's almost all slave-based deforestation.

On slavery in the U.S.

You will find people in slavery in lots of places where you don't expect it in the United States. Sexual exploitation is probably the highest, but the second is domestic servants that we find particularly in the richer cities. After that, lots of people are enslaved in agriculture. Often these are migrants, whether legal or undocumented, but you can find people enslaved in hair-braiding studios and massage parlors, and it sort of goes on and on.

On how consumers can be more informed about the products they buy

Kevin Bales is a professor of contemporary slavery at the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation in Yorkshire, England.
Kevin Ladden Photography / Spiegel & Grau
Spiegel & Grau
Kevin Bales is a professor of contemporary slavery at the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation in Yorkshire, England.

At the moment, if we were only able to use just the minerals or just the foodstuffs or materials that we know are absolutely clean, we would all be sort of short on cellphones and clothes and food, because a lot of it is still rather murky. I spend some time in the book walking through the supply chain that leads to our cellphones and our laptops and trying to point to who are the criminals and who are the accomplices and who are the people who are deeply and certainly responsible, and at what level that responsibility lies.

Of course, the ultimate responsibility on the ultimate end of the supply chain rests with us. And we're responsible for what we buy and what we use, but we're not as responsible as the people who sell it to us, and we're certainly not as responsible as the people who make the phones, because this is their business, they should be clean about what they do.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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