Modern slavery, environmental stress, and lingering international imperialism – unwinding the connections between intimately linked problems

By Sali El-Sadig and Joel Krupa

There is a tendency in the social sciences to compartmentalize issues. In particular, the modern academic atmosphere in the social sciences and humanities has sliced and diced nearly every conceivable economic, social, cultural, and environmental topic into specialized categories, allocated it (or them) to the ostensibly ideal discipline, and subsequently dissected the topic at length. Too often, this lack of interdisciplinary focus has resulted in a lack of intellectual inquiry into the causative factors and intimate links behind various problems. In an increasingly seamlessly connected and globalized world, we continue to do this to our own peril – especially when analyzing interconnections between the important contemporary human rights issues of forced bondage/slavery, globalization, and environmental stress.

To properly understand the role that environmental and globalization factors play in slavery, consider the well-known ubiquity of slavery in West Africa. The area holds some of the highest levels of trafficked persons in the world, many of which, according to a recent US State Department study, are relegated to a variety of unbearably miserable positions. Women are held in confinement at prostitution sites or toil endlessly in domestic servitude at innumerable West African locations, while children who can barely walk are involuntarily subjugated and forced to contribute to global export markets through commodity slavery for cocoa and banana plantations. Even relatively prosperous countries in the region, such as tiny oil-rich Gabon, still have serious shortcomings in rights for trafficked persons and continue to serve as key transit points for modern slaves to neighbouring, highly economically depressed nations.

Why does this lurid trade continue? A variety of reasonable and valid explanations are routinely put forth, ranging from concerns about the negative effects of the rigid imposition of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment policies to necessary discussions about the role of culture, patriarchy, and xenophobia. However, there is one overarching contributing factor that is routinely ignored in analyses of contributing causes – the role of the environment and, increasingly, associated topics like climate change, water scarcity, and energy shortages.

It is well-established in the scientific literature that underprivileged countries will bear a disproportionate share of the burden for the greenhouse gas emissions and energy activities of rich countries. To make matters worse, with the ongoing worsening of anthropogenic climate change, the pernicious outcomes of these environmental factors are likely to rise exponentially. Interestingly, Mertz et al. (2009) note that the Western African region (with its higher than average numbers of trafficked persons) is subject to particularly high levels of many of the environmental barriers affecting the rest of the continent as a whole; namely, poor soil fertility, increasingly erratic climate patterns, worrisome water scarcity, and high levels of land quality degradation.

As economic opportunities, particularly for women, remain in grossly short supply and the yawning gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ continues to grow, slavery will undoubtedly continue to flourish. For those desperate few with limited options, it will always seem like a potential way to make a living. In addressing the causes of this issue, we need to enhance our cross-discipline understandings to ensure that all root causes are taken into account. Yet one thing is clear; if the world continues to lack the political will to tackle environmental problems – be they energy shortages, declining water tables, or encroaching deserts – it will be difficult to tackle urgent and pressing social priorities like slavery and sexual oppression.

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One thought on “Modern slavery, environmental stress, and lingering international imperialism – unwinding the connections between intimately linked problems

  1. Antony

    Very interesting article, thank you.

    I am interested in reading further – do you have more details about the Mertz et al. (2009) book/article, please?

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