Book review: Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World

Kevin Bale. Photo credit: Chatham House.

By Malee Oot

In school, most of us were taught the end of slavery came more than a century ago — after the tireless efforts of dogged, trailblazing abolitionists working all over the world.  On paper, slavery did end decades ago — universally abolished more than once — first by League of Nations in 1926, and later, by the United Nations (UN), with the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.  Yet, according to the most recent data from the Global Slavery Index, there are nearly 45.8 million people currently living in bondage in 167 different countries worldwide — and in a number of these places, slaves are unwillingly being used to decimate some of the planet’s most ecologically vital places – the very ecosystems most critical for mitigating the catastrophic impacts of global climate change.
In his most recent book, Blood and Earth (2016, 290 pages), author, activist, and professor Kevin Bales reports on seven years spent investigating this correlation between modern slavery and unchecked environmental destruction – the dual exploitation of both humans and the natural world – intertwined catastrophes Bales refers to as a ‘joint disaster’.

Photo credit: kevinbales.net.

While investigating and reporting on the experiences of people living in bondage around the world, Bales begins to notice a commonality among many of the locations he visits — slaves are often held in places where natural resources have already been mercilessly plundered and where vital, life-sustaining ecosystems have been utterly devastated — creating a cycle of ecological destruction and lack of opportunity, ideal conditions for forced labor to incubate. Delving deeper into the relationship between forced labor and environmental destruction in his latest book, Bales highlights another sobering reality – modern slavery is also a significant source of the greenhouse gas emissions driving global climate change.

In the course of researching Blood and Earth, Bales travels from Eastern Congo to the Bangladeshi Sundarbans to the Brazilian Amazon finding not only is forced labor routinely utilized by some of the most ecologically toxic industries on earth – like brick making, charcoal production, or strip mining — but slaves are also unwilling being used to decimate some of the ecosystems most vital for sustaining life on earth.
According to Bales, ‘If slavery were an American state it would have the population of California and the economic output of the District of Columbia, but would be the world’s third-largest producer of CO2 after China and the United States.’
Part of the problem, as Bales highlights, is that in the past, when slavery was perfectly legal, it was also often highly visible – in the horrific open-air slave markets of America’s antebellum south, or on the vast, British-owned sugar plantations of the Caribbean — but modern slavery, internationally outlawed decades ago, often operates in shadows, without regard for international laws, treaties, or environmental protections.
Bales explains, ‘We know criminal slaveholders go straight for the sweet spots – the national forests, the wildlife preserves, the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the protected homes and territory of indigenous peoples’.
Although often hidden from view, as Bales points out, the role of slavery in the global economy is pervasive – forced labor is deeply ingrained in some of our consumer culture’s most indispensable and ubiquitous appliances – our computers, tablets, and cellphones.
So, Bales asks, if we know modern slaveholders will not swayed by the rule of law, how do we actually hit them where it hurts?
We stop funding them.
But, this is much easier said than done.  Commodity supply chains can be murky – especially in places where the rule of law has lapsed – and criminal syndicates operating outside international law are adept at hiding their tracks. Profit-driven slaveholders will not change — but the global corporations sourcing these commodities can change — especially with more transparency.
As Bales highlights, a number of mega electronics corporations have acted to improve transparency and attempted to eliminate slavery from their supply chains – and there have been steps in the right direction – like the formation of Extractives Workgroup, a partnership between the Electronics Industry Code of Conduct and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative, the Enough Project , or Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, passed in 2010, which mandates U.S. traded companies disclose the source of their minerals — in particular, specifying whether or not minerals have been sourced from Congo or any neighboring countries.
But even for companies more than willing to eliminate slavery from their supply chains, as Bales points out, the path to sourcing commodities verified as slavery-free can be tricky — and sometimes, even these best-intentioned corporations need an extra push, an added incentive — and this is where we consumers have a role — in deciding where and how to spend our money.
In the final chapter of Blood and Earth, Bales leaves readers with a compelling call to arms, ‘Surely our little choices don’t really change anything, right? Yes, each choice is small, like a tiny drop of water. But the act of choosing is repeated every day of our lives, and carries into the lives our children and their children. These million little choices turn into a great river of economic pressure, a powerful river that can either erode or sustain people’s lives and the natural world’.
Malee is a freelance writer with a background in environmental management. She has lived in Kenya, Nepal, Thailand, and the United Kingdom and is currently based in Washington, DC.
Malee is a freelance writer with a background in environmental management. She has lived in Kenya, Nepal, Thailand, and the United Kingdom and is currently based in Washington, DC.

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