Countering Human Trafficking through Caring for the Environment

Article by  Godfrey Kilei the Director of Riruta Environmental Group (REG) submitted at the East African FBOs and CSOs Counter Human Trafficking Symposium

In a modern world, there are interconnections between the contemporary human rights issues of forced bondage/slavery, globalization, peace and environmental stress. Environmental degradation is part of a cycle that upsets the traditional balance between people, their habitat and the socio-economic systems by which they live. Insecurity leads to strife; strife results in civil war, cross-border raiding and military confrontation. Environmental degradation and insecurity continue to interact, swinging back and forth like a pendulum of destruction. A shrinking resource base breeds insecurity; insecurity spreads conflict, and conflict causes environmental destruction. The environment hence  plays a major role that could could contribute to modern slavery especially when looking at associated topics like climate change, water scarcity, and energy shortages.

There many environmental challenges affecting Africa as a whole; namely, natural hazards, poor soil fertility, increasingly erratic climate patterns, and high levels of land quality degradation. To make matters worse, the ongoing unfavorable climate change is expected to adversely increase the poverty levels because of poor harvests and reduced incomes to the farming and pastoralists based households. Moreover it is a fact that underprivileged countries do bear a disproportionate share of the burden for the greenhouse gas emissions as a result of the activities of rich countries.

Natural hazards include drought, floods earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides cyclones, storms etc. These occur all over the world and are, on their own not harmful. However when these natural hazards interact with people, they are likely to cause damage of varying magnitude resulting in a disaster. Disasters thus occur when the natural hazards interact with vulnerable  people, property, and livelihoods causing varying damage depending on the level of vulnerability of the individual, group, property or livelihoods. Disasters disrupt people’s lives through  displacements, deaths and injuries. They destruct livelihoods and drain years of  economic gains and development. Natural disasters for instance cause loss of lives and property, displacement of people from homes, destruction of infrastructure like  roads, rails and telecommunication lines, contamination of water sources causing diseases or depletion of the same altogether.

Kenya experiences a number of natural hazards, the most common being weather related, including floods, droughts, landslides, lightening/thunderstorms, wild fires, and strong winds. Other hazards experienced in Kenya include HIV/AIDS, and conflict. In the recent past these hazards have increased in number, frequency and complexity. The level of destruction has also become more severe with more deaths of people and animals, loss of livelihoods, destruction of  infrastructure among other effects resulting in losses of varying magnitudes.

The Arid and semi-arid lands of Kenya make up more than 80% of Kenya’s landmass, support nearly half of the livestock population of the country and over 30% of the total human population. The Arid and Semi-arid Lands (ASALs) are prone to harsh weather conditions rendering the communities within this region vulnerable to natural hazards, mainly droughts. The ASALS, due to their  fragile ecosystems, unfavourable climate, poor infrastructure and historical marginalisation these areas represent a major development challenge for the affected populations, the Government of Kenya and its development. Drought is the most prevalent natural hazard in Kenya affecting mainly Eastern, North Eastern, parts of Rift Valley and coast Provinces.  Floods seasonally affect various parts of the country especially along the flood plains in the Lake Victoria basin and in Tana river while landslides are experienced during the long rains season running from March to May especially in Murang’a district and areas surrounding the Mount Kenya region.

Year Type of Natural/ Man made disaster Area ofCoverage No. Of Peopleaffected
2011 War against Al Shabaab Somalia Unclear
2007 Electoral violence Widespread 1000 dead, 650,000 displaced, more than 50,000 injured
2004 Drought Widespread 2 to 3 Million
2004 Landslides Nyeri, Othaya, Kihuri 5 deaths
2002 Bomb blast Kikambala, Mombasa 11 dead,35 injured
2002 Electoral Violence Widespread
2002 Landslides Meru Central,Muranga, Nandi 2,000
2002 Floods Nyanza, Busia,Tana river basin 150000
1999/2000 Drought Widespread 4.4 million
1998 Bomblast Nairobi 298 dead, 1,500 injured
1997/1998 Floods Widespread 1.5 million
1997 Electoral Violence
1995/96 Drought Widespread 1.41 Million
1992 Electoral Violence Rift Valley 778 dead, 654 Injured and 62,000 displaced
1991/92 Floods ASAL: NE and E Provinces 1.4 Million
1985 Floods Nyanza andWestern 10,000
1983/84 Drought Widespread 200,000
1982 Foods Nyanza 4000
1980 Drought Widespread 40,000
1977 Drought Widespread 20,000
1975 Drought Widespread 16,000

The table shows the natural and man made disasters that have a direct impact on the Kenyan population. Where the numbers are big, the effect is much adverse to the local population with a capability of throwing big numbers of people to misery, hence making them susceptible to exploitation and human trafficking. Environmental catastrophes both natural and man made, wreck incredible damage on people’s lives. Sadly, the devastation often impacts the most vulnerable, leaving them even more susceptible to abuse and exploitation. According to the United Nations Climate Change Conference, while it is hard to predict the extent of the consequences of climate change, we can expect more droughts, more flooding, and increased incidence of extreme weather, all of which could negatively impact people’s lives in extreme ways. Victims of environmental degradation tend to belong to more vulnerable sectors of society. They carry a disproportionate burden of [human rights] abuse. Increasingly, many basic human rights are being placed at risk, as the right to health affected by contamination of resources, or the right to property and culture comprised by commercial intrusion into indigenous lands.” Such people are also extremely vulnerable to trafficking.

Environmental degradation and slavery exist in a vicious cycle where people can be trafficked for labor that harms the environment or as the result of environmental issues, and where such environmental degradation places additional burdens on those who are already the most vulnerable to trafficking. Ending slavery and promoting human rights will require addressing this cycle.

The 2011 Human Development Report, under the theme, ‘Sustainability and Equity: A Better Future for All,’ warns that development in the world’s poorest countries could be halted or even reversed by mid-century unless bold steps are taken now to slow climate change, prevent further environmental damage, and reduce deep inequalities within and among nations. While consumption is high in countries with the highest human development indices, low developed countries face high “household-level deprivations due to the degradation of the environment that contributes to multidimensional poverty. Overall, environmental deprivations disproportionately contribute to multidimensional poverty, accounting for 20 per cent of the MPI— above their 17 per cent weight in the index. In rural areas, the average is 22 per cent of poverty, compared with 13 per cent in urban areas.

One of the crucial and impacting consequences of the lack of resources involves the dangerous and unsuitable disposal of solid waste, which has created considerable health problems and very unpleasant living conditions in most of the developing countries. The waste generated creates unsanitary living conditions and detrimental health concerns, such as diarrhea and malnutrition, in addition to a range of sicknesses and diseases. However, these problems triggered by improper sanitation can be traced back to about 68 per cent of all deaths for children under the age of five. Today, it is estimated that there are about 2.6 billion people (980 million children) living in the developing world who have yet to gain access to proper sanitation means, of which 572 million are living in Africa. Approximately 62 per cent of Africans lack the access to adequate sanitation facilities. It is a well known fact that people living in deplorable conditions and extreme poverty face a high likelihood of being exploited.

On the other hand there are situations where people are forced to move from their natural environments. Movements as a result of natural and man made disasters create populations who are vulnerable to being trafficked. Some of the victims of  the recent famine that hit the Horn of Africa, may have moved to other locations in search of solace only to find themselves in miserable positions of exploitation both as laborers and as sex workers. It is also important to consider the role of culture and xenophobia where these vulnerable populations are moving to.  Situations of violence and instability in a country also increase the opportunity for human trafficking. This is because during violence all the state apparatus come to a standstill giving opportunity for criminals and opportunists to carry out their activities undeterred. During the post electoral  violence  (PEV)  in  Kenya,  a  number  of  children  and  women disappeared  and  have  not  been  found  todate.  One  family  in  Nakuru  for example  had  seven  children;  during  the  post  election  violence  four  of  the children  disappeared  and  have  never  been  found  todate.    It  is  strongly believed  that  most  of  those  who  disappeared  during  the  post  elections violence (PEV) if they are not dead then maybe now trafficked persons. Several reasons were advanced as the main factors that contributed to the escalation of the PEV; historical injustices, flaws in the electioneering process, ethnicity and issues of land; but key behind the PEV was the fight for the scarce resources.

In  2008  economic  performance  in  terms  of  Annual  GDP  Growth  in  Kenya reduced to 3.3% while that of 2007 was 7.0%. The poor economic growth of Kenya in 2007 is mainly attributed to the post electoral violence (PEV). The post  electoral  violence  pushed  a  number  of  people  to  poverty  and vulnerability. Both Tanzania and Kenya are presently grappling with the effects of the global economic crisis which has pushed the prices of food higher. This has affected the economies of the two countries differently with the World Bank projecting a much lower GDP growth in 2009 and 2010 but Kenya bears the brunt of it as a result of the post electoral violence (PEV) . High poverty, including  deteriorating  economic  conditions  in  Kenya  and  Tanzania  is considered  to  be  a  major  factor  contributing  to  the  escalation  of  human trafficking.

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.

Reports indicate that there are as many as 27 million slaves world-wide, and 50% of these are children. An important question remains — is slavery an environmental issue? How could we actively engage the environmental community in the fight against slavery? While many environmentalists care about human rights and other  ‘human concerns’? —On the other hand, however, it can be argued that if we are to move towards sustainability, we must recognize ourselves as part of the natural systems we inhabit — and accord each other the same respect that we are advocating for the natural world. There is a contemporary link between the abuse of natural resources and the abuse of our fellow humans.

The effect of being sold into slave labor has the obvious physical scars from the constant beatings, inhumane living conditions, and the practical starvation that the employers impose on their victims. However, the effects of slavery do not merely affect the physical well-being alone but the victims also suffer from emotional scars. “Being a slave is often a process of systematic destruction of a person’s mind, body, and spirit.” Not only are families separated from each other, but the slave becomes more emotionally isolated, drawing away from all the support structures of her or his original and present environment. Even after they are no longer in slavery, they become fearful of other people and become less confident of themselves. They also have trouble readjusting to their families. For the victims that are lucky enough to escape, their physical and psychological scars will need a long time to heal.

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 and exploitation.


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