This post is part of a series called “Let’s Get Intersectional” where we highlight all the ways in which trafficking is related to other industries and areas of concern. From economic development to minority rights, mental health issues to terrorism, human trafficking affects and is affected by a wide variety of concerns—and to tackle one area means to grapple with the other, and vice versa. Today’s piece is on the relationship between trafficking and climate change and the ways in which environmental problems cause and are caused by to trafficking.
Climate change and child trafficking may seem like two completely different spheres of concern; however, they are intimately related, and in countries like Thailand, we can see how in almost every possible respect.
There are a few different ways in which climate change operates. One way is through long process, such as in environmental degradation over time. Another is through a kind of shock event, like devastation wrought by a cyclone or tsunami. A third way is through variable, extreme and unpredictable weather patterns. All of these are related to human trafficking, and all of them are present in Thailand.
Long Climate Processes
Sometimes change comes gradually over time: sea levels rising eats away at land that people live on, desertification of land through global warming contributes to water scarcity. When people lose land or access to basic resources like water and food, they try to migrate to areas that are more livable. However, rural and poor families tend to be most affected, and in times of great stress, they become even more vulnerable to traffickers who dupe them into selling themselves or their children into marriage, prostitution, or forced labor. Migration, especially in refugee (whether from conflict or climate destruction) situations, also leaves people prey to traffickers who try to exploit them along the way. For example, when people cannot migrate by legally sanctioned means through proper government channels, they turn to traffickers who offer safe passage for exorbitant costs, then subjected families and their children to abuses or sell them as slaves.
In Thailand, Bangkok (Thailand’s capital city) and other areas near rivers and coastline are particularly vulnerable to sea levels rising. When sea levels rise, millions of people are then subjected to flooding, the coastal ecosystems suffer, and access to fresh water is constrained due to salinization of estuaries and groundwater supplies. Communities, biodiversity, and infrastructure (everything from homes to highways to entire industries) all are at risk of damage.
Moreover, Bangkok is literally sinking. Home to 10 million people, the capital city has been sinking by 10 centimeters annually. If effective measures aren’t taken quickly, the city is at risk of disappearing into the sea within an estimated 15 to 20 years, and millions of people will be at risk of displacement.
Extreme Climate Events & Unpredictable Weather Patterns
Climate change can also happen suddenly, through “dramatic occurrences such as floods, storms, hurricanes and typhoons, which force people to leave their land quickly.”
When I first moved to Thailand, the following year, the region was hit with intense monsoons that led to extreme flooding. Peoples’ homes and vehicles were destroyed and industries from manufacturing to shipping and everyone who relies on those industries were impacted. The following two years saw intense droughts where many crops, from local market fruits like mangosteen and lychees to sugar and rice destined for exports, suffered substantial losses.
However, it’s not just the flooding itself that causes destruction. The unpredictable weather patterns, swinging from monsoon to drought and causing floods, make farm planning and management incredibly difficult. Furthermore, the floods can cause changes in humidity that contribute to the spread of pests and diseases, affecting crops as well as humans.
“The unpredictability of conditions that affect rice growing — such as rainfall distribution, temperature levels and increasing types and occurrences of pests and diseases — will intensify in the years ahead due to climate change. This means Thailand will see drier spells in the middle of the wet season which can damage young plants, and floods at the end of wet season that affect harvesting.” (Source: UNU)
It is estimated that, in total, Thailand has suffered more than $1.75 billion in economic losses related to floods, storms and droughts from 1989-2002. Moreover, agricultural production in general in Thailand, traditionally dominated by small-scale family farms raising cash crops, has experienced continuous decline over the past three decades due to declining access to natural resources.
These kinds of extreme events can be devastating to families’ economic situations, leaving the most vulnerable—especially women and children—prey to traffickers. Three different estimates suggest that Thailand will see another flood like the one in 2011 again in approximately 10-20 years. )
Trafficking Also Contributes to Environmental Degradation
Environmental concerns contribute to trafficking, however human trafficking can also lead to environmental degradation. In The Slave Next Door, Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter make the link between the environment and human trafficking explicit as they point out that “trafficking victims are often forced to contribute to environmental degradation to produce products.” (Source: Huffington Post)
Industries that perpetuate one form of abuse tend to perpetuate both. Industries that exploit land and remain unregulated in doing so, are often complicit in using forced labor or providing children as sex slaves for the workers.
“Industries that face particularly high environmental risks, such as agriculture, fishing, logging, and mining, are also industries in which forced labor has been documented. Exploitation of both people and natural resources appears even more likely when the yield is obtained or produced in illegal, unregulated, or environmentally harmful ways and in areas where monitoring and legal enforcement are weak.” (Source: www.humanrights.gov)
The Way Forward
The Thai government is trying to cope by creating infrastructure like flood prevention walls, and farmers are trying to create sufficient income by diversifying their crops to include tilapia fish, and a variety of vegetables. However, the nature of the threat shows just how critical programs like our sustainable development projects to help provide alternative income sources and empower local peoples and prevent exploitation.
The Sustainability Project has three main programs: 1) an organic garden where families learn about the sustainable cultivation of indigenous and healthy vegetables on their own land, 2) a silk worm project where silk worms are bred and raised, and their silk and all its natural properties are cultivated for textile and beauty products, and 3) a local textile center which manages the design and pre-production of ecologically sustainable handbags and backpacks. These programs all include workshops to teach families about sustainable practices and entrepreneurial opportunities, on all aspects from farm to market. We plan to launch an online shop for our products later this year.
If families have other healthy and lawful alternatives to draw upon for financial support should disaster strike, it is insurance against predation. If they feel empowered enough to run their own farms and have collective local control in management, they have a network of support to protect them from the lures and deceits of traffickers.
Climate Change is Now
Climate change is not just happening in the future. It’s happening as we speak and affecting the lives of families every day. If we are serious about ending child trafficking we need to get serious about dealing with the factors that contribute to families being vulnerable. If we are concerned about reigning in destructive industries that threaten our environment, we need to also clamp down on the trafficking of humans that helps feed the beast. At The Freedom Story, we aim to do both.
Dr. Jade Keller is the Thailand Program Advisor and Editor for The Freedom Story (formerly The SOLD Project). After receiving a PhD in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara, she moved with her family to northern Thailand to work in child trafficking prevention, education, and helping to raise awareness.