From Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide and the Secret to Saving the World, by Kevin Bales. Copyright © 2016, by Kevin Bales. Reprinted by arrangement with Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
There are thousands of children enslaved on Dublar Char and other islands in Sundarbans as well as the wider Bay of Bengal. Some process fish, others work the shrimp farms or process shrimp in makeshift factories. Fifty years ago there were no shrimp farms or camps like his carved out of the protected forest. In the past local fishermen worked the waters and took their catch to the markets in nearby river towns. At that time, the Sundarban islands, already a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the great mangrove forest, the largest carbon sink in Southeast Asia, was protected more by its wild remoteness than by the laws setting it aside as a national park.
All that changed when seafood went global.
In America and Europe it was a slow, barely noticeable change. In the 1950s a fancy meal might start with shrimp cocktail, four or five shrimp arranged around the rim of a cocktail glass filled with sauce. It was country club food, it cost more than steak, and you turned up your pinkie as you ate it and got to think of yourself as sophisticated in the bargain. Unless you happened to be near the Gulf of Mexico, those fresh little shrimp would have been rushed over a long distance at enormous cost. Adjusted for inflation, those five little shrimp around a cocktail glass in 1950 cost over a dollar each. Today three dollars will buy you a whole pound of shrimp brought all the way from Bangladesh to your refrigerator.
In the USA and Europe shrimp and frozen fish are everywhere, big bags in the freezer, popcorn shrimp by the bucket, cheap, convenient, and maybe even healthy. When cargo ships were turned into floating freezers the size of office buildings, shrimp and fish became freight. And unlike the declining stocks of wild deepwater fish like cod or tuna, shrimp can be farmed. All you need is a flat and floodable coastline that can be turned into pools like giant rice paddies.
As demand for cheap fish and shrimp ramped up, a gold rush began in Bangladesh, Southern India, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka. “Worthless” swamp was converted into monoculture shrimp farms, fish processing camps sprang up, and the great freezer ships were always hungry for more. Hearing of work, poor families flooded into the Sundarban wilderness. Some people were able to make a fresh start, and some landowners working in fish and shrimp were honest and treated their workers well. But criminals were already using child slaves on fishing platforms out in the ocean, and for them it was an easy step to enslave more workers to rip out mangrove forests and farm the little wrigglers that would make such a fine profit.
From a camp, dried fish flow mainly into local markets, for pet food and livestock feed and human food, such as fish stock cubes. You don’t think of organized crime being involved in stock cubes, but a wilderness island like Dublar Char makes a perfect slave-based processing site.
Not all seafood is touched by slavery, of course, but across the region children are enslaved to catch, clean, pack, and sometimes dry, fish and shrimp. Americans import around 2.4 billion pounds of seafood a year, which makes up about 85 percent of the seafood Americans eat. And when it comes to shrimp, the United States imports significantly more than other countries. Americans love shrimp, and almost half of all US seafood imports are shrimp. Ninety percent of this shrimp comes from Southeast Asia. Asian shrimp is also the second-largest imported seafood to Great Britain (after cod) and is increasing every year. The amount of shrimp imported from Bangladesh and the Sundarbans was down in 2009 after Cyclone Aila crashed into the area, but the trend in 2011 and 2012 was up sharply as farms recovered.
The cyclone reminded everyone that the border between ocean and wilderness can be a dangerous place. Aila brought a storm surge ten to twenty-five feet high that swept over low clay dikes, washed away villages, and destroyed some 6,000 shrimp farms in the area just above the Sundarbans. The surge generated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was about the same size, but unlike New Orleans, the Sundarbans had no large-scale levees or concrete sea walls. For enslaved children on fishing platforms or in fishing camps along the shoreline, there was no warning or protection. A shrimp farm worker many miles upriver from the ocean told me, “When the surge reached all the way to us, we only had a few minutes to climb as high as we could. I stood on the roof of a house that was up on stilts and it still flooded above its windows. The incoming flood water was full of floating bodies.”
Put simply, without the mangroves, people die. Old maps and satellite images taken over time show how true this is. In the 1950s, villages in the region had, on average, five miles of mangroves between themselves and the waters of the delta and ocean. By the late 1990s that had been reduced to less than a mile, and often none at all, as rice fields reaching toward the sea met the shrimp farms crawling up the shore. Today villages encrust the tops of the clay dikes, the water lapping at their toes.
Like hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, the cyclones of the Bay of Bengal come every year. The question is not if there is going to be a cyclone, but how big will it be? In 1991 a major cyclone plowed into southern Bangladesh, the storm surge was about twenty feet high, comparable to Hurricane Katrina, but in this low-lying land with the mangroves stripped away, the death toll was an astounding 138,000 people killed by the storm. The highest mortality was among children and the elderly. As many as 10 million were made homeless. By comparison, Hurricane Katrina was responsible for 1,836 deaths. In 1999, another major cyclone passed near, but did not collide with the Sundarbans. When it made landfall in India, the death toll was around 15,000, but the distribution of death was geographically uneven.
Researchers from Duke University explained that there was: “a clear inverse relationship between the number of deaths per village and the width of the mangroves located between those villages and the coast . . . villages with wider mangroves suffered significantly fewer deaths than ones with narrower or no mangroves.” They added, “This is a measure of the life-saving impact of the mangroves that remained in 1999 . . . they cut the death toll by about two-thirds.” When the tsunami struck in 2004, the same effect was seen to the south in Burma and Thailand, where more than 80 percent of coastal mangrove forests had been removed and slave-based shrimp farming is common; around 250,000 were killed in the region.
As the mangroves disappear each storm sets off a cycle of flight and further forest destruction. Without the mangrove belt the cyclones flood the shore, killing crops with salty seawater and washing away the shrimp farms along with the villages. After Cyclone Aila in 2009, 400,000 people, having lost everything to the storm surge, pushed into the protected forests. As the people push in more trees are cut, more islands are taken over, and more children and adults are enslaved to do the work. Some act in desperation, others from greed, but the cycle means that more and more of the forests that protect both people and the rich ecosystem are destroyed.
The loss to nature is profound. Nearly half of the amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds living in mangrove forests are threatened with extinction. These animals, for the most part, aren’t found anywhere else: their range is restricted to the mangrove forests of Asia and Australia. At the current rate of forest loss, the forests and all they hold will all be extinct in one hundred years.
The country of Bangladesh is one of the flattest places on earth, and the most susceptible to sea level rise. If the sea level increases three feet, the Sundarbans are gone, the entire 12,000 square miles are underwater, and 20 million people are refugees. Add to that the increased ferocity of cyclones and a thirty-foot storm surge and what happened to large parts of the city of New Orleans can happen to almost the entire country of Bangladesh. Americans’ energy-rich lifestyle, and the by-products of livestock farming contribute the most to global warming, but every slaveholder cutting down mangroves for shrimp or fish camps in the protected forest is increasing the likelihood of that catastrophe as well.
Slavery and environmental destruction are doing a deadly dance. The scale of their joint disaster is so great that it has simply been too big to see, until now. It is also subtle, a creeping erosion of life wrought by the hands of millions of slaves compelled to destroy their own livelihoods even as they destroy any chance of arresting global warming. Yet, it is precisely the role slaves play in this ecological catastrophe that opens a new solution, one that unleashes the power of abolition to save and preserve the natural world.