PART I: A Call to Nurture: Creation Care and Human Trafficking
In our connected world, the decisions we make in our daily lives—where we shop, where we live, how we get to work, how we treat our neighbors—affect the health of our communities, our planet, and our fellow human beings in ways we cannot ignore. Wendell Berry describes two radically different approaches to life’s decisions: the way of the exploiter and the way of the nurturer. He writes:
The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care. The exploiter’s goal is money, profit; the nurturer’s goal is health—his land’s health, his own, his family’s, his community’s, his country’s….The exploiter wishes to earn as much as possible by as little work as possible; the nurturer expects, certainly, to have a decent living from his work, but his characteristic wish is to work as well as possible.
Although Berry emphasizes the exploitation of the earth, the impulse towards exploitation also affects people. Greed and global consumption harm the natural world, weakening human communities and leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. As the following stories from Africa, Asia, South America, and the United States demonstrate, human trafficking and environmental degradation are tied together in a cycle that makes life worse for the world’s most vulnerable people.
Amina Shankar: Africa
When Amina Shankar joined the other girls in the back of the truck, she thought she was heading somewhere safe. The drought and famine in her home country of Somalia forced her to flee in hopes of a better life. Once she arrived in Kenya, the traffickers sold her into forced labor as a suburban shop attendant. While Amina avoided the horrors of the sex industry, other women are not so lucky.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that 10,000 people are annually trafficked into Mombasa, Kenya’s major coastal tourist district. Many of these are young girls between the ages of 10 and 15. Brought to Mombasa, they are sold as sex workers to tour operators and hotels for as little as $60. In East Africa, natural disasters, drought, and famine are major factors driving the explosion of human trafficking. Linked to global environmental issues like climate change and industrial food production, all three factors are, in part, the result of global consumerism.
Mahe Noor and Nizam Hawladar: Southeast Asia
After a cyclone in their rural village, Mahe Noor and her husband Nizam Hawladar lost everything but their lives. They fled to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, hoping to start over. Yet when they arrived, they had no choice but to live in the slums with hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis who were also looking for a better life. Now, Ms. Noor fears she will lose her children to the traffickers that prey on poor, slum dwelling families.
Ms. Noor, Mr. Hawladar, and their neighbors are environmental refugees. Norman Myers defines environmental refugees as “people who can no longer gain a secure livelihood in their homelands because of drought, soil erosion, desertification, deforestation, and other environmental problems, together with associated problems of population pressures and profound poverty.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that, by the end of this decade, at least 50 million people from degraded environments will be on the move. If the world’s growing population continues to exploit natural resources, this number will continue to grow.
Bernardo Gomes da Silva: South America
At the age of 42, Bernardo Gomes da Silva finally managed to escape. Twelve years earlier, a man approached him, offering a well-paying job on a 48,000 head cattle ranch far from his village. That man was one of the traffickers known as “gatos” (cats) who recruit laborers from Piaui and Maranhao, Brazil’s poorest states. Once Bernardo arrived at the ranch, the foreman demanded that he repay the huge debt he supposedly owed. No matter how long or how hard he worked, Bernardo was never paid and his debt never diminished.
According to the director of the Ministry of Labor’s antislavery Mobile Enforcement team, “Slave labor in Brazil is directly linked to deforestation. There are more and more cattle ranchers who want to increase the size of their herds, but to do that they need more space, so the clearing of land is constant.” This deforestation is tied to global consumers who pressure Brazil to clear the Amazon for beef and timber. The cattle Da Silva was forced to tend did not feed the mouths of hungry Brazilians. Instead, the meat feeds wealthy Europeans with a craving for grass-fed “green beef” produced without synthetic supplements or genetically modified feed. Other slave laborers work for lumbering companies, cutting wood in areas where lumbering is illegal. The United States and other developed nations create a high demand for rich Amazon hardwoods like mahogany. In a vicious cycle, labor slaves are forced to contribute to the deforestation that drives more slave labor.
You and Me: The United States and Beyond
As Amina, Mahe, and Bernardo’s stories reveal, in the world of human trafficking how we treat the earth is linked to how we treat each other. As we look towards the future, we must recognize that caring for the earth and one another requires living in ways that nurture rather than exploit. Yet how can we become nurturers in a culture that tends towards exploitation?
One way may be to adopt a lifestyle which Duane Elgin calls compassionate and ecological simplicity. Living compassionately means “feeling a bond with the community of life and drawn toward a path of reconciliation.” Ecological simplicity asks us to “choose ways of living that touch the Earth more lightly and that reduce our ecological footprint…to remember our deep roots in the natural world.” Living simply diminishes our dependence on an economy that not only encourages but depends on human trafficking. It means learning how to repair rather than replace. It means approaching our possessions with gratitude and contentment.
A nurturing spirit takes our personal lifestyles of simplicity outside of our homes, as true nurturing encompasses not only the individual but the community. Nurturing strong, local communities in which we can be rooted helps avoid exploitation in all of its forms. Buying local food, for example, creates accountability between the farmers and the men, women, and children who eat their foods. Nurturing communities, too, offer protection to even the most vulnerable members.
At their core, simple living and nurturing communities are spiritual practices that embody a vision of reconciliation.
As Cathleen Hockmen-Wert, co-author of the Simply in Season cookbook, reflects, “Grocery shopping is becoming a spiritual discipline for me. When I visit a farmers’ market, when I drink a cup of fairly traded coffee, I’m praying for—and directly investing in—a better world.” When we adopt simple, nurturing lifestyles, we testify that to be a fully flourishing human being requires that others, humans and non-humans alike, are also able to flourish. We demonstrate that we will no longer accept a world in which our abuse of the earth pushes poor communities into the hands of traffickers. We show that we will no longer accept sex trafficking in the Horn of Africa, slave labor in the Amazon, or child prostitution in the slums of Dhaka.
Becoming a nurturer is a lifelong process, and even the most nurturing spirit will sometimes fall into exploitation. The tension between nurturing and exploiting is one we must inhabit every day. During her childhood in Bangladesh, Becky McDonald, founder and president of Women At Risk, International, witnessed firsthand the struggles that communities around the world face as cyclones destroy buildings and cholera epidemics devastate villages. Join Becky McDonald for part two of this article, as she reflects on her own struggle with and commitment to living a life of nurturing simplicity.
- East African Counter Human Trafficking Efforts:
- “Horn of Africa: Human Trafficking on the Rise Amid Drought and Famine” from Inter Press Service News Agency:
- “Brazil’s Prized Exports Rely on Slaves and Scorched Earth” from NY Times
- “Environmental Refugees Unable to Return Home” from NY Times
“Check Please!” from Sojourners Magazine