Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Your Phone Was Made By Slaves: A Primer on the Secret Economy & the connection between modern slavery and ecological disaster

Your Phone Was Made By Slaves: A Primer on the Secret Economy On the new triangle trade, and the surprising connection between modern slavery and ecological disaster

It makes sense that slavery and environmental destruction would go hand in hand. In some ways they spring from the same root. Our consumer economy is driven at its most basic level by resource extraction, pulling things from the earth, an extraction that we never actually see. We pull food from the earth, of course, but we also pull our cellphones from the earth, our clothing, our computers, our flat-screen televisions, our cars—it all comes from the earth, ultimately. And pulling things from the earth can be a dirty business. To make our consumer economy hum and grow and instantly gratify, costs are driven down as low as they can go, especially at the bottom of the supply chain; this can lead to abusive conditions for workers and harm to the natural world. Taken to the extreme it means slavery and catastrophic environmental destruction. But all this normally happens far from any prying eyes. It’s a hidden world that keeps its secrets…

Surprisingly, slavery is at the root of much of the natural world’s destruction. But how can the estimated 35.8 million slaves in the world really be that destructive? After all, while 35.8 million is a lot of people, it is only a tiny fraction of the world’s population, and slaves tend to work with primitive tools, saws, shovels, and picks, or their own bare hands. Here’s how: slaveholders are criminals, operating firmly outside of any law or regulation. When they mine gold they saturate thousands of acres with toxic mercury. When they cut timber, they clear-cut and burn, taking a few high-value trees and leaving behind a dead ecosystem. Laws and treaties may control law-abiding individuals, corporations, and governments, but not the criminal slaveholders who flout the gravest of laws.

When it comes to global warming, these slaveholders outpace all but the very biggest polluters. Adding together their slave-based deforestation and other CO2-producing crimes leads to a sobering conclusion. If slavery were an American state it would have the population of California and the economic output of the District of Columbia, but it would be the world’s third-largest producer of CO2, after China and the United States. It’s no wonder that we struggle and often fail to stop climate change and reduce the atmospheric carbon count. Slavery, one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas producers, is hidden from us. Environmentalists are right to call for laws and treaties that will apply to the community of nations, but that is not enough. We also have to understand that slavers—who don’t adhere to those laws and treaties—are a leading cause of the natural world’s destruction. And to stop them, we don’t need more laws. We need to end slavery.

The good news is that slavery can be stopped. We know how to bust slaveholders and free slaves, we know how much it costs and where to start, and we know that freed slaves tend to be willing workers in the rebuilding of our natural world. Ending slavery is a step forward in fixing our earth. There’s always been a moral case for stopping slavery; now there’s an environmental reason too….

Granite for German tombstones used to come from the beautiful Harz Mountains, but now no one is allowed to mine there and risk spoiling this protected national park and favorite tourist destination. So, like France and many other rich countries, including the United States, Germany imports its tombstones from the developing world.

Some of the best and cheapest tombstones come from India. In 2013 India produced 35,342 million tons of granite, making it the world’s largest producer. Add to this a growing demand for granite kitchen countertops in America and Europe, and business is booming. There are more precious minerals of course, but fortunes can be made in granite. In the United States, the average cost of installing those countertops runs from $2,000 to $8,000, but the price charged by Indian exporters for polished red granite is just $5 to $15 per square meter—that comes to about $100 for all the granite your kitchen needs. The markup on tombstones is equally high. The red granite tombstones that sell for $500 to $1,000 in the United States, and more in Europe, are purchased in bulk from India for as little as $50, plus a US import duty of just 3.7 percent.

Leaving aside what this says about the high cost of dying, how can granite be so cheap? The whole point of granite, that it is hard and durable, is also the reason it is difficult to mine and process. It has to be carefully removed from quarries in large thin slabs, so you can’t just go in with dynamite and bulldozers. Careful handling means handwork, which requires people with drills and chisels, hammers and crowbars gently working the granite out of the ground. And in India, the most cost effective way to achieve that is slavery….

Slavery is a great way to keep your costs down, but there’s another reason why that granite is so cheap—the quarries themselves are illegal, paying no mining permits or taxes. The protected state and national forest parks rest on top of granite deposits, and a bribe here and there means local police and forest rangers turn a blind eye. Outside the city of Bangalore, down a dirt track, and into a protected jungle area, great blocks of granite wait for export. “People have found it easy to just walk into the forest and start mining,” explained Leo Saldanha of the local Environmental Support Group. “Obviously it means the government has failed in regulating . . . and senior bureaucrats have colluded to just look the other way.”

German filmmakers researching the tombstone shortage were the first to follow the supply chain from European graveyards to quarries in India—and they were shocked by what they discovered. Expecting industrial operations, they found medieval working conditions and families in slavery. Suddenly, the care taken to remember and mark the lives of loved ones took an ugly turn. Back in Germany the filmmakers quizzed the businessmen that sold the tombstones; these men were appalled when they saw footage from the quarries. The peace and order of the graves surrounding ancient churches was suddenly marred by images of slave children shaping and polishing the stone that marked those graves….

There is a deadly triangular trade going on today that reaches from these threatened villages and forests in the most remote parts of the earth all the way to our homes in America and Europe. It is a trade cycle that grinds up the natural world and crushes human beings to more efficiently and cheaply churn out commodities like the cassiterite and other minerals we need for our laptops and cellphones. 

To stop it, we have to understand it. My initial comprehension of this deadly combination was purely circumstantial. I knew what I thought I had seen all over the world, but suspicions weren’t good enough. I needed to collect real and careful proof, because if the link between environmental destruction and slavery proved real, and our consumption could be demonstrated to perpetuate this crime, then breaking these links could contribute toward solving two of the most grievous problems in our world. I thought if we could pin down how this vicious cycle of human misery and environmental destruction works, we could also discover how to stop it.

To get a clear picture has taken seven years and a far-reaching journey that took me down suffocating mines and into sweltering jungles. I started in the Eastern Congo, where all the pieces of the puzzle are exposed—slavery, greed, a war against both nature and people, all for resources that flowed right back into our consumer economy, into our work and homes and pockets. I knew if I could get there—and stay clear of the warlords and their armed gangs— I could begin to uncover the truth…
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