One of Life’s Guilty Pleasures

Most of us are aware of the terrible history of the Atlantic slave trade, which lasted for four hundred years until the 1860s, and saw an estimated 12 million black Africans transported by Europeans to the Americas to work as slaves in plantations and mines.

Numerous films and books such as Amistad, Amazing Grace, and Roots, portrayed the lives of slaves, slave owners and slave traders alike. Powerful and shocking though these depictions are, they mostly ignored another key party to the slave trade – indeed the party without which it is unlikely to have existed . . . the consumer.

The sugar, cotton, coffee, tobacco, rice and metals produced by slave labour was destined for transport to the markets first of Europe, then later across the Americas, and sold in order to provide the profits to sustain the system. Customers were happy to buy sugar and cotton, seemingly oblivious or uncaring regarding its production through slavery.

I’m sure we would never imagine ourselves as potential slave owners or traders – but if we were somehow magically transported back in time, would we also deliberately avoid sugar and cotton, or would we too become an uncaring consumer ?

It’s not an entirely hypothetical question.

It’s a depressing fact that although illegal in all countries, there are now more slaves around the world today than at any time in history. As has always been the case they are exploited by the unscrupulous and greedy in order to generate a profit from their labour, which includes the harvesting of cocoa for chocolate.

An estimated 1.8 million children work in cocoa plantations in West Africa. Many are trafficked from rural areas with false promises of paid work and are forced to work long hours in poor conditions, prevented from leaving, denied education and beaten if they don’t work hard enough or try to escape.

Despite global awareness of the problem, the international chocolate trade has so far been unable to implement guarantees or certification regarding slavery or child labour. Of course, no one is suggesting that all chocolate is tainted and it’s neither helpful or healthy just to feel somehow guilty that things are not as we would wish them to be in other parts of the world.

But the fact remains that our world is interconnected, we, the consumer, are part of the system and our actions and choices do collectively impact the lives of those far away. Ultimately if we want to change things then we must act . . . and the good news is we don’t have to stop eating chocolate !

Fairtrade is an increasingly well known organised social movement that aims to help producers of commodities in developing countries make better trading decisions and promote sustainable practices and ethics. Consumers pay a small Fairtrade price premium, which is then re-invested in improving local producer communities.

Increasing awareness and public concern about poor practices and exploitation in the cocoa industry has led to a recent rise in the number of companies producing Fairtrade chocolate – why not give them a try ? Even if you don’t buy Fairtrade 100% of the time, the more we switch, the bigger a positive influence we’ll have.

I imagine William Wilberforce would have approved !


Photo by Amrufm via Flickr

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Life in Brick Kiln Debt Bondage

A series of ‘Foto Friday’ posts focusing on the lives of people living in extreme poverty around the world. Over 1 billion people across the globe live on the equivalent of less than $1 a day to meet all their needs. Being more aware of the lives of the world’s poor can help  us reevaluate the extent of our own hardships and build empathy and compassion.

Shockingly there are probably more slaves in the world today than at any time in human history – between 10 and 30 million.

Modern slavery can take many forms, and includes debt bondage, where an impoverished person or family is forced to work in order to repay a loan, often with ruinous rates of interest that make it impossible for them to escape. In many cases the debt is then transferred onto their children, and grandchildren, with many families remaining in slavery for generations.

In India, Pakistan and Nepal, more than a million people work in rural brickworks, enslaved into debt bondage, and forced to work long hours doing hard manual labour, for barely three meals a day and a small mud room for them and their family. Children are also required to work, typically from the age of ten, and sometimes much younger. No education and little in the way of health care is available. Complicity is enforced through beatings and threats to withdraw food and shelter.

Though illegal, lack of enforcement and official corruption means the widespread practice continues.

Several charities are working alongside the United Nations to expose and combat this form of modern day slavery.


Photo from Global Giving 

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Mountaintop Removal

All forms of mining give rise to a variety of environmental concerns, but so-called mountain top removal coal mining in the American Appalachian Mountains is more damaging than most. The practice involves explosive removal of entire mountain tops in order to expose the coal, the resulting rock being placed in nearby valleys, often blocking streams. After the coal has been removed the spoil is then typically replaced to form a ‘new’ mountain.

The practice has generated a lot of criticism and protest from local people and environmental groups, with widespread allegations of pollution, habitat destruction, loss of amenity, and few benefits for the local communities affected.


Photo by iLoveMountains via Flickr

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The World’s Refugees

There are 15.6 million refugees in the world – people living insecurely in another country, having been forced to flee their own. There are another 27.5 million internally displaced people.

Refugees have no option but to live in temporary shelter, often in tents or makeshift accommodation, with few educational or employment opportunities, limited hygiene and health care, susceptibility to crime and exploitation and often with threat of water or food scarcity. The UNHCR works on the ground and with national governments on behalf of displaced people and communities.

The majority of the world’s refugees are in Pakistan, Iran and Syria, but with increasing numbers in Kenya and Sudan, as a result of the famine affecting the Horn of Africa.

The photo above shows a makeshift shelter at Dolo Ado refugee camp on the Ethiopia-Somalia border.


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Photo by Cate Turton / Department for International Development, via Flickr

The World’s Working Children

To abolish child labour you first have to make it visible.

The above photo is of Jainal, who works in silver cooking pot factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is 11 years old, and has been working in the factory for three years.

He works from 9am to 6pm and earns $10 a month.

Child labour is illegal in Bangladesh, but the United Nations estimate more than 6.3 million children under the age of 14 are working in the country.

The photo was taken by the photographer G.M.B. Akash, as is part of his powerful but disturbing series of photographs showing the conditions many of these working children find themselves in. Akash’s intention with the series of photographs is not only to make child labour and the often appalling conditions visible, but to show the complex reality of the situation – with children being sent to work because their parents cannot afford to look after them, and the cheap products they produce often finding their way into Western shops.

View more of Akash’s excellent and poignant photography on his blog.

Photo by G.M.B. Akash (with the photographer’s permission)