Blood and Earth

Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World

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For readers of such crusading works of nonfiction as Katherine Boo’s Beyond the Beautiful Forevers and Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains comes a powerful and captivating examination of two entwined global crises: environmental destruction and human trafficking—and an inspiring, bold plan for how we can solve them.
 
A leading expert on modern-day slavery, Kevin Bales has traveled to some of the world’s most dangerous places documenting and battling human trafficking. In the course of his reporting, Bales began to notice a pattern emerging: Where slavery existed, so did massive, unchecked environmental destruction. But why?
 
Bales set off to find the answer in a fascinating and moving journey that took him into the lives of modern-day slaves and along a supply chain that leads directly to the cellphones in our pockets. What he discovered is that even as it destroys individuals, families, and communities, new forms of slavery that proliferate in the world’s lawless zones also pose a grave threat to the environment. Simply put, modern-day slavery is destroying the planet.
 
The product of seven years of travel and research, Blood and Earth brings us dramatic stories from the world’s most beautiful and tragic places, the environmental and human-rights hotspots where this crisis is concentrated. But it also tells the stories of some of the most common products we all consume—from computers to shrimp to jewelry—whose origins are found in these same places.
 
Blood and Earth calls on us to recognize the grievous harm we have done to one another, put an end to it, and recommit to repairing the world. This is a clear-eyed and inspiring book that suggests how we can begin the work of healing humanity and the planet we share.

Praise for Blood and Earth
 
“A heart-wrenching narrative . . . Weaving together interviews, history, and statistics, the author shines a light on how the poverty, chaos, wars, and government corruption create the perfect storm where slavery flourishes and environmental destruction follows. . . . A clear-eyed account of man’s inhumanity to man and Earth. Read it to get informed, and then take action.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
 
“[An] exposé of the global economy’s ‘deadly dance’ between slavery and environmental disaster . . . Based on extensive travels through eastern Congo’s mineral mines, Bangladeshi fisheries, Ghanian gold mines, and Brazilian forests, Bales reveals the appalling truth in graphic detail. . . . Readers will be deeply disturbed to learn how the links connecting slavery, environmental issues, and modern convenience are forged.”Publishers Weekly
 
“This well-researched and vivid book studies the connection between slavery and environmental destruction, and what it will take to end both.”Shelf Awareness (starred review)

“This is a remarkable book, demonstrating once more the deep links between the ongoing degradation of the planet and the ongoing degradation of its most vulnerable people. It’s a bracing reminder that a mentality that allows throwaway people also allows a throwaway earth.”—Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet

Under the Cover

An excerpt from Blood and Earth

1

Secrets

It’s never a happy moment when you’re shopping for a tombstone. When death comes, it’s the loss that transcends everything else and most tombstones are purchased in a fog of grief. Death is a threshold for the relatives and friends who live on as well, changing lives in both intense and subtle ways. It’s the most dramatic and yet the most mundane event of a life, something we all do, no exceptions, no passes.

Given the predictability of death it seems strange that Germany has a tombstone shortage. It’s not because they don’t know that people are going to die; it’s more a product of the complete control the government exerts over death and funerals. Everyone who dies must be embalmed before burial, for example, and the cremated can only be buried in approved cemeteries, never scattered in gardens or the sea. Rules abound about funerals and tombstones—even the size, quality, and form of coffins and crypts are officially regulated. All this leads to a darkly humorous yet common saying: “If you feel unwell, take a vacation—you can’t afford to die in Germany.”

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.

“See the little girl playing with the hammer?” asked a local investigator. “Along with the child, the size of the hammer grows, and that’s the only progress in her life.” Slavery in granite quarries is a family affair enforced by a tricky scheme based on debt. When a poor family comes looking for work, the quarry bosses are ready to help with an “advance” on wages to help the family settle in. The rice and beans they eat, the scrap stones they use to build a hut on the side of the quarry, the hammers and crowbars they need to do their work, all of it is provided by the boss and added to the family’s debt. Just when the family feels they may have finally found some security, they are being locked into hereditary slavery. This debt bondage is illegal, but illiterate workers don’t know this, and the bosses are keen to play on their sense of obligation, not alert them to the scam that’s sucking them under.

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.”

Supriya Awasthi has been an anti-slavery worker in India for nearly twenty years. Her work takes her through the halls of government and down into the depths of human suffering. A fearless woman, she is especially good at talking her way into places slave masters try to hide. Not long ago she took this remarkable photograph, tricking a slave master into showing off his quarry and his slaves:

We’ve all got a picture in our minds of what a slave master looks like. Here’s the twenty-first-century version: clean, well-fed, and proud of his business. This quarry, carved out of a protected national forest, is producing not granite but the big sandstone slabs used in European cities for paving squares and plazas. You can see the slabs stacked in the lower right. Near the slabs are clusters of small children chipping and shaping the stone. Their fathers are toiling along the rock face on the left, and their mothers are carrying the quarried stone to where they and their children will work it into shape. The forest is long gone, along with the soil, and when this quarry is worked out and abandoned the area will simply be wasteland, useless as forest or farmland.

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.

Our view of cemetery monuments is normally restricted to what we see when we bury our loved ones or visit their graves. If we think about where the markers come from at all, we might imagine an elderly craftsman carefully chiseling a name into a polished stone. The “monuments industry” in America promotes this view. One company explains there are two key factors that affect the price of tombstones. First, they point out the “stone can come from as close as California and South Dakota or as far away as China and India,” adding that “more exotic stones will have to be shipped and taxed, which will add to the overall cost.” And, second, this company notes that granite takes thousands of years to form and it is “heavy, dense, brittle, and many times sharp, requiring great care and more than one person in its handling.” Because of this there must be “techniques and processes that require skill as well as time to make your memorial beautiful and lasting.” All of this helps us to feel good about what we’ve spent for the stone at our loved one’s grave, but the facts are different. We know that, even though it comes all the way from India, slave-produced granite is cheap. We also know that, while some polishing and skillful carving of names and dates is needed, those heavy, dense, and sharp tombstones will first be handled by children, though they will be taking “great care,” of course, since the slave master is watching.

Some of the most ancient objects we know are tombstones, dating back to the earliest moments of recorded human history. Our civilization, even today, is built of what we pull from the earth, stone and clay for bricks, salt and sand and a host of other minerals that meet so many of our needs. There’s an intimacy in the stone we use to mark the final resting place of someone we love; there’s another sort of intimacy in the less obvious but still essential minerals that let us speak with our loved ones on phones or write to them on computers.

Cellphones have become electronic umbilical cords connecting us with our children, our partners, and our parents with an immediacy and reliability hardly known before. Our lives are full of ways that we connect with other people—the food we serve and share, the rings and gifts we exchange—and we understand these objects primarily from the point at which they arrive in our lives. We think of Steve Jobs in his black turtleneck as the origin of our iPhones, or imagine a local funeral director carving a loved one’s name into a tombstone. Whether we are grilling shrimp for our friends or buying T-shirts for our children we generally think of these things as beginning where we first encountered them, at the shop, at the mall, in the grocery store. But just as each of us is deeper than our surface, just as each of us has a story to tell, so do the tools and toys and food and rings and phones that tie us together. This book is a collection of those stories united across continents and products along a common theme: slaves are producing many of the things we buy, and in the process they are forced to destroy our shared environment, increase global warming, and wipe out protected species.

- About the author -

Kevin Bales is the co-founder and former president of Free the Slaves, the largest abolitionist organization in the world. He has also served as a trustee of Anti-Slavery International and as a consultant to the United Nations Global Program Against Trafficking in Human Beings. He is the author of numerous reports, monographs, and scholarly books on modern slavery, including the acclaimed Disposable People. He lives in Brighton, England.


From the Hardcover edition.

More from Kevin Bales

Blood and Earth

Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World

Buy

Blood and Earth

— Published by Spiegel & Grau —