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Wildlife Depletion May Be Driving Child Labor and Crime

Decline in biodiversity is a source of social conflict rather than a symptom, says UC Berkeley report

What do overfishing, wildlife trafficking, and endangered species all have in common? According to a paper recently published in the journal Science, these environmental challenges may all have cascading social consequences when it comes to forced labor, organized crime, and even piracy.

photo of people folding nets on a dock; one of them is very youngphoto by ILO in Asia and the Pacific, on Flickr Children and teenagers who work on small fishing boats in Cambodia stay out at sea for 10-11 hours at a time, mostly at night. As labor demands increase, fishing boats are turning in increasing numbers to employing children and migrant workers without pay.

The paper, published by a group of University of California, Berkeley researchers, examines the connection between resource depletion and its unexpected social consequences. Although it can be difficult to pin down a direct causal link between these two issues, the authors point to several convincing examples.

“What we try to do in this paper is specifically highlight some of the mechanisms… [through which] wildlife decline actually connects mechanistically… [and] how something like the loss of an endangered species or a really important food resource can precipitate something unexpected like an increase in child labor or an increase in regional conflict, ” says Doug McCauley, an assistant professor at UC Santa Barbara who contributed to the paper as a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley. “Obviously it is bad to be losing some of these species and impacting some of these populations, but it is much worse if we are losing these species… and on top of that we are also seeing increased violence and increased social injustices like forced labor practices.”

The fishing industry provides perhaps the starkest example of resource depletion contributing to social conflict. As fishing stocks become depleted across the world, fishermen must travel further and spend more time fishing to maintain their catch, which drives up the cost of business. As labor demands increase, fishing boats are turning in increasing numbers to human trafficking, employing children and migrant workers without pay. In Thailand, for example, migrant workers are subjected to grueling 18- to 20-hour days, physical abuse, and little food or rest. Similarly, the authors believe that competition over fishing rights, combined with a weak national government, contributed to the rise of piracy off the Somali coast, spurring local fishers to trade in fishing nets for weapons. The study observes that this pattern seems to be repeating itself in Senegal, Nigeria, and Benin.

However, not everyone agrees that scarcity of resources is the main issue facing the fishing industry. “It is the high demand for seafood and the scarcity of the labor that is the issue even more than the scarcity of seafood,” says Mark Lagon, a foreign services professor at Georgetown University and former US ambassador at large to combat human trafficking. “The situation, for instance, in Thailand…is a shortage of seasonal fisherman and the need to surge migrant fisherman from other Southeast Asian nations to fill that need.”

But resource-related tensions aren’t limited to the fishing industry, they also extend further inland. In West Africa, for example, as fish populations have declined, communities have relied more heavily on terrestrial animals for protein. These terrestrial species have, in turn, become sparser, and hunting has become more difficult and time consuming. Again, in this context, hunters have begun to rely more heavily on child labor to subsidize increasing difficulties in obtaining food.

In Africa, ongoing wildlife trafficking also brings with it a litany of social consequences. The high value of ivory, for example, has attracted organized crime to the illegal wildlife trade, with grave implications for local communities.

"This paper is about recognizing wildlife decline as a source of social conflict rather than a symptom," says lead author Justin Brashares, associate professor of ecology and conservation at UC Berkeley's Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, in a press release. "Billions of people rely directly and indirectly on wild sources of meat for income and sustenance, and this resource is declining. It's not surprising that the loss of this critical piece of human livelihoods has huge social consequences.”

The authors are not alone in their observations. When asked about the potential link between depleted fish populations and forced labor, Benjamin Smith, currently a senior officer for the International Labor Organization’s Corporate Social Responsibility program, offered anecdotal evidence from previous work with Fiji’s fishing industry. “When I was [chief technical advisor] of the TACKLE child labor project, I learned of child labor induced or aggravated by climate change [and] stock depletion in Fiji,” he says. “Fishers were forced to go further out to sea, beyond the areas protected by reefs where conditions are less hazardous, at times with children accompanying them.”

Many of the examples provided in the paper came from Southeast Asia and Africa. However, the social impacts of wildlife depletion extend around the globe. Pointing to the crash of cod populations off the eastern coast of Canada and the resulting devastation to the local fishing industry, McCauley notes that some countries are better able to mitigate the social consequences caused by resource declines. “It’s harder for governments in developing contexts to deal with the negative impacts that are caused by wildlife decline,” he says. “This capacity to bail out entire communities that are in serious trouble, that are really faced with a major humanitarian crisis as a result of wildlife decline is maybe within the reach of a country like Canada or the US or a country in Europe…. But a country in sub-Saharan Africa or in some parts of Southeast Asia, they don’t have recourse to bailout funds like that, so the impacts are much more conspicuous. They are hit harder.”

The question remains: What can be done to address not only wildlife decline, but also the cascading social injustices that it causes?

According to the paper’s authors, what we need most is interdisciplinary cooperation and coordinated policy. Cooperation between disciplines will allow for a more integrated and effective approach to addressing both environmental and social challenges. Policy-makers must also expand their focus beyond the limited realm of legal enforcement. In addition to enforcing anti-poaching or labor laws, governments must address the root causes of these problems, including declining wildlife populations.

Zoe Loftus-Farren
Zoe Loftus-Farren is managing editor of Earth Island Journal. In addition to her work with the Journal, her writing has appeared in Civil Eats, Alternet,, and Truthout, among other outlets. She also holds a law degree from Berkeley Law, where she studied environmental law and policy.

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