Global slavery at a high, but reasons for hope

Modern-day abolitionists cite rising public attention to the problem, honor quiet heroes working to eradicate human bondage.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Brighter future: Children at a school founded by former child slave James Kofi Annan of Ghana.
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    Former child slave James Kofi Annan of Ghana, below, founded Challenging Heights and opened a school for children whose parents might otherwise have sold them to fishermen as slaves.
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    ‘It’s a huge problem and we have a long way to go, but we’re ahead of where I thought we would be.’ – Kevin Bales, cofounder, Free the Slaves
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Some 27 million people labor as slaves – more than ever before – but those on the front lines of the antislavery movement see signs that human bondage is becoming increasingly unacceptable to the public and to a growing number of governments and businesses.

Often, the fight against slavery begins quietly and unheralded, in countries where people risk their lives to free other human beings. On Monday night, several of these modern-day abolitionists will be honored in Los Angeles as recipients of the inaugural Freedom Awards, presented by Free the Slaves, based in Washington, and the Templeton Foundation. Among them: a man from Ghana, a former child slave who now tries to prevent children from being sold by their parents; and two Brazilian groups that are harnessing market forces to take the profit out of slavery.

The awards come at a time of resurgence in human trafficking, even though slavery is illegal everywhere. Still, antislavery activists are encouraged that public awareness of the problem has spread in the past decade and that much is now known about how to eradicate slavery and what it will cost.

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Moreover, the grass-roots, shoestring organizations that take the lead are beginning to win allies in government and industry. Brazil, for example, has a national plan that could be a model for other nations. The chocolate industry, for another, has become the first industry in history to invest resources to eliminate child and forced labor throughout its supply chain.

"It's a huge problem and we have a long way to go, but we're ahead of where I thought we would be," says Kevin Bales, cofounder of Free the Slaves and author of major studies and books on the issue.

In "Ending Slavery," a book that lays out his plan for achieving that goal, Dr. Bales presents research that indicates slavery could be eliminated over the next 25 years at a cost of only $11 billion.

"The cost of rescuing and rehabilitating [an individual] on average around the world only comes to about $500," he says in a phone interview. "While in rich countries it costs between $30,000 and $40,000, in rural India the cost can be just over $100."

The greatest challenge, many involved say, is not just freeing and restoring slaves to normal life, but rather deconstructing the systems that promote slavery and continually seek new victims.

From child slave to child protector

With a story epitomizing the resilience of the human spirit, James Kofi Annan of Ghana has made the remarkable journey from child slave to Barclay's Bank manager to founder of a program that is rescuing and preventing other children from suffering a similar fate.

Mr. Annan, the youngest of 12 children in a poverty-stricken family, was sold into slavery by his father when he was 6. For seven years, he worked 17 hours a day for fishermen.

"You aren't physically developed but have to do the hard labor, including all the risky diving to remove nets caught under boats" and other objects, he says, in a phone interview from Ghana. The enslaved children were fed poorly, physically and sexually abused, and bitten many times by snakes.

"I almost died once, and tried to escape several times but was caught," he recalls. At age 13, he got away when traveling to a funeral and found his way home, where "my mother was happy to receive me but my father was not."

The youngster yearned for an education. Learning some English from kindergartners' books, he enrolled himself in school. James turned out to be a star student – all the way through university. He got a job at Barclays in the city and eventually became a manager.

"But I realized I needed to do more, that I could contribute to protecting children," he says. In 2003 he formed an organization, Challenging Heights (www.challengingheights.org), in the district that is the main trafficking source for the fishing villages. He gave scholarships so that families could send children to the local school rather than sell them, but so many responded that he also set up a school, where 200 now attend.

"For me, education and the economic empowerment of women are the most important things for eliminating child slavery," Annan says. His programs also reach out to women and parents.

Last year he quit his job to devote full time to the work and to advocating with government on children's behalf. "We have a human trafficking law, but there is lack of enforcement which undercuts our work," he says.

Still, he's encouraged. "I'm financially poorer, but in terms of inner peace I'm so rich. The children are happy, and if I had not set up this school the majority would be in bonded labor," he says. Annan will receive the Frederick Douglass Award for a former slave helping others find purpose in life.

Slaves liberated, firms confronted

Two daring Brazilian organizations are recipients of the Harriet Tubman Community Award: Comissão Pastoral de Terra (CPT) and Reporter Brasil have collaborated to liberate thousands of slaves and to harness the power of the marketplace to make slavery unprofitable.

CPT, a Roman Catholic church organization that works with the rural poor, began fighting slavery 30 years ago. In remote areas, it has confronted slaveholders on cattle ranches, in camps where logs are burned into charcoal used to make steel, on farms where slaves clear-cut forests in the Amazon. Each year, some 25,000 men seeking work are tricked into slavery with the promise of jobs. CPT files complaints with the ministry of labor and gives legal and social aid to escaped or freed slaves.

Before 1995, "the government denied the reality of slavery in Brazil," says the Rev. Xavier Plassat, who heads CPT. That year the president acknowledged it and created a mobile inspection squad of federal forces to parachute in and investigate claims.

"For many years that was considered the ideal solution ... but releasing slave workers is not eradicating slavery, it's only the first step," Father Plassat adds.

In 2001, a group of journalists and educators formed Reporter Brasil to research and expose the problem. When CPT uncovers cases of forced labor, Reporter Brasil traces the slave-made products to the businesses that distribute or use them. Then it takes the information to the businesses and encourages them to stop their purchases.

In 2003, one of the first acts of Brazil's current president was to initiate a national plan to end slavery.

"That was the first victory after years of pressure" by many groups, Plassat says. The plan led to new laws, strengthening of the mobile inspection squads, and publication of a "shame list" of offenders found to have slaves on their property. The list goes on the Internet for businesses and consumers to see. (Last week, the plan was updated to add more resources for prevention and rehabilitation, as well as economic sanctions against offenders.)

The list and the work of Reporter Brasil led to the formation of a corporate pact, under which more than 100 companies have pledged not to buy slave-made products.

"When Petrobras [the national energy company] decides to stop purchasing from an ethanol producer, as it did recently, that is very effective!" Plassat says.

From the charcoal business alone, some 28,000 slaves have been liberated.

"Brazil has a policy from the top and has put in the resources that, in proportional terms, no other country has done," says Bales.

Other award winners are Amihan Abueva of the Philippines, and Friends of Orphans, in Uganda. Ms. Abueva has worked for 20 years to end sexual exploitation of children, founding ECPAT International, which is active in 70 countries. Friends of Orphans helps reintegrate former child soldiers into society.

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