It's been argued that turning land into nature preserves harms the poor, robbing them of a potential source of both food and income. But the truth is not that simple. In fact, there's some solid evidence to suggest that nature preserves — when well planned and appropriately sited — can provide a significant boon to poor, rural economies

The reverse can be true too. Neglecting environmental protection can lead to a loss of crucial resources, forcing vulnerable communities into exploitative situations and indentured labor. At least that's the finding of a recent study published by University of California, Berkeley ecologists in the journal Science. As NPR reports, the group looked at the connections between biodiversity loss and child labor, human trafficking and other forms of exploitation: 

"My students, postdocs and I spent a year stepping back and trying to connect the dots between wildlife decline and human exploitation," says ecologist Justin Brashares, who led the study. "We found about 50 examples around the world."
The mechanisms for why this happens are relatively simple: Many people in poor rural areas rely on wild animals and resources for a significant portion of their income/sustenance. As forests are destroyed, habitat lost and fisheries overexploited, those populations have to work harder/travel farther just to survive. Inevitably, some of them turn to other sources of income, and because of their low socioeconomic status, they are extremely vulnerable to being taken advantage of. This problem is then exacerbated because hunters and fishermen themselves are turning to child labor as a means to cover the extra costs and reduced yields associated with working in a damaged environment.

The UC Berkeley team suggests we need a new approach to tackling human trafficking and child labor. Rather than simply targeting the traffickers, prevention efforts should also address the source of the problem by supporting equitable, community-focused efforts to protect natural resources and preserve livelihoods.

As someone who works with nonprofits focused on both environmental issues and human rights/trafficking, I find this study to be a welcome breath of fresh air. I have sometimes heard anti-trafficking advocates complain about their environmental counterparts, suggesting that they are too focused on the wellbeing of animals/nature and ignoring the exploitation of their fellow human beings. The fact is, however, that environmental sustainability and long-term human interests are intrinsically aligned. We can't create sustainable economies unless we take care of the needs of all stakeholders, especially marginalized and underserved communities. And marginalized communities will never be able to lift themselves out of poverty if we destroy the resources they rely on for survival or poison the land, air and water in the places they live.

Environmental justice is a prerequisite for long-term change. And long-term change is our only hope for saving our environment. 

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