The Link Between Human Rights and the Environment

March 5, 2019

Depleting the oceans of seafood has had a knock on effect for human rights. Photo: UNDP

In early February, my neighbour was swimming laps in our Bangkok apartment pool, when he noticed a large coil in the shallow end. Upon closer inspection, he found himself within striking range of a four-metre-long reticulated python. The authorities were called in to take the animal away, but the special bags brought to contain the snake were too small. The python weighed over 90 kilograms.

I have been working for the UNDP Bangkok Regional Hub for two years and I continue to be surprised by my proximity to wildlife. Monitor lizards the size of my four-year-old daughter strut about our apartment’s playground, sparking pangs of anxiety. But who is intruding on whom? Habitats for wildlife are shrinking across South East Asia, mostly due to the human appetite for economic growth.

In 2013, the Royal Thai Government proposed that the UN General Assembly proclaim March 3rd as World Wildlife Day. The anniversary gives us an important opportunity to reflect on the relationship between wildlife and humans. Today, there is wider awareness that the same practices driving animals to extinction and ecosystems to collapse are also perpetuating some of the world’s worst human rights abuses, including slavery. Ironic as it may sound, what if the key to stemming some wildlife losses lay in protecting human rights of workers? Those working on ending human rights abuses in seafood supply chains are provoking these and other important questions.

Seas empty of fish

Though the seas around Thailand are much admired for their beauty, they have mostly been depopulated of fish. According to a recent report by the Environmental Justice Foundation, “Boats now catch just 14 percent of what they caught in the mid-1960s and Thailand’s fish stocks and marine biodiversity are in crisis.” This is driving fishing boats farther and farther out to sea.

More and more fishing boats resort to bringing in so called, ‘trash fish’ to use as fish meal for prawns in shrimp farms, or as pet food for western consumers. Thailand is the largest shrimp exporter in the world, with 70 percent coming from the aquaculture.

As Thailand’s economic growth rates have risen, so too, has its need for labour. However, Thailand’s working age population like many countries in the region has dropped precipitously. This has led Thailand’s seafood industry to rely more and more on Burmese, Cambodian and Laotian migrant workers to fill the gap in dangerous professions like industrial fishing. And as fish catches decline and operating costs rise, some unscrupulous business owners are exploiting this unprotected group.

There are over two million registered migrant workers in Thailand, and most likely many more unregistered. Of the former, the Thai Ministry of Labour estimates that 222,000 work in the seafood processing and approximately 129,000 work on fishing vessels. Migrants are not granted the same rights as Thai nationals, so they are more vulnerable.

Vulnerabilities of migrant workers

The risks that these migrant workers face came to the surface in 2014, when journalists from the Guardian and the Associated Press discovered Burmese and Thai nationals in slave camps on remote islands off Indonesia. These stories were followed by others involving enslavement in shrimp peeling sheds. The horror they elicited prompted consumer-led boycotts. Brand name, international buyers placed stop-orders on Thai seafood, and the US Department of State downgraded Thailand to Tier 3, the lowest possible ranking, in its 2014 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report. The report faulted the country for failing to “investigate, prosecute, and convict ship owners and captains for extracting forced labor from migrant workers, or officials who may be complicit in these crimes”.

In 2015 Thailand’s fishing fleet was formally accused of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU) resulting in an EU-issued a 'yellow card' and putting Thailand on the path towards a complete seafood import ban.

Thai authorities quickly sprang into action, alongside its major seafood suppliers. They deployed covert patrol vessels and began intercepting illegal fishing boats. Authorities started a programme requiring all fishing vessels above a certain size to report their catches before and after every trip. In 2017 the Thai government launched a National Action Plan to implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, to which UNDP has been providing technical support. And in January, Thailand also became the first country in Asia to ratify the Work in Fishing Convention C188, which sets basic standards of decent work.

Human rights abuses

Though it is too early to know, these actions may be bringing unregulated fishing and human rights abuses in the seafood industry to an end. In 2018, the US State Department moved Thailand from Tier 3 to Tier 2 in the TIPS report, and the EU lifted its yellow card, based on documented improvements, saying that Thai authorities had addressed serious human rights abuses. These and other responses suggest a growing recognition of the link between human rights protection and strong environmental stewardship.

Which brings me and others to consider solutions to other problems. For example, what other wildlife might be protected with greater protection for migrant workers? How might Thailand’s wild elephant population be increased through stronger respect for land rights?  How might the Asian Tiger regain its footing through greater protection of indigenous peoples rights? These and other questions will continue to be raised by our UNDP Business and Human Rights in Asia project.