Monday, April 9, 2007

College Dean’s Prize: Improving the Educational Experience

Renowned children’s advocate Marian Wright Edelman considered the purpose of education to be “for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it.” Every year the University of Southern California calls on its students to submit suggestions for enhancing their academic experience. Students are encouraged to think seriously about learning, be creative, daring and inspiring. The student whose proposal shows the most potential for enriching the academic life at the institution is awarded the College Dean’s Prize. For this reason today's post will lay out my proposition for advancement of undergraduate life here at USC. As stated in the undergraduate admissions page, “USC is committed to excellence in undergraduate education. Top-ranked programs in virtually every field offer an experience that combines breadth with depth." This institution encourages broad academic interests and advocates double majors and/or minors. According to the 2004 Strategic Plan “Since societal problems rarely fall within the domain of a single discipline or school, collaboration that brings together different perspectives and skills may be the best means of addressing such problems.” Keeping this in mind and in concert with the main focus of this blog, I would like the university to seriously consider offering a minor in human rights.

Consistent with USC’s encouragement of interdisciplinary collaboration and exploration, the curricula for this minor would be comprised of courses across all disciplines relevant to human rights. For example, a history course that provides an overview of international human rights or Japanese Americans and World War II, a philosophy class such as ethics, and even a writing class with topics in human rights issues would be appropriate. Relevant courses already offered at USC in political science, economics, health and psychology would also be fitting. The University of Connecticut currently provides such a minor. In addition to coursework, students are able to make a difference in the real world by completing a required internship in humanitarian organizations such as Amnesty International, Global Exchange, Human Rights First and the United Nations Development Programme. I am inclined to believe that a human rights minor would enhance USC, which has received well deserved national acclaim for its innovative community outreach programs, and would advance two of the goals stated in the 2004 strategic plan: to bring forward “knowledge and at the same time addresses issues critical to our community, the nation, and the world” and to “create a significant global presence that will increase international visibility, reach, and impact of our research, scholarship, art, education, and service.” A minor in human rights would be an excellent complement to almost any major. Currently the University of California Berkeley offers a course that focuses on the relationship between human rights and health through its School of Public Health. This class provides an overview of the role of health professionals and other health promoters in “documenting the health consequences of human rights violations, treating survivors of state-sponsored abuse, identifying the impact of health policy on human rights, and participating in human rights education and advocacy.”

In order for USC to adhere to its central mission which is dedicated to “the development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit,” it must continue to teach students “how to add value to their lives and the lives of everyone around them,” as President Steven B. Sample stated. As a psychology student, I strongly believe that a minor in human rights would enrich anyone’s academic experience. Psychology emphasizes an individual level of functioning but a minor in human rights would allow implementing of that knowledge to affect change on a collective level.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Honorary Degree: Albert Arnold “Al” Gore Jr.

It is early April and spring commencement at the University of Southern California (USC) and at other institutions across the country is approaching. Every year at least one deserving individual is granted an honorary degree and is asked to deliver the commencement speech to the graduating class. I thought it would be appropriate to use this week’s post to share with readers my nominee for this year’s award. As stated on USC’s web site, degrees are given to “honor individuals who have distinguished themselves through extraordinary achievements in scholarship, the professions, or other creative activities.” Therefore, in accordance with the above criteria, I propose that a Doctor of Humane Letters degree, which recognizes exemplary citizens, be granted to former Vice President of the United States, Albert Arnold “Al” Gore Jr. (seen in the picture above). He is a man whose accomplishments have made a remarkable contribution to society and whose character embodies all the qualities that we, at USC, hold highly.

Through his many years of public service, Al Gore has exemplified all of the attributes that are inscribed on the Tommy Trojan statue: (picture to the left) faithful, scholarly, skillful, courageous, and ambitious. He has served in the House of Representatives, the Senate and as Vice President with great leadership and initiative. He has contributed to the world of business as the cofounder of Generation Investment Firm, an eco-friendly investment company. He also has been instrumental in the advancement of technology by writing the High Performance Computing Act , which funded research that contributed to the development of the internet. In addition, he co-founded Current TV, a youth oriented cable network that is focused on the free expression of its viewers. Finally, he has set a fine example through his involvement in promoting environmental awareness since the early years of his career and has now become the voice of global warming. According to a recent article in The Concord Monitor, "Gore was one of the first politicians to grasp the seriousness of climate change and to call for a reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gases. He held the first congressional hearings on the subject in the late 1970s.”

While his accomplishments and contributions are many, Al Gore has probably acquired the most regard for his work as an advocate of environmental awareness and proactive engagement. In recent years he has toured the world with a crucially important and engaging presentation on global warming that later became the basis for his Academy Award winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth. He has written three books on this important issue, one of which includes a children’s version of An Inconvenient Truth called The Crisis of Global Warming, which adapts the message for a generation that will have to confront the problem. As Gore stated, "There is no doubt that young people today are more aware of environmental problems than my generation ever was. As this new generation comes of age, it faces the enormous challenge of solving global warming. I have faith that young people have both the ability and the enthusiasm to put a stop to global warming." This year, Al Gore was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. “A prerequisite for winning the Nobel Peace Prize is making a difference, and Al Gore has made a difference,” said a member of the Norwegian Parliament, Boerge Brende.

There has been a great deal of criticism by skeptics who question Gore’s personal commitment to reducing energy usage and the science behind his film. For example, according to the Tennessee Center for Policy Research (TCPR), “Gore’s mansion, located in the posh Belle Meade area of Nashville, consumes more electricity every month than the average American household uses in an entire year.” However, coverage by several media outlets of the Gore’s energy bills has ignored all the steps that he has taken to reduce his home’s energy usage. Media Matters for America reported that the Gore home includes the primary offices of both Al and Tipper Gore, as well as the necessary special security systems, given that he is the former Vice President of the US. In addition, some media reports also failed to note that the Gore family uses energy saving technology such as solar panels and has signed up for one hundred percent green power through Green Power Switch which actually increases their energy costs. So far the Gore criticisms have been nothing but smear tactics to distract people from the real issues at hand.

James Freedman, president emeritus of the University of Iowa and Dartmouth College, articulates “In bestowing an honorary degree, a university makes an explicit statement to its students and the world about the qualities of character and attainment it admires most.” With that in mind, I am most certain that Al Gore is the most fitting and deserving recipient of an honorary degree from the University of Southern California

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

This I Believe: Living a Good Life

Inspired by This I Believe, “a national media project that engages people in sharing and discussing the core values and beliefs that guide their daily lives,” I have decided to take a different approach from the previous weeks by sharing a personal story that may help provide my readers with some insight into who I am and why I decided to focus on human rights and animal welfare as the main theme for this blog.

I remember being a child growing up in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and having many long captivating conversations with my grandfather about what it meant to live a “good” life. He always used to say, “Uno sobrevive con lo que gana, pero uno vive por lo que da.” Loosely translated, it means: “You make a living by what you get, but you make a life by what you give.” I know it might sound a bit cliché, but this was honestly the type of person he was. My grandfather was the kind of man who believed that everyone, even if in a small way, had the ability to help make the world a better place. As a young child I admired his convictions and as an adult I revere him even more because I have a greater appreciation for what he was saying. In fact, I have adopted his philosophy as my own. So when I ask myself, what do I want out of life? What do I believe in? I realize that I believe in living a good life, the kind of life that would make him proud, a life in which my work brings about a positive and significant impact on the lives of others and that inspires individuals to do the same.

I chose to write a blog about human rights and animal welfare because I recognize that sometimes we can easily get so caught up in our own lives that we tend to forget about the fact that there are countless amounts of people and animals who are suffering elsewhere, at this very moment. I do not intend to come off as patronizing or preachy through my posts. I never want to be that person. My true goal is simply to inform and educate others on these very real matters. Once we are informed it should be our obligation to do whatever we can do to elicit change, no matter how insignificant our action appears to be. As I have mentioned in my posts before, even something as easy as making more conscious decisions in our purchasing habits can make a difference. Collectively, we can have a big impact on the world and help end suffering one being at a time. It may sound corny, but it is the truth.

Two weeks before my grandfather passed away, he asked me, “What do you want most for your life?” That was easy to answer; I told him that I wanted to be just like him. He smiled and said, “Tu destino te aguarda cosas mas grandes.” This means, “You are destined for greater things.” I do not know if this is true, I do not even know if there is such a thing as destiny, but I do know that we are all capable of doing great things, and so I will always do my best to make him proud.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Conflict Diamonds: Not Just a Product of Hollywood

Diamonds are a pivotal part of our culture. The partnership Africa Canada organization reports that “collectively, the world spends about sixty billion dollars a year on diamond jewelry, and every day, tens of thousands of people think about diamonds for an engagement ring, an anniversary, for decorative jewelry or bling bling.”Unfortunately, diamonds have also helped fund catastrophic civil wars in Africa that have resulted in the deaths and displacement of millions of people. Amnesty International reports that an estimated 3.7 million people have died in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Liberia and Sierra Leone in conflicts funded by diamonds. These diamonds are called conflict diamonds. They are from areas controlled by forces and factions opposed to legitimate and internationally recognized governments, and are used to fund military actions in opposition to those governments, however; I do not mean to say that these are functioning or non-corrupt governments. Sadly many of them are just as bad as the groups that seek to overthrow them. Nevertheless, these diamonds are used to fund military actions by opposition groups and profits from the trade are used by warlords and rebels in those countries to buy arms and commit atrocious acts against civilians, including murder, rape, torture and mutilation. In Sierra Leone, the rebel groups embarked on a campaign against the country’s elections by cutting off people’s hands in order to intimidate them not to vote, the woman pictured above was a victim of such act. Also, children as young as eight years old have been used in conflicts across Africa. These children are often abducted or drawn by economic circumstances and forced to fight with opposition forces and in some cases for those groups in support of their government. The picture below is of a child soldier in Sierra Leone.

To combat the trafficking of conflict diamonds significant action was taken in 2003 when the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme was introduced. The KPCS is a program that requires participants to certify that shipments of rough diamonds are conflict-free by placing the diamonds in tamper-proof shipping crates and providing enough detailed information about their origin. In the United States the KPCS is enforced by the Clean Diamond Trade Act which was also launched in 2003 and requires annual reviews of the standards, practices and procedures of any entity in the U.S. that issues Kimberley Process certificates. Though some progress was made and the amount of conflict diamonds in the U.S. market was significantly reduced to about two percent (in the 1990’s roughly twenty percent of diamonds were said to be elicit) there still remain flaws in the implementation and oversight of the KPCS that allow for loopholes. Consequently conflict diamonds continue to find their way into the American market today from countries like Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe and Venezuela. Amnesty International states that the recent conflict in Sierra Leone has shown that "even a small amount of conflict diamonds can wreak enormous havoc in a country."

We simply cannot sit back and allow these atrocities to take place. It is up to us, the consumers, to make ethical and informed choices. However, I am not suggesting for us to boycott all diamonds because according to the partnership Africa Canada organization, the economies of many poor countries with absolutely no connection to conflict diamonds, such as South Africa and Botswana, will be devastated. Also, diamond cutting and polishing employs more than a million people in India. Hence to boycott diamonds would only serve to make poor countries and the people whose lives depend on diamonds, even poorer. Instead, we can demand for retailers to provide assurances necessary to prove that the diamonds they sell are conflict-free. “Americans buy half of the diamond jewelry sold worldwide, thirty three billion dollars a year in U.S. sales,” said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA. With such enormous profits retailers should be required to do all they can to help solve this problem. Furthermore, the U.S. and other governments must carry out stricter monitoring of the diamond industry and strengthen the enforcement of the Kimberley Process and Clean Diamond Trade Act. Controls on conflict diamonds will cut off sources of funding for rebels and help shorten wars. Peace in diamond producing regions will bring about the potential for economic development as legitimate mining ventures increase.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Child Labor: The Truth About Chocolate is Not so Sweet

The United States is the world's largest chocolate consumer, eating more than thirteen billion dollars worth of chocolate each year. Unfortunately, while large companies enjoy the massive profits, cacao farmers in the West African nation of the Ivory Coast, where forty percent of the entire world’s cocoa is produced, unjustly make a mere five percent of those profits. According to a fact sheet from TransFairUSA, the income for a small cocoa farm in the Ivory Coast ranges from a meager thirty to one hundred-and-ten dollars a year. These farmers are so poor that they have no choice but to resort to using child labor and in some cases, child slavery. An article from Democracy Now reports that “these child workers labor for long, punishing hours, using dangerous tools and facing frequent exposure to dangerous pesticides as they travel great distances in the grueling heat. Those who labor as slaves must also suffer frequent beatings and other cruel treatment.” This week I decided to join the discussion in two other blogs in hope of bringing more attention to this very important issue. My comments can be found here at Boycott Nestlé and here at Blogher.

Boycott Nestlé
Nestlé is the largest chocolate corporation in the world with over sixty-five billion dollars in annual sales. For this very reason it is absolutely deplorable that they do not currently engage in the Fair Trade of cocoa. I definitely agree with your statement: “for several years Nestlé has been claiming that social certification of its cocoa production is impossible. Yet, social certification exists for cocoa: it's called Fair Trade. Why can't Nestlé make a commitment to convert to Fair Trade?” They must be held accountable for their human rights violations and be pressured to convert to Fair Trade. This would guarantee a modest minimum price per pound of cocoa, an amount that Nestlé could definitely afford to pay, thus providing a fair pay to small farmers and an end to the practice of child labor and child slavery. Currently, as The International Labor Organization states, about a quarter of a million children between the ages of nine and twelve are working in these farms. For now, until Nestle takes responsibility for its cocoa supply chain I will only buy chocolate that has been Fair Trade Certified™

Thank you for bringing some much needed attention to this little known issue. Unfortunately, M&Ms/Mars Inc. is not the only corporation buying from contractors that utilize child labor and child slavery at their cocoa farms on the Ivory Coast. Hershey’s and Nestlé are also engaged in this practice. It is unacceptable that these multi-billion dollar corporations do not currently take part in Fair Trade. The cocoa farmers are only making an average of about seventy dollars, annually! How are they supposed to survive this way? This is the reason why the children of the Ivory Coast are forced to spend their entire childhoods picking cocoa. I do not think that boycotting these corporations is too harsh. I am afraid that it may be the only way to get their attention. By buying products that are not Fair Trade certified we are supporting the exploitation of thousands and thousands of poor farmers and children. If consumers increase their demand for Fair Trade chocolate, the corporations will have no choice but to change their practices.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Global Warming: Polar Bears in the Artic are in Danger of Extinction

Global warming if ignored will directly affect the lives of every single organism on the planet. One of the first to be gravely affected is the polar bear. Polar bears are a migratory species that spend their summers on northern coastal regions before heading out onto the sea ice each fall to hunt for seals. Ice and snow are essential to polar bear's way of life. Unfortunately, due to global warming, rising arctic temperatures are reducing the amount of sea ice that polar bears depend on for hunting and many are dying. The problem is mainly due to the melting ice because the distance between land and the sea ice that they hunt on is getting further and further apart. The Wall Street Journal reported that “in September 2004, the polar ice cap retracted a record 160 miles north of the northern coast of Alaska, researchers counted 10 polar bears swimming as far as 60 miles offshore. Polar bears can swim long distances but have evolved to mainly swim between sheets of ice.” The picture to the right shows a polar bear standing on the melting ice. The vanishing ice is particularly hard on the breeding females because they must feed both themselves and their cubs. Greenpeace USA reports that in some areas, polar bear birth rates have dropped by up to 15% in the last decade, and the bears show increasing signs of undernourishment.

Polar bears could disappear in our lifetime if we do not take action. The Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and Greenpeace filed a lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in December of 2006; just one day after scientists released a study that reports that polar bears are drowning after swimming long distances in the ocean between the melting of the Arctic ice. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service responded by announcing its intention to propose that the polar bear be listed as a "threatened" species under the ESA, however no actions have yet taken place. If the polar bear is officially listed in the “threatened” species list, it will be the first species added as a direct result of climate change and the federal agencies will be obligated to ensure that any action they authorize or fund will not jeopardize the polar bears' continued existence or harm its critical habitat.

The floating ice of the Arctic covers an area equal to that of the United States. It is absolutely crucial in the regulation of the Earth’s climate. When that ice melts we lose its “air-conditioning” capacity. Because snow and sea-ice are white, they are highly reflective. Most of the sun's energy comes down and is simply reflected back to space. But due to the retraction of the ice cover, less and less of the Earth’s surface is covered by this highly reflective snow and sea ice, and the dark sea that replaces the melted ice absorbs most of the sun's heat and accelerates the melting of the remaining ice. There is no doubt that the North Pole ice is melting; the picture to the left shows the clear, undeniable difference between the Artic Sea boundary in 1979 and the sea boundary today. The Artic ice cap is melting at an alarming rate. “The vast expanses of ice floating in the Arctic Sea are melting in winter as well as in the summer, likely because of global warming”, said Josefino Comiso, a research scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "This is the strongest evidence yet of global warming in the Arctic. If the ice continues to melt at the current rate, it could have profound effects on all life in the Arctic and other consequences around the world,” he added.

Currently the United States is the largest emitter of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide emissions from cars, trucks and power plants that cause global warming.
BBC News reports that one hundred and twenty one nations have ratified the Kyoto treaty to reduce emissions. Unfortunately the United States, the world’s biggest polluter, has not joined. We can take action and begin to reduce global warming pollution now by promoting clean and efficient sources of energy and by supporting the above organizations in their fight. While the proposal to list the polar bear as “threatened” is an encouraging sign, polar bear survival will ultimately depend on the follow-through from all of us. Oregon Zoo conservation scientist David Shepherdson stated that the Arctic may be the most environmentally sensitive area in the world right now, but eventually, the effects of global warming will be felt worldwide. He said wildlife will be among the first casualties.

Monday, February 12, 2007

American Sweatshops: A Look Into the Situation in The Northern Mariana Islands

Although the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, or CNMI, is a U.S. territory, it is excluded from the usual American labor and immigration laws and is not represented by the U.S. Congress; yet, according to an article in Ms Magazine, clothing sewn there is allowed to carry the "made in the USA" label. The CNMI’s garment manufacturers were clients of Jack Abramoff, the infamous lobbyist who, with the help of former House Majority leader Tom Delay, blocked all of the legislation that would have eliminated these exemptions. This has allowed garment manufacturers to import thousands of foreign female workers who work up to 20 hours a day in sweatshop conditions. The picture to the right shows a sweatshop in Saipan, one of the islands that comprise the CNMI. On February 8th the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing on the labor and immigration conditions of the CNMI and, with the newly elected Democratic Congress, passed a proposal to increase the CNMI minimum wage to the federal level as part of the nationwide minimum wage increase legislation. This is a notable first step to improving the situation in the CNMI; however, it is not enough. The CNMI is a U.S. territory and it is unacceptable that these types of human rights violations have been allowed to remain for so long. This week I will join the discussion of this issue in two other blogs. The links can be found below along with my comments.
Thank you for bringing attention to this issue. Sadly, because The Northern Mariana Islands are able to set their own immigration policies, women are being tricked into contracts of servitude in U.S. territory. I agree with you that raising the minimum wage is not going to solve everything but it is a positive first step. I am very pleased with the fact that under the new Democratic leadership in Congress, the labor and immigration reforms in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands are finally going somewhere. The Senate actually passed a bill federalizing the island's local laws six years ago but, as you know, special interest groups lobbied Tom Delay to stop the bill from becoming a law. For this reason it is critical that the CNMI be allowed a seat in Congress. Unfortunately they are currently not represented as Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands are. They need to have a say in the making of policies that affect them.
The U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources finally held a hearing on February 8 regarding the current situation in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The hearing focused on whether the CNMI should be brought under U.S. labor and immigration law enforcement jurisdiction. Fortunately labor reform in the CNMI is heading in the right direction. The proposal to increase the minimum wage to the federal level passed with ease as part of the nationwide minimum wage increase legislation. I truly hope that this is only the beginning of more good things to come. Unfortunately, a lot more still needs to be done. David B. Cohen, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Insular Affairs, said that “Federalizing the CNMI's immigration system needs to be done in a manner that would not cause needless economic or fiscal harm.” Fifty percent of the residents there are foreign employees and that fact must be taken into account when reforming the immigration laws. We certainly do not want to harm the individuals we intended to help. It must also be considered that the people there currently have no way to change policies that may be detrimental to them because they are not represented in the U.S. Congress. Consequently, they turn to hiring lobbyists, and as we have seen, lobbyists are not representing the interests of these people.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Dying for Fashion: Animal Suffering is Never in Style

In the past few years the international fur industry has waged an organized, well funded-PR campaign aimed at banishing the recent moral stigma attached to wearing fur. It has done so by mixing fur with silk, wool, suede and leather no longer limited to full-length mink coats or fox-fur jackets. The Humane Society of the United States reports that “many shoppers, who might flinch at buying a full-length fur coat, might still be seduced by a coat with a fur collar, or a scarf, or a handbag with fur detail. The animal connection may be less apparent with fur that has been dyed or combined with other materials.” According to the HSUS, in the last ten years, demand for fur, mostly from Europe and the United States, has increased dramatically. The success of the fur industry campaigns and these new manufacturing methods to make fur socially acceptable have almost imperceptibly brought fur back out onto the streets.

Eighty five percent of the world’s fur comes from fur farms. The Fur Free Alliance states that “each year, the fur industry kills over 50 million animals for fashion. In fact, the number of animals to make a single fur coat is as follows; 12-15 lynx, 10-15 wolves or coyotes, 60-80 minks, 27-30 raccoons, 10-12 beavers, 60-100 squirrels.” Consumers need to know that every fur coat, lining or piece of trim represents the intense suffering of animals. As a result of the rapid growth in fur farming, the absence of animal welfare protection and the surplus of cheap labor in China, the world’s largest fur exporter, Care for the Wild and Swiss Animal Protection (SAP) were prompted to collaborate on an investigation throughout 2004 and 2005. Fun Fur? A Report on the Chinese Fur Industry, exposes the horrors inflicted on animals at Chinese fur farms.

Investigators for the Fun Fur? report, obtained photos and video at fur farms throughout the Hebei province of Eastern China. The visited farms held anywhere from 50 to 6000 frightened and abused animals. The investigators saw Red foxes, Artic foxes, raccoons and minks all manifesting symptoms of a lifetime of abuse. These animals live out their entire lives cramped in rows of tiny wire cages. “There you can hear the frequent whimpering of the animals, like the sound of babies crying,” affirms the Beijing News. They pace, nod, and circle their heads repeatedly in signs of extreme anxiety. Other animals, overwhelmed by the conditions, develop learned helplessness and they curl up in the back of their cages. The Fun Fur? investigators tracked the animals as they were being transported for sale under brutal conditions. The animals were slaughtered next to the wholesale market by repeatedly striking their heads with a metal stick and in some cases, as seen in the picture above, they were skinned alive. Helpless, they struggle and try to fight back to the very end. Even after their skin had been stripped off, breathing, heartbeat and eyelid movements were evident for up to ten minutes, as seen in the picture to the left. The investigators reported that in some occasions the workers stepped on the animals’ head or neck to strangle it or hold it down. The shocking observations noted in the Fun Fur? report were confirmed by journalists of the newspaper Beijing News on April 5th 2005.

These horrendous atrocities must be stopped! It is our moral obligation to become educated consumers in order to end the needless suffering of countless defenseless animals on these fur farms. We must all stop buying fur garments and anything else with fur trimming and opt for faux fur instead. No animal should suffer simply for the sake of fashion. Nothing is ever worth all of the blood, misery, and pain. Fashion retailers will stop selling these products if no one is buying them. Many designer labels such as, BCBG, Ralph Lauren, Baby Phat, Kenneth Cole, Vivienne Westwood, Stella McCartney and many others listed on the Fur Free Alliance web site have made the humane choice to go fur free. As the HSUS Fur-Free Campaign states, “Through action, education, and compassionate consumer choice, we need to help designers, retailers, and other consumers realize one simple truth: The animals need their fur more than we do.”

Monday, January 29, 2007

Slave Labor: Brazilian Slave Workers Produce Pig Iron Used In Our Cars

Nearly one million men, women and children work for little or no wages as forced laborers in Latin America. They are modern-day slaves that are lured from their impoverished towns by slave camp bosses promising high paying jobs. This is the case of many people working in the Amazon jungle of Brazil as slaves are forced into hard labor such as clearing trees, mining for gold and most importantly, making charcoal that will be used to make pig iron. According to an article in Observatorio Social, "the Brazilian Amazon produces the world's best pig iron," a key ingredient of steel that is used in the production of automobile parts. This steel then ends up in cars and trucks made in the United States by Ford, General Motors, Nissan and Toyota.

A 2006 news story by Bloomberg News reported that “in the past decade, Brazilian labor inspectors and prosecutors have freed hundreds of slaves working in degrading or inhumane conditions and without pay in charcoal camps that supply pig iron plants.” The slaves in these camps lived in small wooden shacks surrounded by miles and miles of jungle where they had no electricity, no toilets or any other kind of plumbing, no safety goggles, shoes, gloves or tools needed for work, and all drank unsanitary water that was filled with dust, tadpoles and insects. The slave camp bosses had lured them in with promises of jobs but then once there the workers were charged hundreds of dollars for food, transport, and clothing which was held as debt and then forced, sometimes by gunpoint, to be worked off. The lack of money, miles of dangerous jungle, a long distance from home, sometimes hundreds of miles, and intimidation, make it impossible for the hopeless slaves to leave.

After the investigation by Bloomberg News was released exposing these companies, Toyota Motor, the world’s second largest auto-manufacturer, did not join Ford Motors, DaimlerChrysler, General Motors and Honda when they announced plans to work together to train suppliers to avoid buying materials made by slaves. The Bloomberg findings reported that U.S Customs’ records showed that Toyota Tsusho America in New York, known as TAI, "was named as the importer of 13,699 metric tons of pig iron from Usina Siderurgica de Maraba SA or Usimar," a company that purchases its charcoal from Brazilian slave camps, on November 4th, just two days after the Bloomberg article was published.

Toyota continues to deny any wrong doing. In fact, Toyota Tsusho America Senior Vice President Mike Lavender said that to the best of TAI’s knowledge all Brazilian pig iron producers that TAI purchases from do not buy charcoal from slave camps because they have written assurances from their suppliers. The fact is that, as the Bloomberg article reports, it is well documented that Usimar had dropped out of a Brazilian association of pig iron producers that sponsors programs to combat slavery in charcoal camps. “It’s very clear that Toyota is in denial.” says Kevin Bales, president of Free the Slaves, the U.S. branch of the oldest human rights group in the world. “They’re being disingenuous. That just doesn’t wash. Just a hint of slavery in a supply chain is unacceptable” he added.

It is truly a disgrace when a large company, such as Toyota, simply looks the other way and ignores the inhumane practices of its suppliers just to make a bigger profit. The products of slave labor enter our economy because corporations like Toyota Motors do not ask their suppliers enough questions. It is irresponsible and these companies must be held accountable by consumers for their actions. Americans must be alerted to their practices. One would hope that most Americans would be appalled by this immoral behavior and discouraged from buying cars that were made from parts involving slave labor. Consumers need to be informed in order to make knowledgeable decisions when making purchases so that they can exert a certain amount of influence on companies’ behavior and policies. It is our moral duty to do so.