Dirt Roads and Buffalo: The Case of the Vulnerable Villager

Climate change is making rural communities in SE Asia more prone to the trap of human trafficking.

Authors note: The hill tribes of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) are among the most vulnerable people groups to be trafficked as sex workers or cheap laborers. The GMS is comprised by over 135 minority groups originating from five different countries: Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Ethnic minorities are most commonly the victims of human trafficking. Not all individuals that work in the sex industry or a cheap labor factory have been trafficked, but many of them have. Climate change is one of many factors for human trafficking in Southeast Asia; statelessness, government corruption, poverty, and cultural mandates are longtime factors that have perpetuated this problem for centuries.

In recent years climate change has contributed increasingly to the shifts of human movement among ethnic minority members that often leads to human trafficking. By now we all know — or at least, are acutely aware — that droughts, flooding, and natural disasters lead to a higher number of trafficked persons.

The view from the back of the open yellow truck as we made our way through the northern most province of Thailand was unforgettable; mountain ranges with razor sharp edges cutting through the sky, dense green forests, streams of glistening water wandering through it all. Clouds of dust surrounded us on the windy dirt road, and we had to cover our faces with handkerchiefs just to breathe.

A dozen smiling faces welcomed us as we pulled into the village and climbed out of the back of the truck. We were there to spend time with the village people for four days and participate in their way of life, but also to ask questions about the community development and gain a broader understanding of what life was like in the village.

Villages are often situated miles inland from any major highway and are only accessible via bumpy dirt roads that are difficult to maintain. During the wet season, intense weather patterns make the risky journey only possible with a truck or strong motorcycle during half the year.

Within these isolated communities culture of an era gone by is preserved, so long as they remain untouched by outside intruders. Vibrant and colorful wardrobes, elaborate headdresses, traditional dances, music. Even the structure and organizational hierarchy of these communities stand out as singular in the modern age. Language and customs are at the crux of what makes each tribe unique.

Though this particular village was Christian and a close-knit community, I was interested to learn if they knew anyone who had fallen victim to sex trafficking. The eyes of the villagers shifted uncomfortably from one to another. It was clear this was a touchy subject, one that was not normally discussed amongst each other, let alone with strangers from Western countries.

Perhaps we should go about this a different way.

Instead, I asked the community members to please describe the economic situation of the village. How did they make money? What were some of the challenges they were facing?

This particular village relied heavily on buffalo herding as a major source of income. Feeding, growing, and selling the buffalo was enough to contribute to the development of the community. Some households were able to afford motorcycles — one even owned a new truck. As a community, they were able to build a small dam on the river to provide some amount of electricity.

Increasing governmental control, however, set limits on the potential for the village to expand its buffalo herd and increase its income. Land restrictions limit where the villagers could go and where they could not. Wood cutting restrictions were put in place in order to preserve the jungle, but crippled community members’ ability to build fires for cooking.

Throughout the entire country the government has restricted when villages could burn their farms and make them ready for the next growing season. Traditionally, slash and burn is vital to the farming cycle as it gets the fields ready for the next growing season. Increased pressure on the Thai government from the international community, however, has made it that much more urgent to cut carbon emissions the cheapest way possible.

At first thought, this seemed like a healthy solution to the increasing problem of pollution in the country and climate change as a whole. Burning fields releases nominal amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, so it makes sense why the government would try to regulate it. From the perspective of the villagers, I was surprised to learn the negative repercussions this had on the economy of the community. Without the ability to slash and burn their fields, farmers were left with reduced crop yields and thus less to sell.

As government regulations and restrictions increase, the less reliable farming life is. Sustaining a lifestyle dependent on agriculture becomes increasingly difficult the more the government tries to regulate it. When that happens, dependence on other incomes becomes stronger, and those alternative forms of income include prostitution.

In another conversation a few weeks earlier, a friend told me about a young girl, Nahmwan*, from the Karen village in Myanmar he was living in had been forced into sex trafficking. An unusually severe drought left her parents desperate for income, so they sent Nahmwan to the city with the hope she could make enough money for them all.

When a young man or woman is trafficked from a village in the rural mountains of the GMS, they are at the mercies of the world. From the beginning, they are lured by their traffickers with promises of honest positions working as a housemaid or dishwasher in grand cities like Bangkok where the buildings rise hundreds of feet into the air. Trust is a strong value in these cultures, and often they’ve heard glorified stories from other people that have gone to the cities to find work.

But everything isn’t as it seems the moment they leave their parents and friends behind, something that Nahmwan would soon learn for herself. Transporting her into the city costs a steep price for the trafficker, which she is expected to pay back. Many individuals like Nahmwan do not have proper documentation in order to get across the border, let alone obtain legitimate employment. The trafficker, who works as a broker, will provide the necessary documents, but at a price. When they reach the brothel or bar or wherever, she is expected to pay monthly fees to the owner in order to pay for the substandard living quarters she occupies.

By the time Nahmwan realizes what the “job” actually is, she is trapped under a weight of massive debt that she can never hope to get out of.

Despite the debt she has unknowingly accumulated,there is still the expectation from her family that she will send money back home. But at the end of the month when she’s finished making payments to the brothel owner, the trafficker, the cops, and whoever else, she barely has enough money to buy her daily bowl of rice.

This such situation happened to Nahmwan, and many others like her. After a year living like this, she finally wrote home to her parents, begging them to let her come home. But her mother wrote back and said that the village still wasn’t getting any rain, and if she could just hold out for a little bit longer, her parents would be grateful.**

*Nahmwan’s name and home village have been changed to protect her identity
**Nahmwan is one of thousands who is coerced into sex trafficking every year. For stories similar to Nahmwan’s and ways to get involved visit www.remembernhu.org and www.compass31.org

By Rebekah Potts
Social Policy Intern