In a major breakthrough in the fight against modern slavery, experts have come up with the first-ever accurate estimate of the number of brick kilns across the South Asian ‘Brick Belt’ using satellite imagery from Google Earth.
A group of researchers at the University of Nottingham has established the prevalence of sites in industries associated with slavery, including Asian brick kilns and fishing camps, in an approach they suggest may be applicable to other forms of compelled labour, a report in The Guardian states.
The ‘Brick Belt’, an unofficial area covering parts of Pakistan, northern India, Nepal and Bangladesh, accounts for much of the global brick-making industry. The team estimates that there are currently 55,387 brick kilns along the ‘Brick Belt’.
There are different types of brick kilns around the world, however, there is one dominant type that can be found in the ‘Brick Belt’: the large oval kiln known as the Bull’s Trench Kiln. As the brick kilns are so large and distinct in shape, they can be identified in satellite images. These oval brick kilns often employ dozens of people, including whole families, lured with the promise of work and an advance on their salaries.
The project is the brainchild of Dr Kevin Bales, an anti-slavery researcher who has long nurtured the hope of using satellites to track modern slavery and nudge governments into action with the evidence gleaned, reports the Guardian.
“The brick kilns in Pakistan I looked at, and sites like charcoal camps in Brazil, are so big – and had such unique patterns – that I realised you could see them from space,” said Bales.
In the study, brick kilns were identified by experts and also citizen scientists, using the most recent satellite data from Google Earth. The locations of the kilns were then mapped.
Dr Doreen Boyd, the lead researcher on the study, said: “Accurate information on slavery activity is not easy to come by and is one of the biggest barriers in the fight against slavery. Building on previous work we’ve carried out, we wanted to find a way of calculating the number of brick kilns on the ‘Brick Belt’, which is an area notorious for using slaves, so that we can help to provide a clear picture of the true scale of the problem.”
Millions of people in India are believed to be living in slavery. Despite a 1976 ban on bonded labour, the practice remains widespread at brick kilns, rice mills, and brothels, among others.