Points of Progress: India’s Karnataka state outlaws bonded labor, and more

Points of Progress: India’s Karnataka state outlaws bonded labor, and more

Why We Wrote This

This is more than feel-good news – it’s where the world is making concrete progress. A roundup of positive stories to inspire you.


Places where the world saw progress, for the Feb. 15, 2021 Monitor Weekly.


February 5, 2021

1. United States

Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin became the first Black defense secretary after the Senate overwhelmingly voted to confirm him to the Cabinet post. Secretary Austin has spoken on the importance of improving racial and gender diversity in the nation’s military, where the highest ranks remain predominantly white and male. The historic confirmation follows a career of firsts, including being the first Black officer to serve as the Army’s vice chief of staff and the first to lead U.S. Central Command. He retired in 2016. 

Jim Lo Scalzo/AP

Lloyd Austin, the first Black person to head U.S. Central Command, speaks during his confirmation hearing for defense secretary before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Jan. 19, 2021, in Washington.

Some representatives and senators voted against waiving the seven-year post-military waiting period – a requirement meant to ensure civilian control of the military, and overlooked only twice in the nation’s history – but 93 senators ultimately approved his confirmation. As Pentagon chief, Secretary Austin has vowed to rid the military of racists and extremists, address sexual assault, and “create a climate where everyone fit and willing has the opportunity to serve this country with dignity.” (Reuters, Military Times)

2. United States

For the first time in 80 years, chinook salmon have spawned in the upper Columbia River system in the Pacific Northwest. The construction of massive dams in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s blocked the migratory fish from returning to the habitat, but Indigenous communities and scientists have been working for years to bring salmon back. Research has involved the release and tracking of hatchery-bred fish and extensive habitat analysis.

Rick Bowmer/AP/File

A chinook salmon, second from the bottom, swims by a fish-counting window at the Bonneville Dam near North Bonneville, Washington, in 2012.

Last year, biologists from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation identified 36 redds – rocky nests where female salmon lay eggs – along the Sanpoil River, a Columbia River tributary upstream from the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state. The discovery is a major milestone for the reintroduction of the species, and a moment of hope for local tribes whose history is intertwined with the river system and salmon. (Crosscut, The Spokesman-Review)

3. Canada

The Songhees Nation and researchers from the University of Victoria have created the first scientific catalog of wildlife around the Tl’ches archipelago, establishing a baseline for future conservation efforts. Known to non-Indigenous Canadians as the Discovery and Chatham Islands, this area is the last piece of undeveloped land in Songhees territory. Although the islands have been uninhabited by the First Nation members since the 1950s, Elder Joan Morris (also known as Sellemah, her traditional name) can remember growing up on islands that were teeming with urchins, octopus, seals, and many kinds of shellfish. On recent visits, she and researchers observed notably less activity. In lieu of more expensive and time-consuming survey methods, researchers used an underwater drone to find several species that Songhees leaders identified as important to ceremonial, social, or harvest traditions. Scientists say the Tl’ches survey not only relied on Indigenous knowledge, but also produced data that will benefit the Indigenous community. “Having this information is so useful,” said Songhees Nation lands manager Kathy Bryce, a co-author of the study. “It’s a start in our goals to help protect, manage, maintain and preserve our culture ways, and teach our youth for future generations.” (Mongabay, Frontiers in Marine Science)

4. Panama

In a landmark ruling, Panama’s supreme court has cemented the Naso people’s right to govern and defend their ancestral land. For the 3,500-member Naso community, the decision upholds the community’s claim to establish a comarca – or semi-autonomous territory – across roughly 400,000 acres, including two national reserves. Indigenous rights advocates say that national park status has historically been used to bar tribes from governing their ancestral land, while mounting evidence suggests they are the best protectors. State offices often lack the will or the means to enforce environmental regulations, say analysts, resulting in higher deforestation rates in state-protected areas compared with comarcas. Under the new arrangement, reserves will continue to exist under Indigenous control, managed jointly with state officials. “By extending their recognition to national parks, Panama has a chance to be a great model for other countries,” says Christine Halvorson, program director at the Rainforest Foundation U.S., “and to end the misconceived conflict between Indigenous rights and environmental protection.” (Yale Environment 360)

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5. Mozambique

Mozambique’s new fisheries law opens the door for communities to help protect a broader range of marine species and develop more sustainable policies. The revised law extends protected status to new species, including dolphins, whale sharks, and manta rays, and makes it easier for communities living along the 1,700-mile coastline to lead management initiatives. While co-management has long been the goal in Mozambique, fishery enforcement remains highly centralized. The new law clarifies the framework for local fishing councils to become autonomous, legal entities that can better assert their decision-making power. While implementing the law will take a lot of work, there are some signs that Mozambique is committed to improving environmental protection. The country’s largest marine conservation area slashed illegal fishing by nearly half in 2020 compared with 2019, mainly by tightening the inspection process and using signaling buoys to delimit the protected area. (Mongabay, Mozambique News Agency)

6. India

India’s Karnataka state has outlawed bitti chakri – a form of bonded labor in which members of the Dalit caste work in upper-caste homes for little or no pay. Debt bondage was legally banned in India in the mid-1970s, but under bitti chakri there is rarely a formal debt to repay. Instead, the system thrives on a sense of social obligation, with the expectation of free labor being passed down through generations. Anti-slavery advocates have long worked to have bitti chakri recognized as bonded labor. A 2019 report from Jeevika, a charity at the front of the fight, found thousands of Dalit families working for free throughout Karnataka. Workers were often given some grain or pulses in return, and many are afraid to lodge complaints. Advocates say enforcement will require extensive surveys to identify victims, and campaigns to overcome fear and support Dalit laborers seeking freedom. (Thomson Reuters Foundation)

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