Captain Jack Sparrow would be proud.
For the past 15 years, Somalian pirates have made a killing by hijacking merchant ships off the coats of Somalian waters and holding them for ransom. Just in 2010, the pirates earned between $75 million to $238 million and cost the international community between $4.9 billion and $8.3 billion. It almost makes me wonder, how do I sign up to be with Captain Sparrow?
Governments around the world on the other hand, have not been too happy with their disruption of trade and loss of money. Similarly, the media has tried to paint the issue of pirates in a very bleak manner. Quoting government officials, they claim that pirates are outright criminals bent on making a quick buck. There have even been reports of Somalian pirates allegedly financing terrorism.
Yet, from Somalian lens, this only offers one side of the story. They argue that piracy has only emerged as a response to the illegal fishing and dumping of toxic & nuclear waste onto their shores. Despite the validity of either side, one thing is certain, Somalian piracy is no joke. Each year it endangers lives and costs billions of dollars to combat. Yet before we offer sanctimonious platitudes, we must delve deeper into the origins of Somalian piracy. How did Somalian piracy originate?
Fish in your own backyard!
Somalia, located in the Horn of Africa, possesses the longest coastline in Africa and while this enabled it in the Middle Ages to become a major trading center, it has now has enabled foreign merchant ships to plunder its resources. This has taken place because Somalia has had no central government since the start of the Somalian civil war in 1991. As a result, foreign merchant ships have been able to take advantage of Somalia’s power vacuum while illegally fishing in Somalian waters.
In 2006, the UN stated,
“In the absence of the country’s at one time serviceable coastguard, Somali waters have become the site of an international “free for all,” with fishing fleets from around the world illegally plundering Somali stocks and freezing out the country’s own rudimentarily-equipped fishermen.”
Another UN report found that approximately “$300 million worth of seafood is stolen from the country’s coastline each year.” In relation to this, BBC analyst Martin Plaut says ”Somalia once had rich fishing off its lengthy coastline, but years of over-fishing by foreign trawlers has devastated fish stocks.” This has severely impacted the livelihoods of Somalian fishermen.
Not only do foreign merchant ships have more advanced technologies to reel in bigger catches of fish, thereby depleting the stocks of fish, they have also used intimidation and aggression through use of “water cannons and firearms” against the native Somalian fishermen.
After futile complaints to the U.N. and with a lack of defense from their non-existent government, the fishermen began to band together to patrol and protect their livelihoods. Thus, Somalian piracy was born.
Peter Lehr, a professor of terrorism at the Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, revealed in a Time’s article that “The first pirate gangs emerged in the ’90s to protect against foreign trawlers.” Today, some of the pirates fleets even retain their respective names from the 1990s such as the National Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia or Somali Marines and this sheds some light on the pirates’ initial intentions.
Apparently, there have even been reports that the stocks of fish (not to be confused with stockfish) have increased back to their original levels. Some contribute this to Somalian pirates because they have been successful in deterring away foreign fishing vessels from their waters while “helping to restore the health of the marine eco-system.”
New Clear Garbage! (lol)…In the aftermath of the civil war in Somalia, the warring warlords made deals with Asian and European corporations to take their toxic wastes. For example, Ali Mahdi, and other Somalian warlords, made agreements with foreign corporations including a Swiss firm called Achair Parterns and an Italian firm, Progresso to dump toxic and nuclear wastes on Somalian shores and beaches.
These companies dumped ”radioactive uranium, lead, cadmium, mercury and industrial, hospital, chemical and various other toxic wastes” without proper safeguards and standards as mandated by international law.
Some could say that these corporations did not intentionally intend on contaminating Somalian beaches and shores. They just wanted to save a quick buck. After all, they were able to pay the warlords “about $3 a ton, whereas to properly dispose of waste in Europe (would) cost about $1000 a ton.” But, does minimizing cost, truly justify blatant irresponsibility and devastation to Somalian marine life and their people?
This issue of dumping toxic wastes was substantiated when the European Green party revealed, that there were illegal contracts between Ali Mahdi Mohamed and European corporations to “accept 10 million tonnes of toxic waste in exchange for $80 million.”
The UN investigates…In the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami thousands of these toxic containers washed ashore and a UN report found that the people living in the areas were prone to unusually high levels of cancers as well as “respiratory infections, mouth ulcers and bleeding, abdominal hemorrhages and unusual skin infections” and children were being born with birth defects. (Many of these conditions are consistent with radiation poisoning).
Another UN report found that “The current situation along the Somali coastline poses a very serious environmental hazard not only in Somalia but also in the eastern Africa sub-region.” Yet, the full extent of the damage has yet to be documented as Somalia still remains to be one of the most violent places in the world and researchers are still reluctant to venture into.
The UN special envoy for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, has regularly asked for the international community to confront the problem of illegal fishing and dumping in Somalian waters. Yet countries of the world have refused to give illegal fishing and toxic dumping the same importance that they give pirates. In 2008, he asked non-governmental organizations “to trace this illegal fishing, illegal dumping of waste” because it was becoming a “disaster off the Somali coast, a disaster (for) the Somali environment, the Somali population.”
In 2008 at a press conference after a UN Security Council resolution on Somalia, a reporter from the Inner City Press questioned Ambassador Ripert of France on how the issue of the waste would be dealt with. The ambassador sheepishly answered: “I have no comment on the issue.”
Welcome to the present day mate…Only last week three Somalian men pleaded guilty in U.S. federal courts for piracy which involved a hijacking of a merchant ship that ended in the unfortunate death of four American soldiers. In this end, most nations believe that by increasing their naval presence, they will able to bring these pirates to “justice” while deterring additional piracy. Yet as the Chatham House report on piracy states, “Pirates can be chased on sea, but piracy can only be eradicated on land.”
Currently, piracy primarily exists due to the prospects of lucrative profits. For example, the average pirate is set to make between $33k to $79k a year, whereas the next best “legal” job would bring in $500 annually or $15k for their whole life. In addition to these economic hardships, most Somalis have very few choices; fight for their warlords, join radical Islamists, fight foreign mafia, or starve. So are Somalian pirates just bloody criminals or are they victims of their environment?
Is it indeed easy to blame and make criminals out of pirates. However, we must take everything into consideration with regards to Somalia; their dire economic plight, history, as well as the responsibility of their ex-colonial powers, Britain, France, and Italy, to establish economic and political stability devoid of illegal fishing and dumping of nuclear and other toxic wastes.
For more info watch the video below. What are your thoughts?