Home > fisheries, piracy, Somalia, tragedy of commons > Somali piracy flows from the greater and continuing Western theft and abuse of Somali marine resources

Somali piracy flows from the greater and continuing Western theft and abuse of Somali marine resources

The January 4 Huffington Post carries a perceptive column by Johann Hari, a writer for the Independent , who explains that Somali piracy (which I have commented on here and here) has roots in the Western theft and abuse of Somali marine resources – in the form of ongoing massive Western and Asian fishing and illegal dumping of toxic waste along the 3300 km Somali coast – and in efforts by Somali fishermen to respond (even as such piracy has now morphed into an industry in its own right, and not closely connected to the suffering fishing industry).

Hari’s post raises difficult questions about the ownership and management of open-access resources, and the obligations (if any) of Western governments to make sure that such resources are not plundered merely because local peoples are unable to defend them.  (A report by a Canadian observer to a 1998 UN mission provides background information and raised these issues here.)

While neocons and others make rousing cries for Western governments to stiffen their spines at the impudent pirates (they’re terrorists, barbarians and “enemies of mankind”, after all) and send in their navies to provide free cover for those poor Western shipping interests who seem incapable of fending off the pirates, no one seems to care much about reining in Western fishermen or toxic waste dumpers.   The St. Augustine quote I referred to in my preceding post begins to seem even more apropos:  “what are kingdoms but great bands of brigands?  Unfortunately, this type of resource exploitation is the rule rather than the exception when markets meet unowned or inadequately defended resources.  I have made a number of blog posts on related issues:  salmontunaother fish and whales.

I quote from Hari’s column (emphasis added):

In 1991, the government of Somalia – in the Horn of Africa – collapsed. Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since – and many of the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the country’s food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas.

Yes: nuclear waste.

As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died. Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the [Mauritanian diplomat who is] UN envoy to Somalia, tells me: “Somebody is dumping nuclear material here. There is also lead, and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury – you name it.” Much of it can be traced back to European hospitals and factories, who seem to be passing it on to the Italian mafia to “dispose” of cheaply. When I asked Ould-Abdallah what European governments were doing about it, he said with a sigh: “Nothing. There has been no clean-up, no compensation, and no prevention.”

At the same time, other European ships have been looting Somalia’s seas of their greatest resource: seafood. We have destroyed our own fish-stocks by over-exploitation – and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300m worth of tuna, shrimp, lobster and other sea-life is being stolen every year by vast trawlers illegally sailing into Somalia’s unprotected seas. The local fishermen have suddenly lost their livelihoods, and they are starving. Mohammed Hussein, a fisherman in the town of Marka 100km south of Mogadishu, told Reuters: “If nothing is done, there soon won’t be much fish left in our coastal waters.”

This is the context in which the men we are calling “pirates” have emerged. Everyone agrees they were ordinary Somalian fishermen who at first took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least wage a ‘tax’ on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia – and it’s not hard to see why. In a surreal telephone interview, one of the pirate leaders, Sugule Ali, said their motive was “to stop illegal fishing and dumping in our waters… We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits [to be] those who illegally fish and dump in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas.” William Scott would understand those words.

No, this doesn’t make hostage-taking justifiable, and yes, some are clearly just gangsters – especially those who have held up World Food Programme supplies. But the “pirates” have the overwhelming support of the local population for a reason. The independent Somalian news-site WardherNews conducted the best research we have into what ordinary Somalis are thinking – and it found 70 percent “strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence of the country’s territorial waters.” During the revolutionary war in America, George Washington and America’s founding fathers paid pirates to protect America’s territorial waters, because they had no navy or coastguard of their own. Most Americans supported them. Is this so different?

Did we expect starving Somalians to stand passively on their beaches, paddling in our nuclear waste, and watch us snatch their fish to eat in restaurants in London and Paris and Rome? We didn’t act on those crimes – but when some of the fishermen responded by disrupting the transit-corridor for 20 percent of the world’s oil supply, we begin to shriek about “evil.” If we really want to deal with piracy, we need to stop its root cause – our crimes – before we send in the gun-boats to root out Somalia’s criminals.

A little digging finds ample credible support for Hari’s piece ( actually, I noticed some in connection with my earlier posts, but declined to refer to it then).

More background is here:

“It’s almost like a resource swap,” said Peter Lehr, a Somalia piracy expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and the editor of “Violence at Sea: Piracy in the Age of Global Terrorism.” “Somalis collect up to $100 million a year from pirate ransoms off their coasts. And the Europeans and Asians poach around $300 million a year in fish from Somali waters.”



















  1. TokyoTom
    May 8th, 2009 at 10:07 | #1

    I`m all for having the victims protect themselves, Ryan, but —

    it`s extremely puzzling that you and others can`t be bothered to ask why they are not doing so already, and why our navies are supposed “needed” to protect private shipping from those big, bad, ferociously whimpy Somalis.

    Also, who says EXPLAINING the genesis of Somali privacy is in any way a “justification” for their thefts?

    But since we`re on the topic, why is it that you dodge any consideration of the much larger theft of Somali fisheries that is still underway?

    It`s a simple reality that “undefended” resources are treated as common or “found” property by those in a position to take the resource.

  2. ryan
    May 5th, 2009 at 06:09 | #2

    nope arm the ships with 20mm cannons and shoot em, the british didnt cut us any slack. maybe the Somalians like them but im not Somalian. dont try to justify the acts of violent criminals

  3. January 8th, 2009 at 15:12 | #3

    Great post TokyoTom! And thanks for researching it and posting those links. I hope this brings more reasoned debate to the issue.

    I also hope that certain libertarians (and you know who I have in mind) don’t respond to this by suggesting that Somalis pay Westerners to stop exploiting them, as their “market solution” for AGW seems to be…

  1. No trackbacks yet.