Wednesday, April 15, 2009
  The Whys of Piracy
This morning my inbox contained an article talking about why the Somali pirates are seizing ships. I had mentioned in my piece yesterday that these people are being essentialized into their crime. They have no names, no ages, no connection to family, and especially no rationale. They are merely "Pirates" as though that were enough to know about them and their deeds.

The article quotes a pirate, Sugule Ali, (from an interview with the NYTimes) as saying: “We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard.”

The NYTimes article gives the following background: "The piracy industry started about 10 to 15 years ago, Somali officials said, as a response to illegal fishing. Somalia’s central government imploded in 1991, casting the country into chaos. With no patrols along the shoreline, Somalia’s tuna-rich waters were soon plundered by commercial fishing fleets from around the world. Somali fishermen armed themselves and turned into vigilantes by confronting illegal fishing boats and demanding that they pay a tax."

Johann Hari echoes this information another recent article:

"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 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 Mr 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 overexploitation – and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300m-worth of tuna, shrimp, and lobster are being stolen every year by illegal trawlers. The local fishermen are now 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 "pirates" have emerged. Somalian fishermen took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least levy a "tax" on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia – and ordinary Somalis agree. The independent Somalian news site WardheerNews found 70 per cent "strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence".

The Los Angeles Times backs this up by reporting that, "In 2005, more than 800 illegal vessels from Kenya, South Korea, China and other nations were exploiting Somalia's coastline."

Given that Somalia has no functional government to deal with these vessels, and the evident lasck of will on the parts of the governments worldwide to deal with the problem of poaching and dumping in Somali waters, it's hardly surprising that vigilante groups of fishermen began to take matters into their own hands. Right or wrong, that dynamic apparently continues till today. However, a second class of pirates also have grown up, riding on the moral claims of the fisherman to be protecting their own, and yet their actions belie their commitment to those moral claims.

Obviously, the first question is what are the pirates doing with the "taxes" they have collected from tankers, fishing vessels, and freighters off their shores. Have they invested in clean-up? Are they paying for medical care for those who have been sickened as a result of illegal dumping? Are they feeding farming villages that can no longer support themselves? Or are they using it to buy more weapons, more boats, and live a good life when they are not on the high seas?

Reports vary. Some are building fancy homes and buying fancy cars, both in Somali coastal areas and in neighboring Kenya. Others appear just to be trying to survive.

Again from the LA Times: Perhaps nowhere is piracy's grip on Somalia more apparent than in Hobyo, a village 300 miles north of Mogadishu with Italian-style architecture from colonial times. Hobyo once thrived from lobster and tuna fishing in the Indian Ocean.

Today, piracy has taken over the village. Women want to marry the pirates and small boys dream of growing up to become buccaneers. Of the town's 80 fishing boats, all but four have turned to hijacking, local fishermen said.

"I had 25 men working in my boats," said Sheik Nur Mohammed, who operates one of the four vessels still struggling to earn a living fishing. "They all left me and went to piracy."

He said he could hardly blame them. Exploitation and pollution caused by foreign fishing and dumping have devastated local waters. Foreigners have raided local fishermen's nets and used destructive techniques that have killed fish eggs and upset the environment, he said.

"Now we don't catch enough fish to survive," said Abdi Mudey, owner of another fishing boat. "We spend all day on the sea and return with barely enough to buy a dish of rice."

Pirates are now at the top of the town's social class, the only ones with money for Western-made cigarettes and fancy cellphones. Known by nicknames such as "Superman" or "Flying Squad," they spend their free time drunk or high on khat.

"Women here don't talk to you if you are not a pirate," said Suleiman Farey, 21, a recent high-school graduate. "I'm fed up with these guys."

But as he played in the water near a hijacked Greek chemical tanker, Hassan Ali, 11, said he couldn't wait to join a pirate gang so he could earn money to support his family.

His father was a casualty of fighting in Mogadishu; his mother sells tea.

"When I see the men sharing the money, I feel envy," the boy said. "I pray that piracy will not end before I become a man."

Others, however, seem to have far less noble goals.

The BBC reports, "They have money; they have power and they are getting stronger by the day," says Abdi Farah Juha who lives in the regional capital, Garowe.

"They wed the most beautiful girls; they are building big houses; they have new cars; new guns," he says.

"Piracy in many ways is socially acceptable. They have become fashionable."

Eypt's state newspaper, AlAhram, echoes this: “Pirate Jama Shino in the Somali town of Garowe, threw the most lavish wedding party for his second marriage and invited hundreds of people from the local authorities and among citizens.”

“The bride and the young women who attended the party, said: “Marrying a pirate is every Somali girl’s dream. He has power, money, immunity, the weapons to defend the tribe and funds to give to the militias in civil war.”

Interestingly, even for those who seem more concerned about lining their own pockets, it's not only about living lavish lifestyles, but weapons to defend the tribe, and money to pay off militias, a bit more of a complex view, but still a far cry from the saviors of the nation that they claim to be in the NYTimes and Hari articles.

Of course, the income does end up spread around, pirates do not really bury their treasure in hidden chests. And AP article examines the impact pirates have on towns in Somali:


These boomtown are all the more shocking in light of Somalia's violence and poverty: Radical Islamists control most of the country's south, meting out lashings and stonings for accused criminals. There has been no effective central government in nearly 20 years, plunging this arid African country into chaos.

Life expectancy is just 46 years; a quarter of children die before they reach 5.

But in northern coastal towns like Haradhere, Eyl and Bossaso, the pirate economy is thriving thanks to the money pouring in from pirate ransoms that have reached $30 million this year alone.

In Haradhere, residents came out in droves to celebrate as the looming oil ship came into focus this week off the country's lawless coast. Businessmen started gathering cigarettes, food and cold glass bottles of orange soda, setting up small kiosks for the pirates who come to shore to re-supply almost daily.

Dahir said she is so confident in the pirates, she instituted a layaway plan just for them.

"They always take things without paying and we put them into the book of debts," she told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "Later, when they get the ransom money, they pay us a lot."

For Somalis, the simple fact that pirates offer jobs is enough to gain their esteem, even as hostages languish on ships for months. The population makes sure the pirates are well-stocked in qat, a popular narcotic leaf, and offer support from the ground even as the international community tries to quash them.

"Regardless of how the money is coming in, legally or illegally, I can say it has started a life in our town," said Shamso Moalim, a 36-year-old mother of five in Haradhere.

"Our children are not worrying about food now, and they go to Islamic schools in the morning and play soccer in the afternoon. They are happy."

Despite a beefed-up international presence, the pirates continue to seize ships, moving further out to sea and demanding ever-larger ransoms. The pirates operate mostly from the semiautonomous Puntland region, where local lawmakers have been accused of helping the pirates and taking a cut of the ransoms.

For the most part, however, the regional officials say they have no power to stop piracy.

Meanwhile, towns that once were eroded by years of poverty and chaos are now bustling with restaurants, Land Cruisers and Internet cafes. Residents also use their gains to buy generators - allowing full days of electricity, once an unimaginable luxury in Somalia.

The situation is complicated by the fact that militias, Islamists, and warlords are all struggling for power in Somali. The choas has long prevented aid agencies from providing the kind of assistance needed to help average Somali citizens gain the means to provide for themselves and their families.

Given the disorder of Somali, the international dimensions of the poaching and dumping problem, and the apparent lack of will to address that among the nations of the world, we are likely to more and more piracy, along with more military reaction.

Humanity as a whole needs to figure out how to deal with ourselves. The idea of nation states where people across the border from their neighbors are powerless to help right wrongs, to confront corrupt regimes, where they absolve themselves of responsibility for their neighbors sufferring and hunger, has got to change. We need to embrace a vision of humanity as a whole, and take the steps necessary so that piracy is not the only attractive option for whole communities.

We need to address root causes rather than deal with symptoms... confronting pirates in the act seems a no-brainer, but in order to stop piracy, root conditions are going to have to change.

The whole scenario reminds me of a book, The Maquisarde, by one of my favorite authors, Louise Marley. In it, the protagonists daughter and husband are killed on their sailing boat by futuristic pirate-terrorists. The governments of the developed world have long refused to have any communication or commerce with third world nations (over such issues as piracy). Imprisoned for protesting the stonewalling of the investigation by the despotic government, the protagonists is rescued by rebels. Naturally, she finds out that the citizens of the third world have a very different story to tell than the governments of the developed world. I sometimes feel like we are living in such a world, where all we see and hear is spun to fit the goals of our government and our industries; rarely do we get deep insights into the root causes of problems. Always we are putting bandaids on the symptoms, rather than addressing the underlying diseases that cause them.



 
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Progressive Muslim, feminist, mom, writer, mystic, lover of the universe and Doug Schmidt, cellist, theologian and imam.


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