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Somali pirates justified?

November 19, 2009

Somali pirates: the next Green Peace? Photo by the New York Times.

Somalis on the high seas certainly are getting a bad rap these days. The little African-related news that does make headlines has, for the past year, been dominated by often unbelievable tales concerning groups of renegade pirates that somehow–despite their known presence in the waters of eastern African, and their flimsy, under-manned boats–take over their much larger and well-equipped European and Asian counterparts, often resulting in dead hostages and millions of dollars for the capturers. For the most part, the world’s slander of Somali pirates is, obviously, fair: in case your mama didn’t tell you, piracy ain’t the best way to make a buck, either on the grounds of morality or safety.

But after the New York Times reported yesterday that yet another attack had occurred, I stumbled upon an article published by Al Jazeera English in which pirates justify their attacks, at least in part, by claiming that they are looking for independent reparations for the thousands of tons of toxic waste dumped off the Somali coast by multinationals, leaving the already impoverished country with millions to billions of dollars of an environmental mess.

As reported by Al Jazeera, UN envoy to Somali Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah confirms that toxic waste, including nuclear waste, has and is being dumped in the Somali coastline by European and Asian companies. According to Nick Nuttall of the UN Environment Programme, the country “has been used as a dumping ground for hazardous waste starting in the early 1990s…continuing through the civil war…European companies found it to be very cheap to get rid of the waste, costing as little as $2.50 a [ton], where waste disposal costs in Europe are something like $1000 a [ton].”

Not surprisingly, Somali communities, families and individuals bear the brunt of the consequences for such dumping, while the government continues to fund the country’s devastating civil war through contracts with foreign companies looking for cheap waste-removal. Nuttall cites health concerns from skin infections to mouth and abdominal bleeding. One need look no further than New York’s Love Canal disaster to understand the potentially devastating affects for communities exposed to toxic waste: birth defects and increased cancer rates are common, often impacting families for generations.

I am by no means condoning piracy–in the name of environmental retribution or otherwise–but I do think that the Al Jazeera article helps to highlight the unimaginable conditions that are part-and-parcel of daily life for many Somalis. It is not a stretch to say that the dumping and effect of toxic waste, compounded with a horrendous and seemingly endless civil war and all-too-frequent devastating droughts, has pushed the country’s citizens to their limits and, feeling they cannot look to the government or international community for protection and opportunity, turn to dangerous and illegal wild-west activities on the seas. A more nuanced understanding of the situation in Somalia–other than headlines lambasting the actions of a few renegades–is certainly welcomed. More specifically, readers from the country’s whose ships are being attacked should consider how their country’s companies–and governments–may be involved, albeit implicity, in gross global inequality, corruption, and environmental degradation contributing to a life expectancy of 48.1 years and a population in which 43% live under the poverty line. In many ways, Somali piracy acts as a gross example of the true desperation and (often justified) anger that consumes many of the country’s–and world’s–citizens.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    July 17, 2010 11:17 pm

    It’s not like they’re just going to let themselves starve, piracy is completely justifiable.

  2. nmboudin permalink*
    December 1, 2009 12:14 am

    I have also heard about the dumping of radioactive waste in Somalia. Somali/Canadian hip-hop artist K’Naan has spoken about the pirates’ origins as something akin to Somalia’s unofficial coast guard ( Whether this is just romanticizing their story or factual, I think that the root cause of the phenomenon lies in the exploitation of Somalia’s desperate situation by polluters, rather than personal greed on behalf of the Somalis.

  3. November 20, 2009 10:06 pm

    In addition to the toxic waste dumping, there has been the issue of foreign fishing vessels impinging on Somali territorial waters and basically sweeping the seas clean, leaving Somali fishermen destitute. And since there’s no real government there, it was left to guys in boats with guns to drive them off. Until they figured out that holding foreign vessels for ransom was more lucrative, of course.

    I wish I could remember where I found it now, but there was an article that turned up last April when that ship’s captain was captured and snipers killed the pirates, who they discovered were mostly teenaged boys. They tracked down the mother of one of them, and it turned out he was just trying to raise money so he could go to school.

    These are the stories that have to be told. Otherwise, everything gets drawn in black and white and the underlying problems never get solved.

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