Somali pirates justified?
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.