Thursday, April 9, 2009

Why Pirates Attack: It's the Fish Stupid



In the 17th thru late 18th centuries piracy was the method of last resort for the downtrodden and dispossessed: men desperate for work; deserters from throughout the war-wracked Atlantic; runaway slaves seeking refuge from bondage; criminals (from debtors to cutthroats) escaping the long arm of the law. These pirates often attacked the transports of commerce of their day--from slaving ships to merchant vessels. The economic and social exploitation of that era created piracy and suffered for it. Three hundred years later, as ex-fishermen and ex-militia men join forces in Somalia to disrupt our modern transnational economic caravans, history seems to be repeating itself. Arrgh.

More after the fold...


Yet again, pirates off the coast of Somalia have hijacked a ship--this time one with a US crew, who managed to thwart the attack. The news media, already goggle-eyed at the very existence of sea-borne pirates in our modern world, can hardly contain itself as it gives round-the-clock reporting on the "heroic" crew facing off against the "blackbeards" of their day.

Some stories have decided to go beyond the sensationalism, mostly pointing to the dangers of Somalia as a failed-state--like the pirate ships of old, places where a "multi-headed hydra" could form an anarchic society that threatened the entire global structure as we know it.

Steve Clemons in the Washington Note writes ominously of what he calls Jack Sparrows Revenge:

I think this is likely a new generation of asymmetrical, economic warfare. The world has become too interconnected for piracy to remain isolated to the Gulf of Aden....knowledge of the effectiveness of the tactic will not remain unique to the horn of Africa...famines fueled by climate change, along with water shortages towards the midcentury years, are likely to decrease the powers of poor central governments, most dangerously in African coastal states. Major shipping routes across the Maghreb and along the western African coast will be subject to the highest risks. Also, the Straits of Malacca -- which has been historically troubled by pirates -- and other routes through the South China Sea, will be at heightened risk if weak governments are incapable of adjusting to the challenges of the twenty-first century.

But Clemmons article, while painting an imaginatively vivid imagery of the Apocalypse out of Kevin Costner's Waterworld, never manages to take the piracy story further. And perhaps that's because to go any deeper might reflect some unsettling comparative truths about our global economic and social order, and that of a few centuries prior.

In our modern era, more than pirates stalk the high seas. Around the world, immense fishing trawlers--some as large as 400 feet--roam the oceans. Using nine-thousand foot nets they sweep up everything in their path, engaging in what many conservationists have warned is a "clear-cutting" of the sea floor. In a single day these trawlers can catch one million pounds of fish. According to marine biologist Sylvia Earle, in the last 50 years we've lost something in the order of 90 percent of the big fish in the ocean to these "harvesting machines." Worse still, is the by-catch. It's estimated that a staggering 50 billion pounds of unwanted fish--too small, unmarketable or inedible--caught up in the nets are ground to a bloody mulch and deposited back into the oceans.

Carl Sarfina at the Blue Ocean Institute notes:
About a quarter of everything that is caught in the ocean, is not wanted or not marketable or not as valuable as some of the other catch so it goes overboard. As northern waters have been depleted some of the fishing boats from places like Europe are turned south and have started fishing very intensively off African countries.

Right. Africa. Which brings us back to pirates. Arggh.

All along the coast of Africa, as these heavy European and Western trawlers of the rich world have moved into regional waters, local farmers have found their catch drying up and their livelihoods diminished if not destroyed. A recent documentary on the state of the oceans noted that "the impact on the developing world is enormous, particularly on the fisheries off the coast of Africa, in places like Senegal...The result is severe food shortages for those living along the coast."

Traditional fishing methods that may have sustained families, clans, villages and towns for centuries are no longer any match for the mechanized trawlers that are often raiding these waters illegally. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates there are some "700 foreign-owned vessels that are fully engaged in unlicensed fishing in Somali waters."

As if this isn't bad enough, African fishermen also have to deal with another by-product of globalization--the dumping of hazardous waste off their coastlines. An Oct 2008 report from the Chicago Tribune noted that in the early 1990s, "Somalia's unpatrolled waters became a cost-free dumping ground for industrial waste from Europe." In a seeming double-insult, Italian fishing boats reportedly ferried "barrels of toxic materials to Somalia's shores and then returned home laden with illicit catches of fish." As recently as 2005, rusting containers of hazardous waste were washing up on Somali beaches. This has happened elsewhere along Africa's sprawling and oft-unprotected shorelines--most notably the infamous 2006 toxic waste dumping off the Ivory Coast that killed dozens and made hundreds more sick--as poor nations are unable (or at times unwilling) to declare the sovereignty of their waters from the richer global giants who directly and indirectly control their economies. For the fractured and decentralized Somalia, protecting its waters has been impossible. The UN has made previous reprimands for these activities, but mostly they have gone unheeded.

Today, much like their earlier counterparts, those who made their life on the sea and now find themselves squeezed out by an exploitative global system, have taken to piracy--deciding that if they can no longer draw in fish, they'll go for much larger catch.

According to BBC Somalia analyst Mohamed Mohamed, the pirate gangs that operate out of Somlia are headed primarily by such ex-fishermen. They are considered the "brains" of the operation--the ones who have spent their lives at sea, know best how to operate vessels and better still, how to navigate the waterways. These ex-fisherman have joined forces with the normally landlocked dispossessed, the notorious Somali militiamen, of the type that fought US elite ranger forces to an eventual draw in the 1990s. With these armed mercenaries as muscle, the ex-fishermen then enlist the aid of what Mohamed says are "technical experts...the computer geeks and know how to operate the hi-tech equipment needed to operate as a pirate -- satellite phones, GPS and military hardware." Though rag-tag in appearance, and pushed into piracy by a similar crush of exploitative social forces as the pirates of old, these sea-brigands are a definitive spin-off of the modern world--or perhaps those who have settled to operate on its fringes.

The New York Times back in September 2008 took some time to shed light on the turn of these fishermen to pirates:

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. “From there, they got greedy,” said Mohamed Osman Aden, a Somali diplomat in Kenya. “They starting attacking everyone.”

Indeed, greed or revenge, the money gained from these operations is no chump change. In 2008, a report by the British think-tank Chatham House claimed Somali pirates had cost up to $30m (£17m) in ransoms that year alone. Yet it should be pointed out, this money has to be put into perspective, as those foreigners illegally fishing and dumping in Somali waters extract much more from the local peoples than they [in the form of other vessels that fly their flags] are forced--at gunpoint--to return.

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, calls it a an uneven resource swap. "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."

And where is this ransom money going? It would seem throughout Somalia, and back to wherever the pirates hail from. Buildings and other forms of instrastructure, lacking in the shattered country, are now being financed by pirate money. Even Somali merchants in "legitimate businesses" are now relying on pirates for loans.

Make no doubt, these pirates aren't merely Robin Hoods, and they flaunt their ill-gotten gains. The BBC interviewed residents in the Somali region of Puntland, where most of the pirates come from, who claim they live a lavish life--at least in comparison to others.

"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."

But this marriage of ex-fisherman and a brigand's lifestyle has its drawbacks. Young men with little occupational alternatives now flock to the coastline to join the pirate ranks. And weapons--already too numerous in the country--are now flowing along with the cash, both deemed as essential tools of the trade. As the BBC found out in their interviews of locals, not everyone is enamored by the emerging "hydrarchy."

Mohamed Hassan, living in the midst of the piracy trade, worries over the "hundreds of armed men" arriving from the interior of Somlia to join the pirates. Piracy he notes has also thrown the local economy into disarray, as the pumping of "huge amounts of US dollars" causes exchange rates to fluctuate.

"This piracy has a negative impact on several aspects of our life in Garowe," he says. "They promote the use of drugs -- chewing khat (a stimulant which keeps one alert) and smoking hashish -- and alcohol."

In the past pirates were treated with scorn by the global system they threatened to disrupt. Painted as a motely, multi-racial, anarchic rabble, what historians Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh have called "a many-headed hydra," pirates became pariahs of the first order. Thousands were captured and hanged immediately throughout the Atlantic, as even competing empires (who were not above using pirates for their own use), sometimes joined ranks to crush this growing menace.

Today's pirates, particularly the ones out of Somalia--made famous with their daring hijackings and multi-million dollar ransoms--have garnered the same international scorn. From oil-wealthy Arab states to rich global players, the Somali pirates have been decried as a threat second only to al-Qaeda. Seeming to know well how they are perceived, some have taken to the airwaves, painting themselves (much as pirates in past history) as rebels against the existing order.

“We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits,” pirate spokesman Sugule Ali said in a 45-minute interview on Somali radio in September 2008. “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.”

As related by Ali, ships aren't specifically targeted because of any known cargo--as was the case of the Ukranian freighter carrying $30 million worth of heavy weaponry back in 2008, or the recent attempted seizure of a US freighter carrying (ironically enough) food aid for Somalia and Uganda--but merely because of their size, foreign nature and presence.

"We just saw a big ship," Ali said of the Ukranian freighter in 2008, "So we stopped it." As for the heavy weapons on the freighter, Ali assured that they prized their ransom over artillery.

"Somalia has suffered from many years of destruction because of all these weapons," he said. "We don’t want that suffering and chaos to continue. We are not going to offload the weapons. We just want the money."

Reporter Paul Salopek at the Chicago Tribune, examining the pirates claims, took a tongue-in-cheek look at what admittedly was a bizarre incident on the global stage:

Somalia's pirates want the world to know they are regrettably misunderstood. They are merely "gentlemen who work in the ocean." Indeed, many are salty patriots risking their lives at sea while "protecting Somalia's shores." And the sea — ah, she is the pirates' beloved "mother."

Salopek goes on to relate more on what he calls the "aggrieved buccaneer" who identified himself as a spokesman for the "Ocean Salvation Corps." He stated that "he and his men were merely exacting a tax for years of foreign poaching in Somalia's fish-rich waters."

Though at times humorous, Salopek was brought to ask a profound question. In this increasing spate of hijackings and brigandry on the high seas by the global poor upon the global rich, in the larger picture just "who is pirating who?"


Update- 04/10/09

Jeremey Schahill at Alternet notes that a nuclear powered warship and a destroyer are now all headed off to Somalia after pirates hijack a ship with "food aid" that also happens to belong to a U.S. Department of Defense contractor with "top security clearance," which does a half-billion dollars in annual business with the Pentagon. Hmm. That must be some interesting "food aid."
The Somali pirates who took control of the 17,000-ton "Maersk Alabama" cargo-ship in the early hours of Wednesday morning probably were unaware that the ship they were boarding belonged to a U.S. Department of Defense contractor with "top security clearance," which does a half-billion dollars in annual business with the Pentagon, primarily the Navy. The ship was being operated by an "all-American" crew -- there were 20 U.S. nationals on the ship. "Every indication is that this is the first time a U.S.-flagged ship has been successfully seized by pirates," said Lt. Nathan Christensen, a spokesperson for for the U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet. The last documented pirate attack of a U.S. vessel by African pirates was reported in 1804, off Libya, according to The Los Angeles Times.

The company, A.P. Moller-Maersk, is a Denmark-based company with a large U.S. subsidiary, Maersk Line, Ltd, that serves U.S. government agencies and contractors. The company, which is based in Norfolk, Virginia, runs the world's largest fleet of U.S.-flag vessels. The "Alabama" was about 300 miles off the coast of the Puntland region of northern Somalia when it was taken. The U.S. military says the Alabama was not operating on a DoD contract at the time and was said to be delivering food aid.

Read full article here.



3 comments:

Chaz Kyser said...

Thanks for making the world look even more bleak. Great post.

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