The Environmental Roots of the “Somali Pirate Crisis”

February 13th, 2009 - by admin

EcoTerra International – 2009-02-13 22:41:58

Special to Environmentalists Against War

The Environmental Roots of the “Somali Pirate Crisis”
EcoTerra International

ECOTERRA International, whose work does focus on nature- and human-rights-protection and — as the last international environmental organization still working in Somalia — had alerted ship-owners since 1992, many of whom were fishing illegally in the 200 nm Exclusive Economic Zone, to stay away from Somali waters.

The non-governmental organization had requested the international community many times for help to protect the coastal waters of the war-torn state, but now lawlessness has seriously increased and gone out of hand. Funding requests for marine surveillance and coastal monitoring, the development of fishing cooperatives and the rehabilitation of legal fishing activities were never met, neither by the EU nor the UN.

Since no appropriate help to assist Somali fishing communities or the numerous governance attempts was forthcoming to protect and regulate the Somali waters, organized crime dealing with fake fishing licences first and later engaging in the hi-jacking of commercial vessels has in the meantime taken over the scene.

In co-operation with UNOSOM first and later the Regional Seas Programme, Somali governance and the non-governmental group have proven many times that it is possible to implement safeguards and work on proper development, but the selfish interests of the international fishing industry, of criminal organizations working in toxic and even nuclear waste dumping combined with the interests of local warlords with their far bigger financial resources created the present turmoil.

Already in 1993/4 ECOTERRA Intl. discussed the whole issue of marine safety, illegal fishing, toxic dumping etc. with U.S. Admiral Jonathan T. Howe, even up front during his visit to Garowe (not far from the today’s pirate hotspot of Eyl), predicted the developments exactly as we see them today and proposed solutions.

Admiral Howe was the Special Representative for Somalia to United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali from March 9, 1993 until his resignation in February 1994 — but nothing was done, not by the UN and not by the U.S. It is a pure act of hypocrisy by the IMB, IMO and others to issue a warning on piracy along the Somali coast and suggest strong action while they remained silent when foreign vessels were exploiting Somali fish resources illegally and even dumping toxic waste into the country’s waters.

To combat the situation today will cost the international community many more million USD as would have been required to set up and maintain proper coastal and marine management in those days. Likewise the EU was simply deaf to listen to the proposals but was afraid that marine monitoring would expose the misdeeds of their own fishing fleet in Somali waters.

Mme. Emma Bonino, the Somali-born Italian was at a certain time holding two offices in the European Commission — High Commissioner of Fisheries and Head of the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) — she tried very hard to secure illegal fishing deals with Somali warlords to benefit the European fishing fleet coercing the Somalis into such ventures with her other, the “humanitarian aid” hand.

She only gave up after being shot at near Kisimayu after Somalis had learned about her clandestine deals involving millions of dollars in benefits reaped from the Somali waters. Later she was investigated by the European Commission and allowed to retire from her work for the European offices.

The European Union, masterminding the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), has currently at least over 255 fishing vessels “authorized” to hunt the precious commodities (Spain — 160 vessels, France — 75 vessels, Portugal — 17 vessels, UK — 2 vessels, Italy — 1).

Specifically Spanish trawlers with West African crews habitually and illicitly reap the rich harvest of fish off the unprotected Somali coast. It is, literally, daylight robbery on a massive scale. They put nothing into the Somali economy, such as it is, but take a great deal from it. Before Somalia descended into chaos, 30,000 fishermen made their livings from the sea. But they can’t compete with the modern, foreign vessels, and there is no one to keep the commercial fish pirates out.

A number of European companies have dumped toxic and nuclear waste in those same waters, polluting the fishing grounds and the beaches. Such dumping along the Ivory Coast led to at least 17 deaths and widespread health problems — but at least that case was investigated and the culprit, the Dutch company Trafigura, identified, while in Somalia most such cases go unreported, uninvestigated and unpunished.

Pirates aboard the MV Faina claim that they want to use the ransom money to clean up the Somali coastline. It’s easy to dismiss such claims as merely an excuse to continue a very profitable business but the fact remains that complaints about illegal fishing and dumping of toxic waste have been ignored and while no government has condoned these activities none have taken an active stand against it.

Ould-Abdallah, UN special envoy to Somalia, claims the practice still continues. “What is most alarming here is that nuclear waste is being dumped. Radioactive uranium waste that is potentially killing Somalis and completely destroying the ocean,” he said. There are apparently legal reasons for not naming the companies involved in waste dumping.

The practice helps fuel the 18-year-old civil war in Somalia as companies are paying Somali government ministers to dump their waste, or to secure licenses and contracts. Also there are ethical questions to be considered because the companies are negotiating contracts with a government that is largely divided along tribal lines.

“How can you negotiate these dealings with a country at war and with a government struggling to remain relevant?” Cashing in around US$1,000 a tonne for “safe” waste disposal costs European companies found it to be very cheap to get rid of the waste, costing as little as US$ 2.50 a tonne.

In 1992, a contract to secure the dumping of toxic waste was made by Swiss and Italian shipping firms Achair Partners and Progresso, with Nur Elmi Osman, a former official appointed to the government of Ali Mahdi Mohamed, one of many militia leaders involved in the ousting of Mohamed Siad Barre, Somalia’s former president.

The UNEP investigated the matter at the request of the Swiss and Italian governments. Both firms had denied entering into any agreement with militia leaders at the beginning of the Somali civil war.

“At the time, it felt like we were dealing with the Mafia, or some sort of organised crime group, possibly working with these industrial firms,” Mustafa Tolba, the former UNEP executive director said, who assisted in shielding the environmental specialists from an NGO, who reported one of the first incidences in the year 1988, because two people were killed mafia-style after the case was exposed. “It was very shady, and quite underground, and I would agree with Ould-Abdallah’s claims that it is still going on… Unfortunately the war has not allowed environmental groups to investigate this fully.”

In the years since the downfall of the Siad Barre government in January 1991 and up to 2003, every year more than 800 illegal vessels from Kenya, Spain, Italy, Japan, South Korea, China and other nations were exploiting Somalia’s coastline. Trawlers from more than 16 different nations were recorded within Somali waters – many of them armed. No royalties were paid, no benefits for the population derived from their resource. Many cases are documented, but justice is not done until today.

Trawlers from the Far-East became specifically infamous among the poor artisanal fishing communities along the Somali coasts, because thousands of their fishing nets, donated by UNDP, ICRC and aid organizations where scooped up or destroyed by these vessels coming even into the shallow waters during their vacuum-cleaning swoops.

A serious decline in illegal fishing and piracy was only achieved during the short period of the UIC ruling in 2006. Today it is not much better than it was before, though the upsurge in “piracy” has caused since the end of 2007 again a serious decline in illegal foreign fishing fleets entering the Somali EEZ. The UIC successor ARS is now in the process to revive good marine governance.

The method of hosing down the protesting little Somali fishermen with hot-water was a kind of sport engaged in by the bigger, much better equipped Tuna, Shark-fin, Lobster and Shrimp fishing fleets often operated by Russians and/or former Soviet Union crewmen which work for Asian businessmen such as Chinese, Taiwanese, Philippines, Pakistanis, Indians, and European Union states like Spain and Italy.

It was not a laughing matter for the Somali fishermen, who were no match for the much better equipped trawlers that were illegally fishing in the undefended and unregulated waters of Somalia. There were daily deaths and funerals among many fishing villages and towns dotted along the Somali coastline , which even got an own Somali term for the cause of death: Translated it stands for “hosed by hot water”. These mega ships were fishing and processing at the same time and any competition from the villagers were treated ruthlessly.

Some Somali shores became uninhabitable because some of the ships were throwing thousands of Shark carcasses into the sea after their valuable fins had been cut off. The mutilated dead bodies of these majestic sharks were coming into shore and decayed on the village beaches. The smell was terrible and many residents were getting sick due to infections carried by flies from the rotting carcasses. The residents of the coastal towns such as Garacad, Jariiban, Idaan etc. suffered severely.

An entire shoreline could look like red for entire days; this was not blood but floating lobster-eggs shaven from the processing of Lobster tails for the rich clients mainly in Kenya and Dubai. This indiscriminate lobster harvesting during wrong times, when the female Lobsters carry eggs and the forbidden taking of female lobsters with eggs caused the villagers to go hungry because the marine creatures were depleted by these ruthless commercial fishing practices neglecting any laws of legal fishing or cultural habits.

The Somali captors therefore maintain the ransoms are in lieu of taxes and license fees and reparations for illegal fishing and dumping of toxic waste. The piracy problem started small, with fishermen boarding trawlers that they said had no right to be in Somali waters.

Those claims are backed by the U.N. envoy to Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, who said international companies have exploited Somali fishing grounds. “I think Somalis are right to complain of illegal fishing, to complain of dumping of waste, but no individual has a right to police the Somali coast,” he said, though local coastal communities see this differently and claim their right to self-defence. Ahmedou Ould-Abdallahtold

The Independent’s Johann Hari: “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 the reporter 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.”

Already the community of Somalia most famous and best fishermen, the Bajuni from coastal Southern Somalia — a people of Shirazi origin — are nearly extinct. Many had to flee violence among the Somali clans and languish in UNHCR refugee camps, along the Kenya coast or rescued in Canada and similar countries sympathetic to the plight of Somali refugees.

Their history of oppression actually goes further back when they were forcefully driven of their Bajuni Islands just north of the Kenya-Somali border by the Russians in 1973, who in those days brought to Somalia their kind of “law and order”.

The extremely impoverished local people can do nothing against the pirates. The Puntland authorities say they are not able to curb the menace. Naval commando operations or military interventions against the pirated vessels most likely will risk the lives of the hostages. Usually the hostages were released unharmed after a ransom is paid.

However, so far only one execution of a hostage (Chinese) has ever taken place. Maritime shipping companies were warned since years not to pay ransom, but especially the operators of clandestine shipments always paid. Now the renegade pirate groups got used to that, became much more sophisticated and the problem is spiralling out of any proportion.

What started as a self-defence by the Somali people against the rampant illegal fishing by international fleets in their waters has now turned into the criminal and cruel business with links to the international, organized crime-scene. Tourist ships or Yachts never ever had been attacked until a French Yacht had engaged in illegal underwater-archaeology during the nineties and robbed artefacts worth millions of dollars just off the shore from today’s Puntland, publicizing this triumphantly in Djibouti to the international press. Since then also sailing ships are attacked.

Commercial satellite imagery may also be a tool for treasure hunters. A musician from Los Angeles for example claims that he used Google to spot a buried treasure in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of south Texas, according to a recent report by the Houston Chronicle.

The treasure hunter has asked a U.S. federal court to allow him to pursue the find, which he says may be a 19th century boat and its cargo of gold and silver. In Somalia nobody would ask and the Somali authorities have complained that they do not know what armed research vessels under the present naval protection are actually doing in their waters.

While the global transportation industry cries foul and the Western and Eastern countries alike are sending navy fleets, one must recognize the illegal fishing vessels should also get the same treatment as the pirates. Remember Somalia has no real government since 1991 and there is no entity company, country or otherwise that has a license to fish in Somali waters.

Any industrial fishing vessel within the 200nm Exclusive Economic Zone of Somalia, protected by the United Nations Common Law on the Sea, must be treated as a pirate as they are the root cause of the present problem. If such equal justice is not done, the problem will always remain and get worse.

When it comes to piracy, Somalis are on balance the victims rather than the perpetrators. It is estimated that Europeans and Asians poach $300 million from Somali fisheries each year. Somalia’s armed sailors could extort about one-third that amount — US $100 million — from the owners of captured ships, though in the moment they are only realizing around US $ 30 million.

So, who are the real pirates? Somali pirates are sophisticated, well trained and smart, but they have only managed to regain one third of what has been stolen or vandalized. “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.”

“They want to silence me, it is obvious,” said Andrew Mwangura, the Kenya chapter chairman of the East African Seafarers Assistance Programme. Mwangura stated authorities in the region were turning a blind eye to illegal fishing, toxic dumping, drug- and gun-running, illegal charcoal shipments, and human trafficking in Somali waters that were all indirectly fuelling lawlessness and piracy.

“All these businesses inter-link. A foreign ship pays a warlord to be allowed to fish illegally off Somalia, and that money then funds at the end also piracy,” he said. “But when you start denouncing these things, powerful people get upset because you are spoiling their game.”

During the recent years an average of 109 foreign vessels used Mombasa port as base to fish illegally into the Somali waters and ripped an estimated 84,000 tonnes of seafood from the Somali nation. A staggering one third of the world’s protein comes from fish. But 11of the 15 world’s major ocean fishing grounds are seriously depleted — Somalia being now one of them, but the poaching continues.

With no slackening in the pace at which the seas are being over-fished, increasingly inland freshwater fisheries are taking up the slack, but the world freshwater ecosystems decline even more rapidly as can be seen in the case of East-Africa’s Lake Victoria.

The annual consequential costs due to over-fishing of the oceans have reached 50 billion dollars, as calculated by the World Bank and FAO. While losses at Wall Street due to the present credit crunch have so far been calculated to stand at 1.5 billion dollars, allowing financial institutions and bankers to be “rescued” by a 700 billion dollar rescue program — using taxpayers’s money, nothing is done to rescue the oceans.

A recent briefing paper by the Royal Institute of International Affairs concluded, “The most powerful weapon against piracy will be peace and opportunity in Somalia, coupled with an effective and reliable police force and judiciary.”

Piracy is only a symptom of the power vacuum inside Somalia. The only period during which piracy virtually vanished was during the six months of rule by the Islamic Courts Union in the second half of 2006. After the ICU was overthrown by US-backed Ethiopian troops in January 2007, piracy quickly re-emerged, with the average ransom tripling over this period.

Despite the breakdown of civil society, Somalia still has international legal responsibilities to treaties it became party to, e.g., CITES, UNCLOS, and the Nairobi and Jeddah Regional Seas Conventions. However, this responsibility is a hollow one since Somalia is in no position to provide responsible governance and live up to its international civic commitments. Resolution of the situation therefore raises questions regarding roles of international obligations and regional cooperation in marine resource management in a legal and institutional vacuum.

The challenge is to produce a regional institutional proposal to deal with the situation. At a marine conference in Cape Town, South Africa on 3 December 1998, the UN Secretary General urged African governments to unite to protect their marine and coastal environments. Kofi Annan said African participation in global efforts to protect marine resources was vital and he promised UN support.

At the same conference, the deputy Secretary General of the Organization for African Unity (OAU), Ahmed Haggag, said that African countries had to prevent non-African countries plundering their coastal resources, and while referring to Somalia and its 200nm EEZ along a 3,300 km long coastline, he emphasized that solutions must come from within the region.

A coalition of 52 aid agencies issued in October 2008 a statement saying the international community had “completely failed Somali civilians”. The aid groups estimated that almost 40,000 people had been displaced from Mogadishu in the last few weeks, with 1.1 million uprooted in the last nine months, while Human Right Watch said Somalia was the most ignored tragedy in the world.

With over three million Somalis in danger of starvation the free world has made a plunder of their help to Somalia. Over a million Somalis have fled their country in the past decade. Kenya alone has over 200,000 Somali refugees. So far this year, about 22,000 have made the dangerous trip across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen.

Most foreign aid workers can not work inside Somalia in the moment, to avoid kidnappers and bandits who see foreigners as valuable for their potential ransom. The Somali officials that replace the foreigners are vulnerable to threats from warlords, who want to steal aid for resale, or simply kidnap the officials and extract a large ransom from the aid agency.

On 20 October 2008, with support from the Swedish Government represented by Gunilla Carlsson, Minister for International Development Co-operation, a preparatory meeting for the international Somalia donors conference was held in Stockholm, leading to a United Nations and World Bank planned international fund-raising conference in early 2009 to seek more financial assistance for Somalia for the implementation of a recovery programme.

An estimated 17 million people are in need of emergency food assistance and over 25 million are food insecure in the Horn, Esat and Central Africa regions, Oxfam said on Monday. Oxfam’s Regional Campaigns Manager Michael O’Brien told journalists in Nairobi that about 2.5 million Burundians are receiving humanitarian assistance and or at risk of food insecurity by last year. O’Brien said recent price increases following the harvest are of particular concern as this should be when prices are at their lowest.

“The climate change and global financial recession which are going to continue in the foreseeable future will affect food security across the region. These will make hunger worse,” O’Brien said according to Xinhua. “Across the Great Rift Valley and the Horn of Africa, it had been hoped that the near to normal October-December rains will ease pasture shortages, replenish water resources and improve livestock conditions and pastoral terms of trade in Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and Djibouti.

Unfortunately, the rains were not adequate and overall, pastoral food security may not improve significantly in 2009,” he said. O’Brien called on governments in the Horn, East and Central Africa to ensure the realization of the right to food and social protection of people living in extreme poverty.

ECOTERRA members with marine and maritime expertise, joined by it’s ECOP-marine group, are closely and continuously monitoring and advising on the Somali situation. The network of the Seafarers Association Programme (SAP) helped significantly in most sea-jack cases.

ECOTERRA Intl. is working in Somalia since 1986 on humanrights and nature protection, while ECOP-marine concentrates on illegal fishing and the protection of the marine ecosystems. Your support counts too. Please consider to contribute to the work of the SAP, ECOP-marine or ECOTERRA Intl. and donate to the defense fund.

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