The European roots of Somali piracy

21.04.09 @ 10:49

  1. By Leigh Phillips

As global powers ratchet up the naval pressure off the coast of Somalia and the European Union this week prepares to play host to a major international conference on the growing scourge of piracy, very little attention is being paid to the other 'piracy' in the area - the decades of European illegal fishing and dumping of toxic waste in Somali waters.

  • A helicopter surveys the Somali coastline (Photo: wikipedia)

The Brussels conference - to take place on Wednesday (22 April) and Thursday - will for the most part be a donors' conference that EU foreign affairs spokeswoman Cristina Gallach predicts will raise in the region of €200 million to bolster Somalia's anaemic security forces.

Top EU officials, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the heads of the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the commanders of the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia and the EU anti-piracy flotilla will attend.

Most likely absent from the meeting will be any discussion of the role that years and years of European illegal activities have had in the origins of the piracy crisis.

For any consideration of the roots of the problem, one must instead speak to Somalis themselves, environmental analysts, human rights campaigners and aid workers on the ground who are warning that unless the underlying causes are tackled, navies from the wealthier nations will only find themselves caught in another expensive, unwinnable guerilla war - except this time at sea instead of in the cities of the Middle East or the mountains of Central Asia.

State failure

"The piracy is just one aspect, the symptom, of a wider, huge crisis in the country," Andrea Pattison, with development NGO Oxfam in Somalia, told EUobserver.

Some 43 percent of the population, or over 3.2 million people, are in desperate need of aid and the situation is worsening because of extreme insecurity, four consecutive years of failed rains deepening the drought in large parts of the country and record high food prices limiting people's access to basic food and shelter.

The UN has described the level of human suffering and deprivation in Somalia as "shocking." Acute malnutrition rates across most of south and central Somalia are above the 15 percent emergency threshold, and only 29 percent of Somalia's population has access to clean drinking water, according to UNICEF.

"While the world has been quick to deal with the issue of piracy – the same cannot be said for action to deal with the humanitarian catastrophe engulfing nearly half of Somalia's population. It's time to show the same urgency about alleviating the suffering of millions of people," Ms Pattison said.

The organisation believes that it is this crisis and the ongoing attacks on aid workers - some 40 have been killed since the beginning of 2008 - that should be top of the agenda, "not the threat to commercial interests from piracy off the Somali coast."

Where the tuna is plentiful and lucrative

Analysts who have experience of the country that significantly predates the current crisis are frustrated with the way the story has been told so far in the media and with the bellicose rhetoric of politicians.

One local analyst, who preferred not to be named due to the security situation in the country, told this website: "The context that brought the situation about is utterly missing from almost all the discourse about the piracy problem, and that is the responsibility of European boats, particularly Spanish trawlers, who were fishing illegally in Somali waters."

Off the coast of northern Somalia particularly, the tuna stocks are plentiful and very lucrative, she recounted. The illegal fishers sell on their catch to Japan and other eastern markets.

"Initially, Somalis were reacting to this," said the analyst. "You find people here who will say: 'You know, kind of fair enough. They're only protecting what's theirs.'

"This has probably developed into something a bit different now - more political and of course money-making."

"But it has to be understood that Somalia has been without a functioning government for 20 years and is basically a war economy, so if people are pushed into this to survive, well, why wouldn't they?"

Oceana, the environmental group that focuses on threats to the sea, has long been studying illegal fishing in the region.

According to the group, within Somalia's exclusive economic zone waters, or EEZ, EU-flagged tuna vessels, particularly from Spain, regularly headed there to fish until 2006 when the pirate threat made it too dangerous. These fishing firms engaged in such practices even though there had not been any agreement negotiated between Somalia and the European Commission.

The Spanish boats claimed what they were doing was legal because they had signed private agreements with Somali "officials" or companies. However, it is up to the European Commission to negotiate fishing agreements with countries beyond the EU. This is currently the case with a number of African countries. As a result, from an EU perspective, no European fishing should be happening in Somali waters.

"The commission closed its eyes to this knowingly," Anne Schoeer, of the group's Madrid office, told this website. "They were aware that Spanish boats were signing these private deals, which some analysts call 'protection money,' with the warlords."

A 2005 report from the Marine Resources Assessment Group (MRAG) for the UK government shows that the Somali economy loses an estimated €73 million a year due to illegal fishing. Other estimates put the figure as high as €230 million a year. On an annual basis, anywhere from 700 to more than a thousand boats have fished illegally since 1991 in the country's waters.

It is not only Europe that is responsible: ships from Taiwan, China, South Korea, Thailand, Yemen and Kenya have also engaged in illegal fishing, according to Somali experts, but since 2006, this has declined as it is too risky to get close to the coast. Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero put an end to the practice in the same year, as his government said it could not provide protection.

Flags of convenience

Nathalie Charboneau, the European Commission's fisheries spokesperson, says that they are in touch with the member states "including the Spanish authorities on a very regular basis." According to her, the Spanish authorities have informed the commission that the Spanish fishing community receives strict instructions not to transgress the Somali EEZ.

She denies that European illegal fishing remains a problem. "The commission does regular monitoring of VMS [vessel monitoring system] data from European fishing vessels and data records show that from 2005 to 2008 there were very few entries into Somali space."

"Particular attention will be paid to analysing future records in depth to assess whether incursions are taking place, if illegal fishing is going on and to what extent this can be curbed," she said. "If incursions are spotted, relevant authorities will be asked for explanations."

Though quibbling with the dates, Oceana recognises that since 2006 there have been no reports of EU-flagged vessels in Somali waters - essentially as a result of the piracy.

However, illegal fishing by European-owned boats with flags of convenience continues to be reported - particularly Greek ships. According to the Somali Marine & Coastal Monitor update from April, these vessels belong to the Greek firm Greco Ltd. and have reportedly flown Cambodian and Panamanian flags.

Earlier this month, Abdirahman Ibbi, the deputy prime minister and minister of fisheries and marine resources in the new Somali national unity government, said that an estimated 220 foreign-owned vessels were still engaged in unlicensed and illegal fishing in Somali waters, most of them of European origin.

Ms Schoeer wants the commission to advise European governments to take action against their nationals and companies that are engaged in illegal fishing and make sure tuna imports from the Indian Ocean are coming only from legal and licensed fisheries. Her group also wants the EU to help African countries to set up monitoring and control systems that guarantee only legal fishing takes place.

Gustavo Carvalho, a researcher with Global Witness, a London-based NGO that focuses on human rights violations that are related to resource extraction, is scathing about the apparent unwillingness of European authorities to tackle this other form of 'piracy.'

"The current 'piracy crisis' has raised attention about Somali waters but the historical actions of illegal fishing in the region have been flagrantly ignored," he says, noting that such actions frequently take place with the use of heavily armed support.

He says that the countries with strong economic interests in the region's fishing market are also among those most active in pushing for anti-piracy actions in both in the EU and the UN, pointing to Spain and France in particular.

According to Mr Carvalho, one side-effect of the piracy is a reduction in the amount of illegal fishing. "Why would someone buy an illegal fishing licence if there is still the threat of being hijacked by a pirate?"

Dumping ground

But Somalis did not turn to armed conflict at sea only as a way to combat illegal fishing. This irregular, self-styled coast guard also set out to put an end to widespread use of their waters as essentially an exceedingly cheap landfill, scrap yard, toilet and nuclear storage site all rolled into one by foreign ships that have been dumping industrial, medical and even radioactive waste.

As early as 2005, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warned that the vicious tsunami of the previous December had broken up tonnes of rusting barrels of such waste illegally that had been dumped in the country's waters for years.

Some 300 people died at the time from contact with the waste, while others, according to a UN report, notably in the regions near the northeastern coastal towns of Hobbio and Benadir, were afflicted with a range of respiratory and skin infections, mouth ulcers and bleeding, and abdominal haemorrhages at rates far above normal.

When this began to happen, UNEP spokesman Nick Nuttal placed the blame squarely on European firms, saying that Somalia has been used as a dumping ground for hazardous waste from the early 1990s and continuing through the civil war.

"European companies found it to be very cheap to get rid of waste there, costing as little as $2.50 a ton where disposal costs in Europe are something like $250 a ton," he said, detailing the many different kinds of waste: lead, heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury, and industrial, hospital and chemical waste.

Over a decade ago, from 1997 to 1998, Greenpeace Italy and the Famiglia Cristiana newspaper uncovered evidence that Swiss-based Achair Partners and Progresso, an Italian waste broker had signed agreements with warlord Ali Mahdi to dump hazardous waste in Somali waters.

It was the twin scourges of illegal fishing and toxic waste dumping, together with the almost total collapse of governance in the country that combined to foster the piracy that the EU flotilla and the navies of other industrialised nations are now battling.

In the absence of any Somali coast guard, young vigilante fishermen took on the task themselves - even calling themselves the "National Volunteer Coast Guard" (NVCG), or the "Somali Marines." Arming themselves, they intercepted the commercial fishing fleets and toxic dumpers and levied 'taxes' on passing ships, acts which later evolved into kidnapping and demanding ransoms.

The ransoms that the pirates collect have even delivered mini economic booms to some towns. The "pirate economy" has transformed these areas, where people are now able to buy food, schooling and generators to provide them with electricity.

No Robin Hoods of the waves

Nevertheless, while illegal fishing and toxic waste dumping together combine with state failure as the root causes of the piracy, it is important not to romanticise the pirates as some Robin Hoods of the waves, warns Ali Abdulahi, a Somali analyst and CEO of a local management advisory firm, Amsas Consulting.

"Somalis have been catapulted into piracy by the illegal fishing and toxic waste dumping," he told EUobserver. "However, there are two types of pirates, the first is a criminal element and the second are the original fishermen who have been displaced by the illegal fishing. But when you combine the two, it is very hard to distinguish one from the other, given the thousands of boats involved."

After Somali warlords began to notice the profitability of piracy and the delivery of ransoms, they soon got into the game.

Abdi Ismail Samatar, a professor of geography at the University of Minnesota who has written widely on the political economy of the Horn of Africa, agrees with the businessman.

"There is a diverse opinion about the pirates amongst Somalis," he says. "By and large, whether warlords or hijackers, most Somalis consider them criminals, but there is a wide gulf between this opinion and going so far as to support the military response of industrialised nations.

"Somalis are not sympathetic to the international community because in the past the international community has not been sympathetic to them."

The two also agree that the armada that has been sent to take on the pirates will only exacerbate the situation.

A preferable course of action would be programmes that bring aid and security to Somalia by engaging civil society actors "rather than warlords or regional dictators, selecting Somali favourites or supporting the Ethiopian occupation," said Mr Samatar, referring to the 2006 Western-backed invasion of the country.

Bringing security to the country would bring security to the coasts as well, he argues. "Within a year, the coast would be secure - I'm convinced."

Can't dwell on the past

The UN Special Representative in Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, says that Europe does indeed have a lot to answer for, but he also says that recognising the problems of illegal fishing and toxic dumping and understanding the need for the EU's naval mission are not mutually exclusive.

Ahead of a meeting in Mombasa, Kenya, with the high command of the EU's Atalanta mission, Mr Ould-Abdallah told this website he has been raising concerns about the issues for some time.

"There is no doubt that there is illegal fishing from Asia, Europe, but dwelling on this isn't helping," he added. "So I also say that the international naval presence is very, very welcome. It deserves to be supported, enhanced and increased."

"But there must be linkages between the military solution and the humanitarian solution. It cannot be military alone."

He lamented that some young people support or even join the pirates: "I have great respect for their frustration, but in no country can the law be taken into the hands of individuals. Rather, it is the state that must tackle these problems."

Meanwhile, illegal fishing and toxic dumping are not on the radar of the European Union's chief diplomat, Javier Solana.

"I am not aware of any specific issues of illegal fishing and this is the first time I have heard of any toxic dumping," said his spokeswoman, Cristina Gallach.

"This is not to say this is not happening, but we have no information about this," she continued, adding that she had not heard that the UN Special Representative in Somalia had complained about the two issues.

But it is the overarching issue of state failure that the Brussels international donors' conference aims to deal with, she said.

"The flotilla is there not just to deter and repress pirates, but also fundamentally to help humanitarian actions, to escort aid vessels and to escort ships supplying AU forces."

She said that 20 World Food Programme vessels have been escorted to port by EU forces since last December, delivering 120,000 tonnes of food which in turn has fed, on average, more than 1.6 million people each day.

Mr Samatar worries nevertheless that such humanitarian escorts are an afterthought and that the flotilla is more concerned about protecting the precious cargo that passes through the region's transit corridor, a vital link in world trade.

"I've often said that this option is the equivalent of trying to fight a guerilla war with a conventional army. And we know from Iraq and from history that this just doesn't work - guerilla wars last forever, unless you absolutely inundate the area with ships, which will only end up turning more people against them - you will not be able to contain it.

"Without solving the root causes of the piracy, it will not go away, so how long do the world's navies intend to stay there?"