Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Who are the real pirates?

The recent release of the new Tom Hanks movie Captain Phillips about the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama has brought the issue of the Somalia piracy once again to public notice. The film,Captain Phillips, fails to give any serious explanation for why there are pirates operating off the coast of Somalia. At a more personal level, Phillips is accused by ship’s chief engineer that “it was the captain’s recklessness that steered them into pirate-infested waters.” Crew-members said that Phillips pursued this dangerous route in order to save money. Now the crew is suing the shipping corporation for putting them in harm’s way.

It may well be useful to re-post a few Socialist Party blogs for background information on the reasons for the pirate problem off the coast of Somalia.

The closest Somali translation of the word is burcad badeed, which literally means "ocean robber". Boyah and his brothers-in-arms do not like to call themselves "pirates" in their native tongue. They referred to themselves as badaadinta badah, "saviours of the sea", a term that is most often translated in the English-speaking media as "coastguard". To him, his actions had been in protection of his sea, the native waters he had known his whole life; his hijackings, a legitimate form of taxation levied in absentia on behalf of a defunct government that he represented in spirit, if not in law.

In 1994, he still worked as an artisanal lobster diver in Eyl. Since then, the lobster population off the coast of Eyl has been devastated by foreign fishing fleets – mostly Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean ships, Boyah said. Using steel-pronged drag fishing nets, these foreign trawlers did not bother with nimble explorations of the reefs: they uprooted them, netting the future livelihood of the nearby coastal people along with the day's catch. Today, according to Boyah, there are no more lobsters to be found in the waters off Eyl. So he began to fish a different species.

From 1995 to 1997, Boyah and others captured three foreign fishing vessels, keeping the catch and ransoming the crew. By 1997, the foreign fishing fleets had become more challenging prey, entering into protection contracts with local warlords that made armed guards and anti-aircraft guns regular fixtures on the decks of their ships. So, like all successful hunters, Boyah and his men adapted to their changing environment, and began going after commercial shipping vessels. "There are about 500 pirates operating around Eyl. I am their chairman," he said, claiming to head up a "central committee" composed of the bosses of 35 other groups. The position of chairman, however, did not imbue Boyah with the autocratic powers of a traditional gang leader. Rather, Eyl's pirate groups functioned as a kind of loose confederation, in which Boyah was a key organiser, recruiter, financier and mission commander. "We're not murderers," he said. "We've never killed anyone, we just attack ships."

Caught red handed as he prepared to launch attacks into the Gulf of Aden from the port of Berbera Farrah Ismail is devoid of the usual need for evasion. His account of how and why he came to the northern breakaway state is startlingly direct.

"I came here to kidnap commercial ships from the waters off Berbera."

Somalia boasts some of the richest fishing grounds in the world, a fact that was not lost on foreign predators in the wake of the collapse of central government in 1991. Somali fishermen were already selling to the Gulf States and to Italian companies and the marine bounty was known. Fishing vessels started to appear from nearby Kenya and Egypt but also from as far afield as China.

“The first point that compelled us to be sea pirates was the fishermen. These boats that came, trawlers came and destroyed everything even the small fish from our area.”

Ismail lost his shark nets in clashes with trawlers, others lost boats or lives.

The operations of the foreign ships were felt in three ways according to Ismail: “Big fishing trawlers entered our waters, destroyed our facilites, collided with our boats and even killed people. Some dumped toxic waste in our waters.”

“Why don't you give consideration about the destruction they did to us?”

“We need people to listen to us, to create employment for these fishing communities. To bring facilities that is the way we can stop these problems.”

Wikipedia confirms his claims about the cause of the piracy "there was no coast guard to protect against trawlers from other countries illegally fishing in Somali waters. This led to the erosion of the fish stock. Local fishermen started to band together to protect the resource. Soon they discovered that piracy was an easier way to make money. illegal trawlers began fishing Somalia's seas with an estimated $300 million of tuna, shrimp, and lobster being taken each year depleting stocks previously available to local fishermen. Through interception with speedboats, Somali fishermen tried to either dissuade the dumpers and trawlers or levy a "tax" on them as compensation. In an interview, Sugule Ali, one of the pirate leaders explained "We don't consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits to be those who illegally fish and dump in our seas."

According to Nick Nuttall of the United Nations Environmental Programme, "Somalia has been used as a dumping ground for hazardous waste starting in the early 1990s, and continuing through the civil war there," and "European companies found it to be very cheap to get rid of the waste, costing as little as $2.50 a tonne, where waste disposal costs in Europe are something like $1000 a tonne." "

“ Puntland in the north-east, has become a centre for piracy (over forty hijackings in 2008, for instance, with ships, crew and cargo held for ransom of several million US dollars).

Fishing (especially for lobsters) used to be one of the main occupations in Puntland, but from the 1990s fishing fleets from other countries (mainly China, Taiwan, South Korea) began using dragnets and so destroyed much of the marine life, leaving locals with no reliable source of income. The effect of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami aggravated the situation. Many Puntlanders retaliated by capturing the fishing vessels and keeping their catches, but then graduated to full-scale piracy.

Some pirates benefit far more financially than others. The ‘holders’, who guard the crew once a ship has been captured, earn about US$10 an hour, while those who carry out the attack get a fair bit more (but have a much greater chance of being killed or arrested). The controller of a pirate gang might receive a million dollars per hijacking, so they are in effect rather like capitalist bosses.

And indeed the pirate industry has a number of similarities to other capitalist enterprises. There are investors who expect a return, both single investors and those who operate on a private equity model. As Bahadur says, “Piracy is not so much organized crime as it is a business, characterized by extremely efficient capital flows, low start-up costs, and few entry barriers.”

The Puntland pirates benefit from the area being not quite ungoverned but not completely stable either. There is no out-and-out civil war, unlike other parts of Somalia, but neither is there an effective coastguard operation. The Puntland government officially has a clampdown on piracy, but cannot afford to implement this properly. Instead, private security companies place staff on some ships, and international navy patrols are another deterrent. But there is an awful lot of ocean to cover, and a comprehensive naval force would cost far more than is paid out in ransoms.”

In capitalism starvation and extreme poverty isn’t regarded as justification for theft by Hollywood. Capitalism has been complicit in the destruction of Somalia for 20 years Hollywood must destroy the character of the Somali people. There may be no act of propaganda more depraved than portraying the victims of exploitation as the villains of the piece.

Pirates of Somalia
Real pirates
Unfair shares

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