The Toxic Truth They Don’t Want You to Know About Somalian Pirates
Two days ago, Somalian pirates off the coast of East Africa captured the Quest, a private yacht sailing an around-the-world adventure, and took the four American retirees aboard hostage. When US special forces moved in to rescue the four Americans, the pirates executed them. The US troops then killed two pirates and captured 15 more. Indignation at the dastardly pirates raged back stateside. There was talk of sending in more military forces, even ground troops, to “smoke them out.” The mainstream media vilified the pirates as terrorists of the high seas, with more conservative voices slamming President Obama for being weak on piracy. If only Ronald Reagan was in charge; he’d really show those blasted buccaneers what- for.
What the mainstream media and the (mis)leaders in Western capitals aren’t telling you is that Somali piracy is very much a product of staggering injustice perpetrated mostly by European nations against the impoverished African country. After the Somali government collapsed twenty years ago, the nation became an economic wasteland with many of its nine million people on the brink of starvation. And while the wealthy nations of the world intervened to try to avert a humanitarian catastrophe, some of them also moved in with shiploads of nuclear waste which they proceeded to dump in Somali waters. It wasn’t long before people living along the Somalian coast started getting sick. Johann Hari of Britain’s Independent noted strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies in coastal areas where toxic waste had been dumped.
To make matters far worse, the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands in Asia and Africa washed hundreds of the dumped waste barrels ashore. Radiation sickness claimed hundreds of Somali lives. Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, told Hari that in addition to radioactive nuclear waste, “there is also lead and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury.” United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) spokesman Nick Nuttall told al-Jazeera that “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.” In addition to the toxic materials named by Ould-Abdallah, Nuttall says hospital and industrial wastes have also been dumped off Somalia. He says local residents have fallen ill with oral and abdominal bleeding, skin infections and other ailments.
Orchestrating much of this highly toxic illegal dumping is the Italian mafia, which controls something like 30% of Italy’s waste disposal companies. Organized crime kingpins cooperating with European firms are responsible for the death of countless Somalis and the destruction of much of the nation’s marine life. And European governments have done little to nothing about it.
It doesn’t end there. European fishing vessels are plundering African waters of the fish that once provided the livelihoods of many coast-dwelling Somalis. Having depleted their own dwindling fish stocks, Europeans have stolen over $300 million worth of seafood from its rightful owners each year. The UN estimates there are more than 700 foreign vessels fishing illegally in Somali waters, and Somali fishermen have appealed to the world body and the international community at large to help them rid their waters of these unlicensed pillagers.
You could call them pirates, these toxic waste dumpers and illegal fisherman who rape and pillage upon the high seas in their own particular idiom.
It was in response to this European piracy that the phenomenon of Somali piracy began. The first Somali pirates were fishermen who set out to rid their waters of the illegal dumpers and fishing vessels. They even have a name– the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia– and they enjoy the overwhelming support of the local population. One of their leaders, Sugule Ali, told Johann Hari that their goal is “to stop illegal fishing and dumping in our waters… we don’t consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits to be those who illegally fish and dump in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas.” A Somalian poll found that 70% of respondents “strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defense of the country’s territorial waters.” Hari points out that George Washington and America’s founding fathers paid pirates to defend the waters of the fledgling United States since we lacked an effective navy of our own. He then writes:
“Did we expect starving Somalians to stand passively on their beaches, paddling in our toxic waste, and watch us snatch their fish to eat in restaurants in London and Paris and Rome? We won’t act on those crimes – the only sane solution to this problem – but when some of the fishermen responded by disrupting the transit-corridor for 20 per cent of the world’s oil supply, we swiftly send in the gunboats.”
And therein lies the hypocrisy inherent in the treatment of the developing world by the wealthy nations that set and enforce the global rules, rules which only perpetuate shocking injustices like those committed against the people of Somalia. Nothing excuses the pirates’ callous murder of hostages, and my condolences go out to the families of those killed aboard the Quest. But with all due respect, the people of Somalia have suffered a million times worse than those four well-off Americans on their globe-trotting adventure. The West has no one but itself to blame for the pirate scourge that now plagues the Indian Ocean.
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