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Off the coast of Northern Somalia, a war has begun in response to another scramble for African resources. A new carve up of the Horn of Africa and it’s waters. There is just one thing that wasn’t included in the plan: the Somali people. At this advanced stage of environmental degradation, perpetual war driven by thirst and starvation may actually be the only thing protecting what remains of somalia from the rest of the world. Multinational companies are anxiously awaiting the opportunities that will become available if the Somali people can be pacified. Piracy is perhaps the only thing standing in the way of the ongoing international violence of industrial fishing techniques, the movements of oil tankers and the dumping of toxic and nuclear waste in the gulf of Aden. Unmanageable warfare on land has disrupted attempted military invasions and the lucrative investments of oil explorers. To complicate the situation there are also interests invested in keeping the country in a state of war and political disruption as it provides a justification not to recognise Somali sovereignty, particularly important in the case of acquiring marine resources.1 The media coverage of ‘Somali piracy’ always starts with the same point. That the conflict is largely a result of the collapse of the Somali state in 1991 which then provided a resource ‘free for all’ taken advantage of by other countries. Instead of placing the focus on the collapse of the state this study attempts to examine the collapse of land and marine ecosystems: the motivation of Somali piracy and much of the larger conflict throughout the region. Situating the social response of piracy within the context of environmental geography and history. Proposing that it is well time to start collecting whatever material is possible to try to piece together the histories of marine and land ecosystems as key to understanding human behaviour in history. Many environmental histories have demonstrated the impact of people on ecological systems, the case of Somali piracy and desert warfare is an indicator of the impact of ecology on the nature of humanity. The response of the Somali people to the conditions they have endured is challenging the world to confront the consequences of our estranged relationship with the land and waters from which we live.
While environmental history must surely be among the oldest branches of history in oral form, Man and Nature by Charles Marsh is one of the first published works that could be placed within the field. Compelled by what he saw as the natural revolutions caused by human industry, “the multiplying population and the impoverished resources of the globe” Marsh believed that new triumphs of mind over matter were critical to the adaption of human societies.2 Exploring the physical decay of the territory of the Roman Empire and other parts of the old world he argued in 1864 that after examining the work of ancient historians and geographers it appeared:
“..that more than one half of the territories whole extent- including the provinces most celebrated for the profusion and variety of their spontaneous and cultivated products, and for the wealth and social advancements of their inhabitants - is either deserted by civilized man and surrendered to hopeless desolation, or at least greatly reduced in both productiveness and population.” 3
In this seminal study of the deterioration of the old world Marsh emphasised that:
“the fairest and fruitfullest provinces of the Roman Empire, precisely that portion of terrestrial surface, in short, which, about the commencement of the Christian era, was endowed with the greatest superiority of soil, climate and position, which had been carried to the highest pitch of physical improvement, and which thus combined the natural and artificial conditions best fitting it for the habitation and enjoyment of a dense and highly refined and cultivated population, is now completely exhausted of it’s fertility, or so diminished in it’s productiveness, as, with the exception of a few favoured oases that have escaped the general ruin, to be no longer capable of affording sustenance to civilized man.”
“If to this realm we add the now wasted and solitary soils of Persia and the remoter East, that once fed their millions on milk and honey, we shall see that a territory larger than all of Europe, the abundance of which sustained in bygone centuries a population scarcely inferior to that of the whole Christian world at the present day..”
had been almost entirely withdrawn from human use.4 Marsh argued that the Roman empire had perpetrated a pattern of abuse connecting the imperial subjugation of invaded populations to the conquest of the natural environments in which they lived. The peasants stripped of their ecological inheritance, would themselves become a form of property, a labour force to be utilised.5 This understanding has certainly been expressed by African literary authors like Chinua Achebe in his novel Things Fall Apart which presented the history of colonialism as a history of environmental transformation.6 George Marsh situates his work within a new school of Geographers who he explains have given to the science of geography a more philosophical, imaginative character, the most interesting of the fields thrown open being the inquiry of how far external physical conditions, the earths surface, and the distribution, outline and relative position of land and water have influenced the social life and progress of humanity.7 Noting that the subject of climate change had already been attended to by many previous authors with and without reference to human action.8 His mention of the “now wasted and solitary soils of Persia and the remoter east, that once fed their populations on milk and honey is highly relevant to the far northeast Somali region of Puntland, today the capital of piratical activity in the area.
Previously known in the Egyptian texts as ‘the land of Punt,’ the once wealthy power had joined the Sudanese Kingdom of Kush in the defeat of the Egyptian empire recently discovered in a 3,500 year old hieroglyphic inscription in a tomb in upper Egypt.9 George Marsh recognised that the fountains of oil and wine that refreshed Syria and Northern Africa had “almost ceased to flow and the soils of those fair lands turned to thirsty and inhospitable deserts.”10 To see the landscape and the condition of the Somali people today is to see the interdependent connection between ecology, power and prosperity. Marsh’s description of the changes to have occurred in Persia, Syria north and east Africa articulated the concept of desertification now critical to environmental discourse and to the conditions that have produced Somali piracy in the gulf of Aden11. As the land turns to desert more and more people are looking to the sea for food and for the rains to bring water.12
Aldo Leopold, one of America’s founding authors on ecology, presents the problem as essentially a question of ethics. In ecological terms he defines an ethic as “a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for survival.”13 Philosophically he suggests that an ethic is “a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct.” It could be argued that Somali pirates are in fact placing a limitation on the freedom of foreign boats to use industrial fishing methods and waste dumping, by way of threats and economic tax in the struggle for survival. The fishing methods and dumping activities could be seen in the long term to be far more antisocial than the responses of piratical coast guards. In this context a history of Somali piracy and of the traumas of the deserts and the oceans from which they live is considered an unavoidably ethical exercise and will be approached as such in both research and content.
Leopold suggests that the origins of ethics can be traced to the tendency of interdependent individuals or groups to evolve modes of co-operation. Stating that the ecologist calls these modes symbiosis. Politics and economics are considered advanced symbiosis, cooperative mechanisms with an ethical content. The first ethics, according to Leopold, dealt with relations between individuals and later dealt with those between individuals and society. Leopold’s foundational ‘land ethic’ enlarges the boundaries of the ethical community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively the land.14 Like Marsh he believed that the extension of ethics to this third element in human society was not only an “evolutionary possibility it was an ecological necessity.”15 Leopold’s concern was that the invention of tools had enabled humans to produce changes of unprecedented violence, rapidity and scope.16 Few places have suffered this violent transformation quite as acutely as the worlds oceans.
During the 1870’s an invention arrived that turned worlds upside down. In 1883 a royal commission was held into the impact of steam trawlers on the Scottish coast in response to overwhelming public discontent. John MacDonald, a line fisherman prepares to give evidence, Mr Majoribanks, a member of parliament is putting the questions.
Q. When you say (the trawlers) destroy the feeding grounds of the fish, how do you mean they do that? How do they interfere with the feeding ground of the fish? A.They trawl along the bottom and tear everything that is before them. Q. Then you will not agree with a statement made at a former inquiry, that the effect of the trawl at the bottom of the sea was to increase the food of the fish by cultivating the bottom? The court erupts into indignation, the chairman, Lord Dalhousie is forced to intervene. Mr Marjoribanks then returns to the question: Q.You would quite disagree with that suggestion that I made? A. Yes. Q. Then your opinion would be that it is impossible that the trawl net by disturbing the bottom of the sea, could stir up additional food for the fish? A. It cleans everything away before it.17
The fishing power of sailing trawlers had been limited by wind and tide. Freed at last from the mercy of the whether, steam trawlers could tow back and forth relentlessly now able to tie chains around the ground rope to tow through larger and larger obstructions whether made up of rubbish, rocks or marine life.18 Hauling in the nets by steam rather than hand crank would also rapidly speed up the process. Joseph Hills of the Sunderland Sea Fishery Protection Committee agreed with an earlier witness who said that the river he once fished in was cleared out in six weeks.
“It was exactly the same with us in 1878. There was an immense quantity of fish coming in, and the very quantity that was coming in caused us to be alarmed and concerned about the matter. We knew that we were killing the goose that had laid the golden eggs, and we thought it necessary to remonstrate against that state of affairs. The thing has gone from that time to the present time, and whereas the trawlers at that time were able to get an abundance of fish at a very short distance from the port of Sunderland, they have had gradually to go further and further out to sea; but the same class of vessel that went trawling there have been to some extent discarded. Larger more powerful and more scientific vessels have been brought into operation, and the result of the process has been that the whole coast of Durham, Northumberland, and Yorkshire has been destroyed, till there is nothing left but a mere remnant.”19
The destruction of the sea bed was also a topic of great concern at the 1883 commission. While the seabed is subject to many natural changes as well as those produced by trawling the invention of steam trawlers in the 1870’s looks to have had a profound impact on the ocean floor. Callum Roberts, an environmental historian has found that The Piscatorial Atlas of the North Sea, English and St. Georges Channels published in 1883 to coincide with the International Fisheries Exhibition, held in London that year, paints a very different picture of the sea bed then the ones we have today. The Atlas also included a map showing the nature of the sea bed. Splashed in carmine across 24,000 square kilometers of the North Sea is an area marked “oysters.” The Oyster grounds according to Roberts “consisted of reefs built of oysters, knitted and interlaced with countless other invertebrates. The bottom of the North Sea was hardened by a living crust, something that many scientists today find very hard to believe.”20 The commission shows that this habitat of invertebrate life and seaweeds was real, and critical to the health of the marine ecosystem. Trawlermen called the invertebrates and seaweed crust along the sea floor “scruff” and for a time had problems with the nets becoming too clogged. John Meynell of Sunderland, testified of his experience fishing with the steam trawler nets.
Q. The night you were out did you see a great quantity of immature fish caught? A. From what I saw come out of the bag it was a disgrace to look at. Q. Tell us what it was? A. Spawn, coals, boots, shoes, shirts all kinds of rubbish; little trays (trees) that the fish resorts among; if you saw a little coral, I believe the bottom of the sea is something similar.”21
Henry Meldrum from the North coast of England recalled his experience longlining.
“Well, when we used to go for haddocks we used to get all kinds of curiosities, little trays (trees) of all sorts, and every description of shells, and what not. We cannot get anything on the lines now. We used to get things called coxcombs, and the trawlers have swept them all away the same as they have swept away all the best fishing. They had a gold mine there...”22
William Hunnam, a fisherman from Cockenzie on the Scottish coast, described the damage done to an area popular for collecting bait.
“About two miles off Cockenzie, and then six miles east and west,... they have taken away the upper crust of the ground. And, mark you, it is the upper crust that the clams and scallops live amongst. Q. How do you know; have you seen it? A. We know by our dredges going over it. The crust is all gone.”
Another at the commission agreed that the trawling had completely destroyed the ground and that there were no more fish. In response to the question of: to what did he ascribe the fact that these old men could not make a living anymore? Alexander Anderson a fish monger said “the fish have been taken away by the trawlers; the trawlers have destroyed the ground to which these fish came.”23 Rather than stopping the steam trawlers, efforts to obtain more fish were stepped up and fisheries legislation relaxed or done away despite diminishing returns.24
Just as the steam trawler had revolutionised the level of damage done to the sea floor in the 1870’s, with the 1970’s crude oil arrived. The possibilities for exploitation were now massively enhanced again. Boat crews could go much further out to sea and would stay for longer periods of time in the hope of making a big enough catch for the whole crew. There have been some very good ethnographies written about the brazilian fishing economy in particular, showing the deep social divisions that have developed between canoe fishermen and boat crews after petrol generated engines took over and the fish went away. A sense of grief known only too well by the Somali people after foreign fishing vessels moved in, a process accelerated by the collapse of the somali state in 1991. A man who identified himself as “Boyah” (once a fisherman now a pirate) was interviewed by Garowe an independent Somali media network and replayed by CNN on YouTube. When asked why he had resorted to piracy Boyah said “what motivates us is life, for we are the ones who used to work at see.”25 After they lost the fish, their lands already turned to desert, somali fishermen began to trade their nets in for AK 47’s.26
The Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden contain some of the world’s most important coastal and marine habitats as a result of nutrient rich water produced by cold upwelling from the depths of the Indian Ocean. There is no reliable data on fish or shellfish catches or populations although some attempts have been made.27 Of the large Pelagic fish there are a number of species of tuna including bonito, skipjack and makerel, of which Spanish mackerel is one of the most highly praised. Of the small pelagic fish there are sardines, round, scad, anchovies, small mackerel and herring there are also sharks, rays, turtles and crustaceans many if not all of the species listed are endangered, some critically.28 There is a pervasive fear based on a dramatic drop in catchment numbers, that fish populations have already collapsed.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme destructive fishing practices have had a major impact on coral reefs in the gulf of Aden.29 The shark and lobster are among the most threatened species. In addition to “uncontrolled exploitation of marine resources, the sea bottom is also being damaged by heavy trawls.”30 In Puntland there has been a significant decrease in the catches of the three main fishery types in the past 10 years, thought to be due to the unsustainable offshore fisheries, also by the rising exploitation of lobster and shark by artisanal fishermen.31 Saw, hammerhead, white and mako have totally disappeared in some areas, while average sizes other shark species have decreased over the last five years.32 It is thought that around 80% of original lobster stocks have already been lost. According to one report discussed by the UNEP, there is no way of knowing the full extent of the impact of illegal fishing - much of which takes place at night - off the Somali coastline, a practice that continues to date.33 Among many other techniques used, home made explosives using fertilizer, (fuel and fuse caps inserted into empty beer bottles) are dropped on reefs that are expected to have high fish populations. Nets are then used to collect the dead and dying fish. Once the reef has been damaged it is more susceptible to wave action and is unable to maintain it’s role protecting the coast line. Fish larvae will not settle on the rubble. Another destructive method that is popular, relies on the use of cyanide to stun fish which are then collected for the live trade. Trawling and purse fishing are also very common and extremely destructive. A significant reduction in the fish populations, as well as turtles and lobsters, is in reality a matter of life or death for the population who have been increasingly turning toward the sea for food in response to deforestation and desertification which has already severely depleted food resources on land.34 “Severe droughts interrupted by devastating floods occur frequently resulting in large scale starvation, the death of thousands of people and livestock.”35 Agricultural chemicals are also a major pollutant of coastal regions. The shift from artisanal to industrial fishing techniques particularly since the 1970’s has had a tremendous impact on oceans throughout the world, a transformation made possible through crude oil. Given that the fish reserves of the Somali coastline are regularly bombed, poisoned and demolished through trawling it is perhaps not surprising that Somali’s have interpreted the foreign fishing vessels who do not have permission to be in Somali waters (which are no longer recognised), using universally illegal techniques, as hostile and in direct conflict with their survival.
Recent encounters with people now defined as ‘pirates’ have been handled nervously throughout 2008, although the international armada of warships around the somali coast is starting to become more bold. One possible reason for the timid approach seen up until now, could relate to the fact that America has had it’s nose bloodied in somalia before.36 On October 3rd 1993 the highest level of American special forces were made to look like “rookies” by the hungry men, women and children with AK’s and rocket propelled grenades who shot down two black hawks and rushed the wreckage, trapping the elite soldiers who had just massacred hundreds from the air.37 A raid that was supposed to last thirty minutes, pitting the best of the best, “the worlds most sophisticated military power against civilians,” turned into the biggest American firefight since the war in Vietnam.38 Eighteen Americans were killed that day, 73 were wounded. Many were mutilated and dragged through the streets, their captors smiling for the cameras.39 The footage was shown across the world and throughout America where public shock and outrage, led to an immediate withdrawal of the troops and ‘humanitarian relief.’ The events of black hawk down still influence American policy and were fundamental to the decision not to intervene in conflicts in Rwanda, Sierra Leone and the Congo as well as the delayed reaction in Bosnia and Haiti.40 This event showed that America had again, vastly underestimated the enemy, the level of anger and desperation, and also the militant capacity of Somalia’s civilian population.
On the one hand it appears that America is still very reluctant to go back to Somalia but is at the same time very conscious of oil security, and discovery in the Gulf of Aden. Oil deposits were first announced by Italian and English colonial forces.41 According to a UN Somali monitoring group, Somalia now has the attention of more than a dozen countries including, Yemen, Djibouti, Libya, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Ethiopia, Iran, Syria, Eritrea, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Uganda. Less publicised and not mentioned in the report, is the role of Norway, the US, the UK, France and Tanzania which have also been deeply involved in the scramble.42 In 1998, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank, with the backing of the British, French and Canadian governments, and several Western Oil companies, financed a regional hydrocarbon study of the countries bordering the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. “It’s there. There is no doubt it’s there,” said Geologist Thomas E. O’Connor, the World Banks principle Petroleum engineer. Somalia and the Sudan once known as the ‘Land of Punt’ and the ‘Kingdom of Kush,’ are now preparing for a new battle after being placed at the top of the list of prospective oil producers.43
By 1991 around two thirds of Somalia had been carved up between four major American oil companies Conoco, Chevron, Amoco and Philips.44 The contracts were granted in the final days of Siad Barre’s rule just before the state collapsed and the country descended into full blown civil war. Arrangements were placed on hold until it was safe enough to resume work. It is for this reason, and not terrorism or humanitarian concerns, that America has fought a secret war against the severely malnourished population, with the help of the Ethiopian military.45 The protection of the American oil industries multibillion- dollar investments in Somalia is thought by many to have been a significant motivation for the US president, and former Texas oil magnate, George Bush senior’s decision to send 20,000 troops to the country in 1992.46 Throughout the Horn of Africa, particularly clear in Somalia, the Sudan and Ethiopia as well as other areas most notably in Guinea on the west coast and central Nigeria, oil exploration has left a trail of civil and proxy wars that seem impossible to entangle from one another. They are all interconnected conflicts. Representing a formidable barrier to the objectives of multinational oil industries. Somalia has distinguished itself in this battle through the unfortunate price of particularly endemic warfare that has so far proved resistant to pacification. In some ways it is important to remember what oil actually is. Not simply a source of fuel but an organic compound consisting of hydrogen and carbon, essentially ancient plant matter, the ultimate environmental resource, life breaking down over the ages into rock oil. The prospect of oil is a key aspect of the conflict on land and at sea, necessary to set the context of Somali piracy. It has not only been a major cause of conflict on land, throughout the Horn of Africa but is also the reason that the Gulf of Aden is such an important waterway as it channels oil from the persian gulf around the world.
In order to explore the forces that have shaped Somali behaviour and how this in turn affects the rest of the world, it is essential to look to the histories of land and marine ecosystems. Attention will be placed mainly on the surrounding ocean with a brief description of land conditions as having a symbiotic relationship to the sea. Having introduced the important background of oil discovery in the region the focus turns to the two most pronounced motivations of piracy, ecological collapse and the dumping of international waste. As the story goes, the fall of the Somali state in 1991 attracted the unwanted attention of illegal fishing and dumping vessels from around the world. What only some articles mention is that this activity actually started before state collapse with the agreement of the US backed president Siad Barre who had become extremely unpopular in the eyes of the population just before his fall. This point aside, the collapse was seen to provide an extremely valuable opportunity for foreign fishing vessels and the dumpers of both toxic and nuclear waste.
On March 21st 1994, Italian journalist Ilaria Alpi was assassinated in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. On the day of her death she had just uncovered a big story and was about to send it through along with photographs, when a blue land rover full of gunmen cut off her pickup truck. Ilaria Alpi was shot at point blank range, once in the back of the head, the cameraman who was accompanying her was also killed, although her body guard and driver were spared and immediately fled the scene.47 Her diaries, camera and many other items from her hotel room went missing after being collected by an Italian called Giancarlo Morocchino living in exile in the former capital. If Ilaria Alpi had not been killed that day there is a chance the whole story of nuclear and toxic waste dumping would have come out a long time ago. While no one knows for sure what exactly Alpi knew at the time of her death she had just finished interviewing a Somali named ‘King Kong’ about a hijacking of a number of mysterious vessels in particular one of Italian origin all docked in the port of Mogadishu. A cover up on behalf of the Italian military and government began which has made Ilaria Alpi’s case difficult to assess.48 Many believe however that she was uncovering a case of weapons dealing and toxic waste dumping connected to the Italian military and the Mafia who dominate much of the waste disposal industry in Italy. Italy and Switzerland have gained the most attention for their illegal waste dumping activities in Somalia.49
In 2005 three hundred people died of radiation poisoning after hundreds of leaking barrels washed ashore with the Tsunami. Puntland was hit the hardest.50 The photos reveal that the barrels did not just drift in, they decimated much of the coastline with a great wave of water carrying nuclear and toxic waste.51 In 2008 a tense stand off developed after 40 pirates hijacked an Iranian ship. Within days the Somali’s who had been based in Eyl, Puntland became gravely ill. The director of the East African Seafarers Assistance Association said that they did not know exactly how many, but that the information they had received indicated that some had died. “There is something very wrong about that ship.”52 The ongoing impacts of radiation sickness are clearly visible throughout Somalia, also a big problem inland.53 Publicity of the Tsunami and of the Iranian cargo ship have attracted much needed attention to the question of what has been going on in Somali waters. It is not known exactly what was on board the ship to cause radiation sickness, but the question of what may have happened to the dangerous material if it had not been intercepted and taken to Eyl to await ransom payments, is worth thinking about.54 As are the cases that have not been reported. Somali piracy has raised urgent questions about what is happening to the marine ecosystems of the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, and how this transformation is affecting the people who can no longer rely on the land and water resources to survive.
Throughout the course of research it appears that the tide of media and public opinion has turned. While there are still plenty of American news sources and web comments, focussing on the pirates greed for money and much attention to fears of islamic influence,55 the forums provided through internet sources and YouTube in particular, has denied the American media the monopoly it once had. It is now possible to hear what the Somali’s have to say. Essentially that piracy is considered a rational option in the context of acute scarcity, and that they are protecting their waters by discouraging people from fishing, dumping, and extracting or transporting oil. Somali pirates have accused European firms of dumping toxic waste off the Somali coast. In october 2008 they demanded $8m in ransom money for the return of a Ukranian ship, the money, they said, would go towards cleaning up the waste.56 AlJazeera and an increasing number of western sources are also picking up on the environmental issues at stake. Once again it looks like the Somali’s have been underestimated, not just militarily, but in their capacity to capture hearts and minds within Somalia and across the world. In one documentary on YouTube a women walking past the camera calls out “I very much support the pirates, nobody else gives us anything.”57 The pirates end up looking pretty reasonable compared to the American military, the warship armada, the foreign fishing vessels, and the dumpers of international waste.
The story of Somali piracy is a history of the ocean and the desert. In a desolate land the relationship between people and ecology is made frighteningly clear. One comment posted by a Somali after an article about toxic waste dumping asks why the world watches only the pirates and does not look inside the country to the dying people “who eat stones and drink blood” to survive.58 Piracy off the coast of Somalia is confronting the world with what’s really important, questioning international ethics and legitimacy as the Somalis set out to make it on their own, without the fish and having already lost fresh water and trees. Interviews state clearly that the motivation for Somali piracy is life.59 As the lands turn to desert and the fish disappear, human rationality changes too.
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