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Pirates at sea

Pirates at sea

Somali pirates have more than doubled their efforts in 2009, costing corporations worldwide millions of dollars in damages, while injecting capital in Somalia's poorest communities.

July 28, 2009 8:31 by

On top of legal problems, the roots of Somali piracy make it even harder to fight. Somalia has been plagued by civil war since 1991, and fishing boats from Europe to South-East Asia took advantage of that conflict for years by fishing the African state’s territorial waters illegally. The UN envoy for Somalia has said foreign companies also dumped large quantities of toxic, including nuclear waste off the Somali coast (when the 2004 tsunami hit, rusting barrels of the stuff actually washed on its beaches).

With no coast guard or navy to lean on, local fishermen armed themselves to chase off the perpetrators. Those armed patrols have since evolved into a lucrative way for organized gangs to make money in a deeply impoverished, chaotic country. Somali pirates have been paid an estimated $80 million in ransom so far in 2009, and a microeconomy has sprung up around their exploits.

A recent UN report from the northern Somali city of Eyl, a pirate haven, sheds some light on how exactly those proceeds are divvied up. Sea-borne militia get a third of the money and they share it equally among themselves (although the first pirate to board a besieged vessel gets a double share, or a new vehicle). Whoever handles the money gets a fifth of it. The “sponsor” receives a third. Guards who patrol the pirates’ turf on land get 10 percent, as do local community leaders. If a pirate is killed during the operation, his family is paid compensation.

Those involved with the hijackings can earn thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars in a country that had a per capita GDP of only $281 in 2007. There are few indications of the extent of poverty in Somalia, due to the lack of government. But UNICEF estimates that at least 15 percent of those living in central and southern parts of the country suffer from acute malnutrition.

The roots of Somali piracy and the depressed local economy are no excuse for capturing and threatening to kill innocent people at sea. But they do suggest that stamping out the problem will be hard, maybe impossible, without helping the country to get back on its feet.

First seen in Trends magazine.

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