In an interesting January 2009 article in the Independent (recently re-run in the Huffington Post), Johann Hari makes the surprising argument that Somalia's current wave of piracy is due not just to the collapse of civil government but is also in significant part a response to the dumping of Swiss/Italian/other nuclear and chemical waste, believed to be in large part by an illicit Italian operation, on Somalia's beaches, poisoning both the fish and the locals (particularly after natural disasters broke the transport containers open):
Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, tells me: “Somebody is dumping nuclear material here. There is also lead, and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury – you name it.” Much of it can be traced back to European hospitals and factories, who seem to be passing it on to the Italian mafia to “dispose” of cheaply. When I asked Ould-Abdallah what European governments were doing about it, he said with a sigh: “Nothing. There has been no clean-up, no compensation, and no prevention.”
This claim is seconded by UN Environmental Program spokesman Nick Nuttall who says it's been going on for 15 years, and the UNEP reported the 2004 tsunami had washed up rusting containers of toxic waste on the shores of Puntland.
NB. another source leads me to think that the Italian Mafia reference has been taken out of the context in which it was originally used – where an international observer described the parties involved in the waste dumping as acting like a mafia – I haven't seen anyone state there's evidence to show that it is the Italian mafia:
Still it became apparent to the UNEP's former executive director, now retired Dr. Mustafa Tolba that the firms of Achair Partners and Progresso were set up specifically as fictitious companies by larger industrial firms to dispose of hazardous waste. [Note in that article that Italy has suspiciously not signed the Basel conventions which forbid this kind of shit.] At one point Dr. Tolba declared that the UNEP was dealing with a mafia.
Dr. Tolba's comments reported in Al Jazeera could be taken either way -
“At the time, it felt like we were dealing with the Mafia, or some sort of organised crime group, possibly working with these industrial firms,” he said.
Back to Hari's article:
At the same time, other European ships have been looting Somalia's seas of their greatest resource: seafood. We have destroyed our own fish-stocks by over-exploitation – and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300m worth of tuna, shrimp, lobster and other sea-life is being stolen every year by vast trawlers illegally sailing into Somalia's unprotected seas. The local fishermen have suddenly lost their livelihoods, and they are starving. Mohammed Hussein, a fisherman in the town of Marka 100km south of Mogadishu, told Reuters: “If nothing is done, there soon won't be much fish left in our coastal waters.”
This is the context in which the men we are calling “pirates” have emerged. Everyone agrees they were ordinary Somalian fishermen who at first took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least wage a ‘tax’ on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia – and it's not hard to see why. In a surreal telephone interview, one of the pirate leaders, Sugule Ali, said their motive was “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.” William Scott would understand those words.
The pirates are sometimes explicit about the relationship, as from the Al Jazeera article:
The ransom demand is a means of “reacting to the toxic waste that has been continually dumped on the shores of our country for nearly 20 years”, Januna Ali Jama, a spokesman for the pirates, based in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, said.
“The Somali coastline has been destroyed, and we believe this money is nothing compared to the devastation that we have seen on the seas.”
And one informal survey mentioned in the Independent article declared support amongst the populace:
No, this doesn't make hostage-taking justifiable, and yes, some are clearly just gangsters – especially those who have held up World Food Programme supplies. But the “pirates” have the overwhelming support of the local population for a reason. The independent Somalian news-site WardherNews conducted the best research we have into what ordinary Somalis are thinking – and it found 70 percent “strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence of the country's territorial waters.”
None of the authors or press sources are exactly neutral, but when the UNEP is quite certain that this has been going on for decades, I think it's fair to be pretty unhappy.