“It is not enough for me to… condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. … A riot is the language of the unheard.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.
Today, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on private security as a result of increasing piracy since the turn of the millennium. We may have seen many negative headlines about Somali pirates since 2007, but the Gulf of Guinea is now fast becoming the leading area for piracy in the world.
One reason for this increase in piracy is that local fishermen lose millions of dollars as a result of illegal fishing. In fact, piracy both in the Gulf of Guinea and off the Somali coast first arose as resistance to illegal (or foreign) exploitation of national resources. In the case of the Somali coast, locals saw how pollution and foreign trawlers were taking away their ability to sustain their lives through fishing. Ransoms were seen as compensation for this situation.
However, wealth soon went to the heads of these rapidly expanding groups of pirates. Once the business model of holding crews to ransom had taken off, more and more young men joined the pirates. When they began to use their money to buy alcohol from Ethiopia or for favours from the opposite sex, the incredibly religious communities of Somalia began to stand up, doing all they could to ensure their children didn’t get involved in piracy. There are even cases where family members have got in contact with pirates to tell them to demand lower ransoms.
Meanwhile, also in the mid-2000s, the Niger Delta saw youths rebel in the wake of decades of degradation and pollution, along with the siphoning of resources away from the countryside to large cities like Lagos and Abuja. However, these groups soon realised that, with arms, they could not only defend their resources but make large amounts of money through piracy. Although there was an amnesty for militants, in which 26,000 militants put down their arms, the lucrative business of piracy was too attractive for some to leave behind.
One important issue to consider is that the large shipping companies, and rich tourists, are not the ones suffering the most as a result of increased piracy, although the media tends to give this impression. In fact, in 2012, a quarter of those attacked in the Gulf of Guinea were Filipinos, and off the Somali coast 15% were Filipino and 15% were Indian. Only 2% of captives held by Somali pirates in 2012 were from ‘developed’ nations.
While 90% of world trade relies on mariners, they are some of the most exploited workers in the world. Many companies, in order to avoid strict labour laws, take on ‘Flags of Convenience’, registering with countries (such as Panama or Liberia) that allow the use of cheap labour from poor countries (such as the Philippines, Indonesia, China, and India). Ships are often understaffed, workers overburdened, and companies unprepared to give their staff permanent contracts. Although Fair Trade is slowly expanding, there is not yet a movement for ‘Fair Transportation’ in place, which would ensure that those transporting the goods we consume were also treated with dignity and respect.
The real solution to the piracy problem, as opposed to forking out millions of dollars on private, unaccountable security, would be to support communities close to the maritime areas through which vessels navigate. The key is to remember that the seas are not simply international highways. Instead, they represent the livelihoods of many people around the world. However, just as many nations, especially poorer ones, allow multinational corporations to exploit natural resources on land irresponsibly, the seas are no different. This rarely challenged power that rich business elites exert throughout the world is one of the most dangerous aspects of globalisation and it must be the first issue to be dealt with if the roots of piracy – poverty and disenfranchisement – are to be destroyed.