Somali Piracy Creation Myths and the Tragedy of the Commons
There’s an interesting article in the Miami Herald, derived from an interview with one of the pirates apprehended off the coast of Somalia. Obviously, I can’t testify to the veracity of what the man has to say but I think it provides a little more context for the upsurge in piracy there:
In a long interview with McClatchy at the jailhouse in Mandhera, Eid related what amounts to the pirates’ creation myth, in which overfishing by European and Asian trawlers drove Somalia’s coastal communities to ruin and forced local fishermen to fight for their livelihoods.
In 1991, Eid was scavenging for lobsters along the craggy shores of central Somalia, when the government and its security forces were swallowed up in a coup. The country’s endless coastline — at almost 2,000 miles, it’s longer than the U.S. West Coast — suddenly became an unguarded supermarket of tuna, mackerel and other fish.
When huge foreign trawlers began appearing, the local fishermen who plied their trade with simple nets and small fiberglass boats were wiped out, Eid said.
”They fished everything — sharks, lobsters, eggs,” he recalled. “They collided with our boats. They came with giant nets and swept everything out of the sea.”
At the outset, fishermen in the ramshackle ports of Puntland, Somaliland’s rowdy neighbor, rebranded themselves as ”coast guards.” The first hijackings that Eid remembered came in 1997, when pirates seized a Chinese fishing vessel and then held a Kenyan ship for a $500,000 ransom.
”When I heard about this,” Eid said, “I was happy.”
In 2005, with catches all too rare and a wife and two children to support, he traded his fishing equipment for a couple of Kalashnikov rifles and rocket launchers in a market in the wild-west port of Bossasso.
He and five other fishermen, swathed in camouflage, piled into a motorized skiff and set off from the village of Garacad. But their motor was too feeble to catch up to any of the ships they spotted.
The next year Eid tried with a stronger engine, a German one imported from Dubai. This time, the novice pirates caught up to a cargo ship and came face to face with its European crew. But Eid’s men couldn’t prop their heavy metal ladder up against the freighter’s hull quickly enough to board the ship.
Global Witness, a London-based group that investigates natural resource exploitation, agrees that vessels from countries such as France, Spain, Indonesia and South Korea gobbled up hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of fish from Somali waters without licenses.
However, experts say that the foreign fishing was not necessarily illegal because the Somali government did not delineate its territorial waters, as international maritime laws require.
It occurred to me that the situation presented a textbook example of the Tragedy of the Commons (the original article is here). Briefly, imagine a community that has a public grazing area, a commons. Each individual herder in the community is motivated in his own self-interest to maximize the number of his cattle that graze in the commons. Consequently, the commons is over-grazed and ruined.
A number of solutions to this problem have been proposed. It’s been taken as an argument for privatization: an owner is seen as more likely to prevent destruction of the grazing area. The original intent of the author was clearly to argue for robust government regulation. Or, as others have suggested, the herders could find a way to cooperate.
Somalia doesn’t have a government that can delineate its territorial waters, international institutions aren’t robust enough to prevent a tragedy of the commons (nor is it clear to me that we would want them to be), and whether caused by foreign competition or the Somalis themselves the fishing grounds off the Horn of Africa are more rather than less likely to be abused.
It’s been 12,000 years since the Neolithic Revolution in which population pressures moved humanity to begn to abandon its hunter-gatherer habit in favor of a sedentary agrarian one. Despite the passage of time and increasing population pressures there are still millions of people who make their livings as hunters and gatherers. Those employing means not a great deal more sophisticated than those used by people in the Neolithic will not be able to compete with modern industrial approaches to fishing, for example.
In the absence of some method of protecting the commons and the livelihoods it represents whether through privatization, more robust government regulation, or some other means, situations like the one off the coast of Somalia are likely to become more rather than less common. And unemployed fishermen will find some other way of making their livings.