Kathy Gibson reports from the Maritime and Coastal Security conference in Cape Town – piracy is not a new phenomenon in the world and the motivation is generally greed. But the causes of the current scourge of piracy off Africa’s costs could have more and deeper causes than at first glance.

Johan Potgieter, senior researcher at the Institute of Security Studies in South Africa, points out that piracy costs Africa a lot more than it would ever take to eliminate the threat.

Piracy off Somalia has cost between $12-billion and $18-billion alone. Meanwhile, Africa has lost about $100-billion from illegal fishing in the last five decades.

The cost cannot be measured just in dollars, though. 10-million African’s rely on fishing as their primary economic activity, which about 300-million people are dependent on fishing as their primary source of protein.

Potgieter says pirates can generally be classified into three groups: they are usually thieves, criminals of opportunity looking for an easy profit; they could be organised crime syndicates stealing large cargoes or kidnapping crew members for ransom; or related to terrorist group using the profits from piracy to fund terrorist activities.

Piracy is not a new thing, he adds, with historic figures like Julius Caesar and Cervantes having been victims of pirates in their lifetimes. The pirates in the Caribbean thrived for 300 years, many of them supported by their governments.

However, piracy can be countered: but the solution cannot be one-sided, Potgieter says. In the Straits of Malacca, where piracy was a result of economic collapse as well as political resistance, piracy accounted for about 40% of the world’s pirate activity in 2004.

The solution came from many fronts: political stability meant the government started to care for the people so economic conditions changed. At the same time, there were increased patrols and security on vessels was increased, co-operation between a variety of nations, together with information sharing, also contributed to the solution.

Somali piracy has its roots in the 1991 collapse of the state, Potgieter says, when the remnants of the Italian navy in those waters ceased to exist. At the same time, the environment was destroyed by toxic dumping and fishermen’s livelihoods were devastated. At that sage, fisherman began what they called defensive piracy, attacking the vessels responsible for destroying their environment.

These clans stopped pirate activities in 2006, however, and new clans took it up purely as a way of making money. Without the motivation of environmental or fishing concerns their motivation was purely money, says Potgieter, and it quickly escalated to other organised crime activities like hi-jacking, kidnapping and extortion.

Anti-piracy measures have been largely successful off Somalia, although they have also contributed to pushing activities to other parts of the coast and causing the pirates to become more resourceful and sophisticated.

In west Africa, environmental issues also contribute to economic hardship, Potgieter says.

Illegal oil bunkering and oil theft are estimated to have cost the region about $100-billion between 2003 and 2008 – in fact, it is believed that up to 30% of all Nigeria’s oil gets stolen.

In addition, the new oil wealth is not filtering down to the communities, although they have frequently been dispossessed to make way for oil interests.

Severe pollution – which it is estimated will take 30 years and $1-billion to clean up – has had a massive effect on food resources.

“When environmental crimes destroy the environment and contribute to environmental degradation, a disgruntled population might justify attacks on oil companies, fishing trawlers and other perpetrators,” says Potgieter. “In other words, they turn to piracy.”

Illegal, unlicensed and unreported (IUU) fishing also devastates the economic ability of poor communities to make a living and could push some of them into piracy, Potgieter says.

Certainly, IUU fishing is  massive problem, with  global trade in IUU fish ranging from $4-billion to $14-billlion – and about $1-billion of it from sub-Saharan Africa.

Off the coast of west Africa, trawlers are known to scoop up to 250 tons of fish per day, with devastating effect on the environment. Worse, some of these are bottom trawlers which can cause long-lasting damage to biodiversity in a region.

In west Africa there is a very little capacity to stop IUU fishing, with the result that up to 40% of the fish caught in the region is illegal. Legitimate fisherman have to travel huge distances to catch fish at all as the IUU trawlers deplete stocks.

All of this results in loss of income and contributes to piracy, Potgieter says. In west Africa, though, it goes beyond economic imperative and includes organised crime activities like drug and arms smuggling as well as human trafficking.

It’s not just Africa’s oceans that are at risk of increased piracy, often triggered by economic devastation. Inland waters are also vulnerable.

Lake Victoria is the single most important source of freshwater fish in Africa, contributing $600-million annually. Fishing directly supports 2-million people, while the fish from Lake Victoria meet the protein consumption needs of 22-million.

But the problems of pollution, IUU and safety are the same in Lake Victoria as on the seas, with piracy rife.

Potgieter believes that some of the things that are driving the new levels of piracy in Africa are poverty destruction of resouces, exploitation by outsiders and failure by the state. With all of these contributors, he says some fishermen and farmers will choose piracy, while other are motivated simply by greed.