Aye, matey: How climate shocks may fuel maritime piracy

17 Maret 2020

There seems a never-ending list of consequences to climate change or the global response to it, but here’s another one to add: piracy.

There’s nothing swashbuckling, adventurous or amusing, though, about the pirates off the Horn of Africa, in the Gulf of Guinea on the West African coast, or in parts of Asia and Latin America. Last year, there were 162 pirate attacks reported to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), though that’s likely to be an under-reported number. The IMB maintains the database as part of the commercial crime services of the International Chamber of Commerce.

Those cases involved four hijacked vessels, 11 that were fired upon by armed groups, 130 vessels that pirates boarded, and 17 attempted attacks. Crew kidnappings were up more than 50 percent in the Gulf of Guinea, accounting for almost all of the global total last year, even though piracy overall was down a bit.

The oil industry itself attracts piracy crime, with West African and Nigerian waters, in particular, a frequent target. That’s because Nigerian ports are at the epicenter of Africa’s petroleum industry and the ships are lucrative targets. Analyst Abishek Mishra, writing for India’s Observer Research Foundation, argues that corruption and unemployment linked to the industry fuel the anger of extremists seeking economic justice.

“Quite paradoxically, the discovery of large amounts of offshore hydrocarbons has generated poverty rather than wealth,” he explains. “It has exacerbated social tensions and increased environmental pollution. Only the central government, oil companies, and local elites have benefited from oil production.” In some cases, the pirates don’t want ransom money: They steal the product and set up their own illegal refineries.

Those excluded from the benefits sometimes turn to this form of petro piracy, adds Sarah Newgarden for the well-regarded Borgen Project, a humanitarian organization based in the United States. Until poverty and sustainable development are addressed, piracy remains a source of income.

There are strong links between piracy and the fishing industry too, which also raises concern over future maritime resources, the “blue economy” and a changing climate. African and Asian fishers whose incomes are threatened by a lack of fish, often because of Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing practices in the industry, are common actors when it comes to piracy.

Sebastian Axbard, a researcher who studied this link in Indonesia, says environmental shocks may push fishers into piracy because of the lack of resources. “When you have good oceanographic conditions, you have more fish and higher incomes for the fishermen and as a consequence, you also have a lower number of piracy attacks,” Axbard told The Globe Post.

Those attacks may pop up in the world’s major trade lanes, including the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a third of the planet’s annual energy resources pass each year, as well as the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Piracy can be linked to regional conflict, as has been the case in Somalia, with such conflict increasingly tied to climate shocks that spark tensions over land, food and water resources, as well as forcing migration and displacement.

Eliminating the global dependence on fossil fuels won’t end all piracy, but understanding how oil contributes to the problem may move us closer to energy alternatives. Experts say a closer look at how climate change is driving poverty and desperation, which in turn manifest themselves on the high seas, also is needed.

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