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Somali pirates have accused European firms of dumping toxic waste off the Somali coast and are demanding an $8m ransom for the return of a Ukranian ship they captured, saying the money will go towards cleaning up the waste.
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."
The pirates are holding the MV Faina, a Ukrainian ship carrying tanks and military hardware, off Somalia's northern coast.
According to the International Maritime Bureau, 61 attacks by pirates have been reported since the start of the year. While money is the primary objective of the hijackings, claims of the continued environmental destruction off Somalia's coast have been largely ignored by the region's maritime authorities.
Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy for Somalia confirmed to Al Jazeera the world body has "reliable information" that European and Asian companies are dumping toxic waste, including nuclear waste, off the Somali coastline.
"I must stress however, that no government has endorsed this act, and that private companies and individuals acting alone are responsible," he said.
Allegations of the dumping of toxic waste, as well as illegal fishing, have circulated since the early 1990s. But evidence of such practices literally appeared on the beaches of northern Somalia when the tsunami of 2004 hit the country. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) reported the tsunami had washed up rusting containers of toxic waste on the shores of Puntland.
Nick Nuttall, a UNEP spokesman, told Al Jazeera that when the barrels were smashed open by the force of the waves, the containers exposed a "frightening activity" that has been going on for more than decade.
"Somalia has been used as a dumping ground for hazardous waste starting in the early 1990s, and continuing through the civil war there," he said.
"European companies found it to be very cheap to get rid of the waste, costing as little as $2.50 a tonne, where waste disposal costs in Europe are something like $1000 a tonne.
"And the waste is many different kinds. There is uranium radioactive waste. There is lead, and heavy metals like cadmium and mercury. There is also industrial waste, and there are hospital wastes, chemical wastes – you name it."
Nuttall also said that since the containers came ashore, hundreds of residents have fallen ill, suffering from mouth and abdominal bleeding, skin infections and other ailments. "We [the UNEP] had planned to do a proper, in-depth scientific assessment on the magnitude of the problem. But because of the high levels of insecurity onshore and off the Somali coast, we are unable to carry out an accurate assessment of the extent of the problem," he said.
However, Ould-Abdallah claims the practice still continues. "What is most alarming here is that nuclear waste is being dumped. Radioactive uranium waste that is potentially killing Somalis and completely destroying the ocean," he said.
Ould-Abdallah declined to name which companies are involved in waste dumping, citing legal reasons. But he did say the practice helps fuel the 18-year-old civil war in Somalia as companies are paying Somali government ministers to dump their waste, or to secure licences and contracts.
"There is no government control... and there are few people with high moral ground... [and] yes, people in high positions are being paid off, but because of the fragility of the TFG [Transitional Federal Government], some of these companies now no longer ask the authorities – they simply dump their waste and leave."
Ould-Abdallah said there are ethical questions to be considered because the companies are negotiating contracts with a government that is largely divided along tribal lines. "How can you negotiate these dealings with a country at war and with a government struggling to remain relevant?"
In 1992, a contract to secure the dumping of toxic waste was made by Swiss and Italian shipping firms Achair Partners and Progresso, with Nur Elmi Osman, a former official appointed to the government of Ali Mahdi Mohamed, one of many militia leaders involved in the ousting of Mohamed Siad Barre, Somalia's former president.
At the request of the Swiss and Italian governments, UNEP investigated the matter. Both firms had denied entering into any agreement with militia leaders at the beginning of the Somali civil war. Osman also denied signing any contract.
However, Mustafa Tolba, the former UNEP executive director, told Al Jazeera that he discovered the firms were set up as fictitious companies by larger industrial firms to dispose of hazardous waste.
"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. "It was very shady, and quite underground, and I would agree with Ould-Abdallah’s claims that it is still going on... Unfortunately the war has not allowed environmental groups to investigate this fully."
The Italian mafia controls an estimated 30 per cent of Italy's waste disposal companies, including those that deal with toxic waste.
In 1998, Famiglia Cristiana, an Italian weekly magazine, claimed that although most of the waste-dumping took place after the start of the civil war in 1991, the activity actually began as early as 1989 under the Barre government.
Beyond the ethical question of trying to secure a hazardous waste agreement in an unstable country like Somalia, the alleged attempt by Swiss and Italian firms to dump waste in Somalia would violate international treaties to which both countries are signatories.
Switzerland and Italy signed and ratified the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, which came into force in 1992.
EU member states, as well as 168 other countries have also signed the agreement.
The convention prohibits waste trade between countries that have signed the convention, as well as countries that have not signed the accord unless a bilateral agreement had been negotiated.
It is also prohibits the shipping of hazardous waste to a war zone.
Abdi Ismail Samatar, professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota, told Al Jazeera that because an international coalition of warships has been deployed to the Gulf of Aden, the alleged dumping of waste must have been observed.
"If these acts are continuing, then surely they must have been seen by someone involved in maritime operations," he said.
"Is the cargo aimed at a certain destination more important than monitoring illegal activities in the region? Piracy is not the only problem for Somalia, and I think it's irresponsible on the part of the authorities to overlook this issue."
Mohammed Gure, chairman of the Somalia Concern Group, said that the social and environmental consequences will be felt for decades.
"The Somali coastline used to sustain hundreds of thousands of people, as a source of food and livelihoods. Now much of it is almost destroyed, primarily at the hands of these so-called ministers that have sold their nation to fill their own pockets."
Ould-Abdallah said piracy will not prevent waste dumping. "The intentions of these pirates are not concerned with protecting their environment," he said. "What is ultimately needed is a functioning, effective government that will get its act together and take control of its affairs."