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Small Island, Big Problem

Ilaria Schlitz
February 6, 2012


With a rise in attacks by Somali pirates in the Lamu archipelago off the northern coast of Kenya come serious implications for locals, hotel and home owners and tourists alike.

According to Rocky Hitchcock, a Senior Security Advisor and expert on piracy at KK Security, “piracy in its current form off the Somali coast can be traced back to c. 2000 – 1.” He went on to explain that piracy can be attributed to over fishing and destruction of the crustacean fish supply by other countries (primarily those in the Eastern hemisphere), which in turn deprived the Somali fishermen of their primary source of income. In response, they began to board foreign fishing boats and demanding payment. From there, they started doing the same to larger commercial vessels. At this point, they started to realize that through this approach they had the potential to gain large sums of money while putting very little in.

Although much of what has been in the news lately regarding the pirates has been focused on Kenya and coastal attacks; they, in fact, extend much further. In recent years, with the the aid of the maritime route through the Aden/Somali gap, they have been able to travel within 300 nautical miles of the Indian coast and to offshore Mozambique. Mr. Hitchcock says that “realistically, [the attacks] are a nuisance rather than a strategic problem” because the cost to maintain the maritime forces is so much larger than the damage done by the pirates themselves.

For the most part,these events have had little effect on Kenya as a whole since it has a limited coastline. In contrast, piracy has had a huge impact on the people of the Lamu archipelago, who rely primarily on tourism for their income, and where my family has a house that we visit for several weeks each year.

For the people of the archipelago piracy is a newer issue. Up until September 2011 the Somalis and the people of the archipelago had gotten along fairly well with very little conflict. In September though, a British journalist David Tebbutt and his wife Judith were on holiday in Kiwayu, just 40 km from the Somali boarder and were attacked. Two weeks later there was another kidnapping, this time much closer to “home”. French citizen,Marie Dedieu, was in her holiday home on the island of Manda, just 1 km from Lamu, when she was kidnapped by a group of Somalis. What did these two kidnappings have in common? In both cases the prisoners were easy targets. The British woman is deaf while Dedieu was confined to a wheelchair. It is unclear as to whether Tebbutt continues to be a held captive, but it is known that Dedieu died while being held hostage.

In response to these events the Kenyan government has sent patrol boats to the archipelago to increase security. The trouble is that there is a limited amount of the government budget that can be allocated to coastal security, and for this reason a group of property owners with a large investmet in Lamu have come together to work alongside the local government and police.

Of course as with any major decision there are varying levels of support. There are those who are very keen on the idea of aiding in the enforcement of current security measures, while others believe that such action would damage the atmosphere as well as the relationship that currently exists with the locals.

The foreign government response has been quite clear. Following the kidnappings both England and France issued travel advisories not to travel to Lamu. This in turn had a large impact on Lamu’s economy. Many hotel reservations were cancelled, and hotels were forced to close for the Christmas season, usually one of the busiest tourist seasons. As for the response of home owners is less clear cut. On the one hand they want to be supportive of the locals and visit Lamu out of solidarity, but at the same time they have to be aware of the risk that they put themselves and their families at by doing so.

We would all like to believe that these events were one off, and that things will soon go back to normal, but how can we be sure? It is for this reason that it is so hard to know what action must be taken by locals, home and hotel owners as well as tourists. Ultimately only time will tell what lays ahead for the Lamu archipelago and its people.

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