OP-ED: Somalia’s Charcoal Conundrum and the Environmental Side of the Equation

Kismayo49 December 2014 – From one of the largest producers of bananas to one of the largest producers of charcoal, can you imagine the scale of environmental degradation in Somalia and can it be reversed?

We endlessly hear from both local and international media how the exportation of charcoal creates revenue to outlawed militias like al-Shabaab but we often ignore the environmental side effect that is caused by the massive production of charcoal. Yes, the exportation of charcoal is a cash cow for many players — transnational corporations, non-state armed groups, regional administrations, politicians, warlords, business people and among others. But allowing the economic argument to trump all other aspects of the issue is unproductive and unsustainable, not to mention doomed to fail.

In 2012, the UN Security Council passed a resolution to ban the charcoal trade but it was as if the resolution that was meant to solve the conundrum was merely a business ad because the charcoal trade has remained brisk and created more revenue than it used to before the ban. Therefore, the resolution has utterly failed because authorities in the regional administrations and AMISOM, which were meant to implement the resolution, have been inept and even involved in the illegal trade according to a UN monitors’ report released in July. Because of this failure, the UN Security Council recently adopted another resolution that is meant to bolster the ban, i.e. Maritime interdiction of charcoal. It authorizes the interdiction and inspection of suspected vessels bound to or from Somalia without undue delay in Somali territorial waters and on the high seas off the coast of Somalia extending to and including the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf. This is an ambitious resolution but since the authorities to implement it are virtually the same, it’s highly likely to fail.

Revenues from charcoal exports are used by armed groups like al-Shabaab to commit heinous crimes, and cutting down the acacia trees also causes natural disaster. Little is known about the current condition of Somalia’s forest because there has been no government institution to actively deal with forestry issues since the collapse of Siad Barre’s regime. But it’s estimated that Somalia loses about one percent of its forest every year — that’s massive deforestation, and it’s mostly due to the production of charcoal.

Unfortunately many players in the area, including business people and other benefactors of the charcoal business, don’t see this large scale of deforestation as a threat to Somalia’s war torn environment but rather an opportunity to make money and they barely understand anything about the importance of the forest. Environmental degradation and its dreadful impacts are not found in their dictionary of exploitation that’s driven by greed.

The impact of charcoal production on Somalia’s environment

Apart from fuelling the bloody insurgency in the country, charcoal production also has a devastating impact on the environment and those impacts are highly felt by locals and not exploitative transnational corporations. Below are a few of the environmental impacts due to anthropogenic activities such as charcoal production in Somalia;

Climate change: cutting down trees, to make charcoal or timber, will the increase the amount of greenhouse gases especially carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because trees are main fixers of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide forms blanket-like layer in the atmosphere contributing to global warming. The few farmers in the country are perplexed by constant changes in the weather pattern and because of that they don’t know the exact season for planting.

Trees also plays an important role in hydrological cycle. They reduce surface runoff, increase infiltration of storm water as well as evapotranspiration which contributes to cloud-forming process and thus enhance rainfall. Charcoal production has drastically affected the rainfall pattern in the area that is why famine and drought hit Somalia unexpectedly and claims many lives.

Loss of biodiversity is another tragic impact caused by charcoal production. The forest is a large ecosystem that accommodates various kind of animals, and the charcoal business has hit this ecosystem severely. Today it’s very rare if not impossible to see a single elephant in Somalia and before the collapse of Bare’s (former autocrat) regime there were around 40,000 elephants in Somalia. Not only elephants but almost every species went extinct from Somalia’s forest.

Desertification — Somalia is on verge of becoming a desert and it’s a real threat that we can’t ignore or downplay. Areas that were valuable grazing land 10-15 years ago are like a 100-years-old desert today. Pastoralists in those areas fled in search for pasture and some even lost all their livestock and now are in IDP camps.

Reviving Somalia’s forest.

Forest covers a tiny portion of the country but due to lawlessness it’s quickly shrinking. Unless something is done it’s likely to vanish. To save our forest we have to consider the following:

The central government and the federal member states should come up with legislation to curb the indiscriminate destruction of our forest.

The local and international NGOs should invest on rehabilitation and afforestation programs. Experts suggest that replanting trees in the affected areas and maintaining them can reverse this problem.

There must be more focus on the creation of alternative income for the locals who are involved in charcoal production. Those young and energetic men who are cutting down trees are not doing so because of passion but rather lack of source of income and destitution. Business people and transnational corporations take advantage of their situation and exploit them. The local and international NGOs can initiate economic stimulus programs like the one ICRC is doing in southern Somalia to prevent the locals from being exploited.

Understanding and dealing with the root cause of problem instead of dealing with the symptoms is the most sustainable approach. Like drug barons, the beneficiaries of the charcoal business are powerful and are not willing to change the system, however, our environment — the forest — can be saved by mobilizing the locals and creating environmental activists as well as vigilantes.

Final thought….

Charcoal production is causing both human tragedy by fuelling the perennial bloody conflict in the country as well as environmental catastrophes that the world rarely talks about. We should simultaneously try to solve the conundrum. So far, economic sanctions on charcoal is ostensibly futile and therefore we should bolster it with sustainable environmental actions.

Ahmed Hassan is a social activist and critic interested in Somali politics from Dadaab refugee camp. You can find him on Twitter at @pansomalist.

1 reply

  1. Thank you Ahmed for your well presented article on the degradation of Somali environment due to disgruntled and greedy elements who don’t understand on the preservation and the importance of human environment.

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