The UN Security Council has noted on several occasions that ‘charcoal exports from Somalia are a significant revenue source for Al Shabaab and also exacerbate the humanitarian crisis’. Recent estimates by the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea show that upwards of 40% of Al Shabaab’s funding comes from various forms of involvement with the illegal Somali charcoal trade. There are indications that this has not substantially changed.
Charcoal is made by burning wood in an enclosed area at high temperatures. In Somalia, this is usually done in small space dug out of the earth and enclosed with concrete blocks and brush piled on to seal in the air. This is either done by local Somalis who have no other economic options, or sometimes by local militias with chainsaws. They then sell the charcoal in bags usually weighing about 25kg each to militias to transport to a port.
However, considering the charcoal industry has been behind deforestation in other parts of Africa, one can assume that, with the lack of any oversight or restrictions, the charcoal trade will have a devastating effect on Somalia’s forests. This is also likely to increase the occurrence of desertification in Somalia, depriving pastoralists of grazing land and farmers of cultivatable areas. Income from the charcoal trade also provides important financing for some warlords and faction leaders, enabling them to maintain their strength and continue their predatory regimes. While predatory militias profit from the charcoal industries, it is the more powerful businessmen that are the real power behind the industry. This section of society is powerful enough to hold a veto over any political arrangement that threatens their interests. Thus, any attempts to halt the charcoal industry must court the very businessmen that profit the most from it.
Unfortunately, as forests become sparser but demand in the Gulf States continues or even rises with other fuel costs, intense competition may ensue over controlling the remnants of Somalia’s charcoal industry. There has already been conflict between clans over the charcoal trade, and this will only become more likely as competition intensifies. As deforestation and desertification limit the availability of other natural resources, conflict around these is likely to rise, as well. Somalis who rely on the acacia forests for their livelihood will see their opportunities for supplementing their income decrease, as game dies out, desertification hurts farming, and the eventual destruction of the acacia groves will also end their ability to supplement their income by participating in the charcoal trade. With charcoal supplies shrinking, the cost of fuel for domestic use will also continue to rise, raising the cost of living for Somali families.
The charcoal trade in Somalia takes a heavy toll on the acacia forests of southern Somalia, as traders’ clear-cut entire swaths of forest for shipment to Gulf States. The process of turning cut wood into charcoal is also a rough, dirty process that pollutes the air, although in a very local fashion. While the impact on the global environment and global warming is negligible at best, the ramifications of the charcoal trade on the local environment and the livelihoods of Somalis are drastic.
The Gulf States consumption of charcoal affects Somalia because of its unique political situation, it is unable to handle the increased demand for charcoal in an environmentally sound way. This situation has risen because of the confluence of several factors. First, the Gulf States banned the destruction of their local forests in the late 1980s and early 1990s, creating demand for charcoal imports. Additionally, they also banned Somalia’s primary export at the time, cattle. This dealt Somalia’s economy a tough blow, and pushed many into the charcoal trade. Second, Somali descended into a situation of statelessness where, after 1996, it was possible to export charcoal without concern for the environmental impact. Finally, systems for conducting business without a state have emerged in Somalia that makes their role in international commerce possible.
While the deforestation occurs in Somalia and Somalis feel the environmental impact exclusively, this situation would not be present without the demand for charcoal from Gulf States. Somalis have relied on charcoal as a source of energy for centuries, but have been able to balance domestic consumption with environmental preservation. This increased demand, combined with the lack of a central authority in southern Somalia, has led to the recent environmental crisis.
The conflict over Somalia’s coal is indirect as it deals with the issue of the increasing scarcity of sources of charcoal. As climate change increase rates of desertification in arid and semi-arid areas like Somalia, and populations grow, they will continue to put pressure on the forested areas in southern Somalia. However, the charcoal industry, obviously, has an even more rapid and devastating effect. What contributes to how much charcoal is produced is a complex interaction between several factors. First, without the demand from Gulf States, the opportunities for such huge profits would not drive actors in the charcoal industry. Compounding this is the lack of other economic opportunities, making participating in the charcoal industry an even more attractive option. Finally, what has the power to control the charcoal industry are governments and regional authorities that have power and legitimacy. Only an effective ban encompassing all of Somalia’s important ports and charcoal producing areas will be able to counter the destructive short-term logic of exploiting Somalia’s acacia groves for charcoal exports.
Follow us on Twitter @aprecon