Charcoal production has been in existence since the creation of the horn of Africa state. Output from this industry is consumed both locally and internationally. Somalia started the exportation of this lucrative commodity back in the 1970s making it the backbone of its economy. Up until 1991, 50% of Somalia's charcoal produce was exported to the Gulf States. Later on, livestock exportation gradually took over the export market but soon after that Saudi Arabia banned the importation of livestock from Somalia due to poor health standards. It was only two weeks ago when Saudi Arabia lifted the ban on importation of livestock from Somalia.
The lure of income from charcoal trade proved to be overpowering as traders, especially the low income earners turned to charcoal as their only source of income. The enterprise requires minimal capital and depends largely on human labour. The major effect of this economic incentive is gradual degradation of arable and pasture land which leads to long term desertification. Currently 80% of Somalia’s charcoal output is exported mainly to Saudi Arabia, Yemen and United Arab Emirates (UAE).
According to the Somalia Ecological Society (SES) 70,000 tonnes of charcoal are exported annually from Somalia.
If an Acacia tree can produce an estimate of 8 to 10 sacks of charcoal, 25kgs each, one can easily estimate the magnitude of annual deforestation in Somalia. Somalia Ecological Society estimated the deforestation rate in Somalia to be 35,000 hectares per year.
Previous Somali regimes have done little to combat the booming enterprise. There was no restriction and regulation imposed on this industry. Recently the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) requested that the United Nations (UN) ban the exportation of charcoal from Somalia, not because it was slowly turning Somalia into a Sahara desert but simply because charcoal exportation is a reliable income generating enterprise for the al-Shabaab militia. The insurgents use Kismayo and Barawo ports as their major exporting points. Three months later, on 25th February 2012 the United Nations heeded this call and the UN monitoring group banned the exportation of what it referred to as ‘black gold’. This means that the Gulf countries must refrain from using charcoal which is imported from Somalia. Bearing in mind the huge market for this cheap source of energy, this objective may be difficult to attain.
Competition in charcoal production has intensified as various clans have turned to it as a source of livelihood after the recent droughts resulted in loss of livestock.
For a better understanding of what the charcoal trade involves, Somalia Report spoke to a charcoal trader in Burgaabo who preferred to identify himself as Hassan (not real name).
“I have been working as a charcoal trader for eight years now. Aside from that, I also own twenty goats that I purchased using income generated from the charcoal business. This is the only enterprise that can provide a reliable source of earning in this area. That is what has forced me to do this job so I can fend for my family,” he said.
In regard to production of the commodity, Hassan described it as a labour intensive and difficult activity.
“Charcoal production cannot be handled by one person but an average of four to five men. We start felling acacia trees and chopping them into almost 1.5 meter long logs. We then dig the ground and arrange the logs in piles. We cover the logs with steel drums or leaves during the rainy season. This is done to minimize air circulation in the enclosure and convert the logs to charcoal. The final step is setting fire to the pile,” he described.
To produce 20 sacks of 25kg each, two huge acacia trees are felled. Charcoal prices are an average of $5 and are sold to merchants. The charcoal merchants in turn sell the commodity to Arab countries at $10 to $15 when the demand is high. However, lower prices of $2 were applied for sale of charcoal to al-Shabaab militia when they were in control of the area. The militia imposed taxes on loads of donkey carts ranging between $2 to $3. Hassan informed us in hushed tones that there are still al-Shabaab agents who trade in charcoal using capital from the Mujahideen after which they send the profits to the fighters.
Charcoal burners and pastoralists are currently at loggerheads due to the obvious state of environmental degradation and its impact on livestock. Abdullahi Gedi is a herdsman who expressed his disappointment in the current state of affairs.
“I don’t know what the TFG is doing. How can they remain aloof and fail to take legal action against these miserly people who are focused on destroying our future? Everyone knows that livestock is the backbone of our economy. These charcoal burners go to the extent of cutting flourishing green trees after exhausting the dry and dead wood. They do this for their selfish needs. I have seen trees with stems chopped off and ‘magadi’ (salt) inserted in that section so as to induce gradual drying of the trees,” he said. A frustrated Gedi insisted that they will no longer tolerate such selfish actions and interest by the charcoal burners.
Somalia Report contacted a TFG conservation official in Gedo region who conceded that the cutting of trees is an offense in Somalia today unlike in the past.
“I am not surprised that charcoal burners are doing this intensively. I believe our institutions are not well developed or have the capacity to impose any form of restriction on such trade. It is also difficult to implement and reinforce laws when there is minimal or no government presence on the ground," he said.
The charcoal industry in Somalia spells disaster for the indigenous acacia trees which are now confined to riverside areas of Shabelle and Juba. Widespread tree cutting has resulted in low rainfall production and limited atmospheric purification. Once a forest is destroyed mass wasting is impossible to prevent and soil erosion cripples farming produce and livestock rearing. Somali leaders must rise to this challenge and invest in the future of their country before it is no more. Environmental conservation is as deserving of adequate attention and resources as combat and military engagement. It is the one common enemy among all Somalis.