Somalia’s illicit charcoal trade threatens security, the environment and livelihoods

Stockpiles of charcoal cast long shadows that shield motorists from the scorching sun on the road that links the southern port of Buur Gaabo to the capital Mogadishu in the north.

Charcoal producers and traders can be seen packing their trucks near Mogadishu.

Some two million trees are felled every year in the trade worth $120-million, a UN estimate shows. It names the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman as the key buyers.

Of those $120-million, at least $10-million are siphoned off by al-Shabaab, the Islamist militant group fighting the government.

Somalia and UN consider the problem

Representatives from the UN and the Somali government came together in Mogadishu this month to consider the main aspects of the problem – the security situation and the impact of the trade on the lives of people and the environment.

Trader Hassan Omar told DW al-Shabaab fighters arrive “from time to time” to collect payments from traders who operate in areas under its control.

But the charcoal trade is his livelihood in the war-torn country, Omar said.

“We cut trees because of the problems we face. It is next to impossible to get employed. There is no river. If we had farms and water, we could have planted and earned a living. But in such an arid area, how can you survive? The only way is to cut the trees, they are our cash crop,” Omar explained.

Concern is growing that Somalia is slowly turning into a desert due to the loss of an estimated 8.2 million trees between 2011 and 2017 alone.

It experiences periodic drought and flooding due to climate change. 

Aden Guro once traded in charcoal but is now firmly behind the ban.

“Without environment there is no life. I urge the government to take action and stop this smuggling of our charcoal to Arab lands. If there is no way to sell this charcoal, al-Shabaab will obviously stop,” Guro told DW.

Biggest market in the Gulf

At the UN-backed summit in Mogadishu, Somalia said it wants to cooperate with Africa and the Middle East to stop the export of charcoal.

Deputy Prime Minister Mahdi Mohamed Guled expressed concern that Gulf countries were such great consumers of Somali charcoal and urged them to seek alternatives.

Juliette Bia, the Director of the UN Environment Programme, spoke to DW about possible solutions to the problem.

“It is not realistic to ban without finding alternative solutions to energy. We need to also keep in mind that one of the causes of a sustainable charcoal production and consumption is also poverty because charcoal production has long been providing livelihood opportunities for many families,” she said.

“So if you want to find an adequate solution, you have to look at the root causes, one of which is poverty, addressing poverty, addressing livelihood. Investment opportunity for business will also be something to look into.”

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