Charcoal Fuelling The Furnace Of Somali Conflict


Opening a two-day conference on charcoal in Mogadishu, the Federal Government of Somalia has called for international cooperation in halting the illegal export of charcoal from its country. The illegal charcoal trade is of major importance to the weak state, due to both the massive environmental damage charcoal production causes and because the Al Shabaab insurgency uses charcoal to fund its campaign.

In 2012, the Somali Government banned charcoal exports and the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution to direct the Member States to “take all the necessary measures to prevent the direct or indirect import of charcoal from Somalia”. Further, in 2017 a UN Monitoring Group recommended that the UNSC authorize member states to seize “vessels proved to have violated the embargo on the export of charcoal from Somalia”. The Monitoring Group estimates that the current level of trade is around 4 million bags per year with a total value of around US $120 million, mainly departing from the ports of Kismayo and Buur Gaabo.

The UN-backed conference this year follows a surge in the charcoal trade, which had dropped from 2015-2016. “We need a holistic response to address the issues of charcoal in Somalia. Both the demand and supply side have to be tackled – and to do this we need cooperation to implement the UN Security Council Resolution and ensure the environmental, economic, and human losses that happen because of illegal charcoal trade are curbed,” said Somali Deputy Prime Minister Mahdi Mohamed Guled, in his opening address to the conference.

The Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General and Resident Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, Peter de Clercq, said the production and use of charcoal aggravates environmental, economic and security issues in Somalia. “The illegal charcoal trade continues to fund insecurity and conflict. It exacerbates inter-clan tensions over control of land and trade and acts as a major source of funding for militias and terrorist groups such as Al-Shabaab, who illegally tax exports of charcoal,” he said.

Mr de Clercq estimated that Al Shabaab made over $10 million off taxing the charcoal trade last year, and around that amount for several preceding years; the UN Monitoring Group makes a similar estimate but calls $10 million a conservative figure. This is down from 2014 when The Economist cites a UN investigators’ report which estimates that Al Shabaab made up to $25 million off the charcoal trade. While the current ban has, therefore, cut into Al Shabaab’s revenue, it is still a large source of income for the group.

Somali charcoal is a profitable industry because it produces superior charcoal to other countries in the region, such as Sudan and Nigeria. This is because charcoal made from Somali acacia trees is particularly prized, as it burns longer than other varieties. Buyers in the Gulf will regularly pay almost twice the price per kilo for Somali charcoal than other varieties. Countries such as the UAE, Oman and Kuwait all have a high demand for Somali charcoal.

Al Shabaab‘s continued charcoal trade and resulting revenue are still possible due to a variety of states not being as proactive as either the Somali Government or the UN would like. For example, in late 2017 UN monitors’ reports specifically cited Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) contingents as having failed to assist Somali operatives in blocking illegal charcoal exports. The KDF troops are in Somalia to help the Government retain control of its territory; however, even in the 2014 report cited in the Economist UN investigators noted that the KDF was allowing charcoal exports to continue so as to skim profits off the trade. The KDF currently has contingents deployed in both Kismayo and Buur Gaabo. The UAE is also regularly cited as the largest destination of these illegal imports, and researcher Rose Worden notes that the relationships between transnational criminal networks operating between Somalia and the UAE which smuggle the charcoal might be more formal than the UAE would like to admit. Other countries such as Djibouti are also regularly referenced as being lax in enforcing the ban.

Other culprits of failing to enforce the ban include internal Somali states such as Jubbaland. Due to the federal structure of Somalia, its states have a high degree of autonomy from the federal government, despite notionally being held responsible. In the case of Jubbaland, enforcing the charcoal ban set by the central government would represent the loss of a significant revenue stream for the state, as much of the charcoal trade is conducted in the region. Further, the President of the Interim Jubbaland Administration, Ahmed Madobe, has links to many aspects of the trade and has known ties with Al Shabaab.

Al Shabaab is able to take revenue from the charcoal trade at many points. The charcoal must be transported from where acacia trees are logged to kilns, where the acacia wood is burned for up to ten days (the Economist’s 2014 report argues that few of the Somali citizens involved in this part of the trade receive few rewards for their hard labour, with the profits being dominated by those higher up the chain). Once burnt and left to cool for an appropriate amount of time, the charcoal is loaded onto merchant ships and taken out of the country, often under false paperwork. Due to Al Shabaab’s control of important areas of Somali territory, the amount of transport required to smuggle the charcoal out of the country means that it either gets taxed many times when moved between stockpiles or between ports, or Al Shabaab runs smuggling operations themselves. Further, both major areas of charcoal production have been under Al Shabaab control, giving them access to the major production points. The whole issue is complicated by the fact that many families in Somalia make their living off the charcoal industry, creating charcoal for domestic consumption. This part of the industry has been around since pre-colonial times and is an important part of the economy; preventing the charcoal production by local groups thus impacts innocent civilians as well as the insurgents.

The production system, especially to produce the quantities to meet overseas demand, has a particularly taxing toll on the environment and is one of the most pressing issues caused by the trade. In talking about the recent conference, the Africa Office Director of the UN Environment agency Juliette Biao said that “this conference will…help us to come up with a solution to see how curbing the unsustainable production of charcoal can also help to strengthen the nexus (between) health and environment.” The UN Environment Agency estimates that between 2011 and 2017, 8.2 million trees were cut down for charcoal production in Somalia. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that tree cover is declining at between 14. And 2.5% each year with no evidence of regrowth. This massive amount of deforestation increases land degradation, food insecurity, and vulnerability to flooding and drought. It also forces local herders off lands as they become unsustainable and unusable; other citizens also have their livelihoods affected by the changing nature of their environment.

“The environmental destruction brought on by the charcoal trade contributes to drought, flooding, the loss of livelihoods and increase in food security. Together with conflicts, this exacerbates the humanitarian situation in Somalia,” said Mr de Clercq. “Due to high levels of poverty in Somalia and lack of opportunities, many are forced to turn to unsustainable and illegal livelihoods, such as charcoal production. The people of this country deserve better”.

The charcoal trade is thus tied up in the Somali conflict on many levels, with the trade extending across the region and funding insurgents and Somali states alike. It impacts everyone from civilians to governments; creates major environmental issues; funds a brutal, barbaric war; and is prized by many international consumers. Any solution will thus have to be multifaceted and take into account the environmental, social and humanitarian considerations associated with the charcoal industry. The tangle of interests in the area mean that the trade is unlikely to be curtailed any further in the near future, despite the best efforts of the Somali Government and the UN, as the lack of motivation (or even recalcitrance) of countries such as the UAE and Djibouti in enforcing the Somali charcoal ban represent major stumbling-blocks to ending its influence in the conflict. As such, the charcoal industry will continue to fund the conflict and destroy the environment, making the situation worse in a country already labelled the world’s “worst humanitarian disaster” by the UNDP.