Sacks of charcoal, stacked as high as 10-storeys, are a common sight in Somalia’s port city of Kismayu. The city, which lies some 485 kilometres southwest of the capital Mogadishu, is best known for its trade in charcoal.
Most of the charcoal is shipped to the Gulf countries — despite a United Nations ban on exports in 2012. The majority of Somalis also use it as the fuel of choice in their homes.
The charcoal comes from the south, where a sack goes for $5. The same sack fetches a higher price when smuggled into Kismayu or Bur Gaabo port towns. Bur Gaabo is some 60km from the Kenyan border.
But behind this booming trade is the slow-growing acacia tree from which the charcoal is derived. About four trees are burned to get fuel for one family for a year. This translates to around eight million trees each year. Each tree produces seven to 10 sacks of charcoal.
It is also in the south that industrial production of charcoal for export is done. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that the total production for export is about four times that for domestic use.
It is thus a fitting tribute to Somalia that the first international conference on charcoal was held in the capital from May 7-8. The agenda was how to stop the illegal trade, curb the unsustainable production and use of charcoal and develop alternative sources of energy.
In attendance were senior United Nations representatives, international and Somali environment experts and donors.
Somalia exports around 1.65 million tonnes of charcoal to the Gulf countries.
On one end of the export chain is a group of 10 to 20 men, hired by the traders to cut down the acacia trees, some of which are 500 years old.
The average size of trees felled is declining since the stock of mature trees is being depleted, with no evidence of regrowth. The wood is then burnt in crude kilns on the earth for around 10 days and left to cool for another 10.
The chain is long. The burners get $5 per bag from the trader, who sells at $11 to a supplier after paying enroute taxation of $1 and transportation cost of $2.5.
Then wholesaler buys at $30 from the trader, pays a loading charge of $5, false paper work of $1.5 and shipping cost of $2.5.
Some of the false paper work used to conceal the Somali origin of illegal charcoal cargo has Tanzanian, Kenyan, Ghana, Gambia, Cote d’Ivoire and Djibouti certificates of origin.
At the port of Kismayu or Bur Gaabo, the charcoal is loaded onto small dhows to various Gulf destinations. Approximately 15 dhows with the charcoal depart from the two ports every month.
The main trafficking route is northeast from Bur Gaabo and Kismayu along the Somalia coast towards Puntland, through the Socotra gap, northeast along the coast of Oman, and northwest into the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf.
The potential destination ports for illicit charcoal exports are in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iran and Kuwait.
“There is a significant obligation on countries to stop importing Somali charcoal and to adhere to the ban. If they continue importing charcoal, the ban will not work. That is the other part of the equation,” Somali-Eritrea Monitoring Group natural resources expert Charles Cater said at the charcoal conference.
UN ban on exports
A 2012 United Nations Security Council resolution banned the export of charcoal from Somalia due to its destructive effect on the environment, and that it was intensifying conflict and humanitarian crises.
But according to the Somali Eritrea Monitoring Group, the trade has continued apace, with the market value of the exported commodity rising to more than $250 million in the two years following the ban.
The revenue is fuelling terrorism and terrorist operations by financing troop salaries as well as buying arms and ammunition, the Group notes.
It reckons that the Al Shabaab collects checkpoint taxation of $2.50 per bag from more than four million bags, which cumulatively adds up to $10 million per year. It estimates the value is likely to double to at least $20 million from revenue-sharing.
The Monitoring Group also claims that the defence forces contingent of the African Union Mission to Somalia (Amisom), and the Jubba administration have frustrated the charcoal smuggling sanctions, which has helped Al-Shabaab financing to flourish, thereby undermining counter-terrorism efforts.
“The problem comes when the forces and the institutions that have capacity to implement the sanctions are not living up to their obligation under the national law.
“The federal government of Somalia and Amisom are the entities that have the forces on the ground, deployed at the ports of Kismayu and Bur Gaabor, near the storehouse and could physically prevent the export of charcoal,” said Dr Cater.
The Monitoring Group also accuses Amisom of denying it access to charcoal exporting ports.
“In June 2017, after arriving at Bur Gaabo, three members of the Somali Eritrea Monitoring Group were not permitted to leave a Kenya Defence Forces Amisom base to inspect the nearby charcoal stockpile,” says the Monitoring Group in a report.
Implementing the ban
In a rejoinder, Amisom deputy special representative for Somalia Simon Mulongo told The EastAfrican on the sidelines of the conference that implementing the UN resolution on the ban on charcoal export is challenging because of the lean staff.
“We are overstretched as our area of operation is vast and the number of forces has declined by 1,000, and this year unless the UN says otherwise, we are likely to cut down by another 1,000. This places us in a precarious position; we are not capable of undertaking general policing because of the reducing numbers,” said Mr Mulongo.
He added: “We are here for warfare; all facilities are for countering insurgency and terrorism, so as much as we are willing to stop charcoal trade, between a vehicle carrying charcoal and a terrorist running away, we will give priority to chasing a terrorist.”
The Amisom chief also admitted that some soldiers had been incriminated in the illegal charcoal trade. The cases have been referred to the member states.
“We have some two cases where we have evidence of soldiers being accomplices with the terrorists and we have referred them to the member state with evidence of their culpability, to act according to their national laws; there are also several cases where there was no evidence,” said Mr Mulongo.
According to him, Amisom’s role in countering smuggling of charcoal would be more successful with the co-operation of the local authorities.
In theory, the burning of charcoal need not be so destructive. Environment experts recommend that sustainable production of charcoal is possible if cultivating acacia trees can be practised in the drylands. This will ensure that trees are not just cut, but new ones are planted.
Somali people also need alternative sources of energy so they can and reap the benefits of the acacia tree, among them enhancing soil stabilisation and fertility through biological nitrogen fixation.
Currently, with swathes of land left bare, a large amount of sediment is deposited in the river beds, leading to flooding.