Fueling the Flames: How Armed Conflicts and Climate Change Shape the Charcoal Trade in Somalia
Author: Irshad Mohamud Sheik Dahir
Advisor: Asst. Prof. Warathida Chaiyapa, PhD
Co-advisor: Dr. Lisa Kenney
Somalia, a country plagued by armed conflicts and environmental vulnerabilities, has witnessed the emergence of a thriving charcoal trade. The demand for charcoal, primarily in neighboring countries and the Gulf region, has fueled the expansion of illegal logging and deforestation in Somalia. The charcoal trade has become a lucrative source of income for armed groups, perpetuating conflicts and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in the country. Additionally, climate change-induced droughts and desertification further contribute to the environmental degradation caused by the charcoal trade. Therefore, this policy brief examines the complex relationship between armed conflicts, climate change, and the charcoal trade in Somalia. Furthermore, it highlights the critical challenges associated with the charcoal trade. It offers policy recommendations to address this issue effectively, as the charcoal trade has become a significant driver of conflicts and environmental degradation in the country, exacerbating existing challenges and hindering sustainable development in Somalia.
Figure 1: Forging Security: Government Arms and Peacekeepers in Charcoal’s Realm
The charcoal trade has become a vital source of income for millions in Somalia. However, this critical sector is marred by violence and environmental destruction due to climate change and armed conflicts. These two factors are crucial in shaping this business’s intricate dynamics. Armed conflicts have ravaged natural resources, displaced populations, and increased poverty. Somalia has relied on the export of charcoal, livestock, skins, and bananas since the 1970s. Charcoal and firewood are the principal energy sources of most Somali homes, and the charcoal industry provides many rural Somalis with stable incomes (Connolly-Boutin & Smit, 2016). Despite many attempts to restrict charcoal production in Somalia in the 1990s due to the environmental damage it causes, the business has grown since the country’s collapse (Gaworecki, 2015). Terrorist organizations like Al-Shabaab have benefited financially from this sector’s expansion, and there have been conflicts between woodcutters and rural inhabitants whose livelihoods have been endangered by deforestation and soil erosion (Kara, 2019). Climate change exacerbated these problems by causing droughts, desertification, and deforestation caused by the human cutting trees. The escalating frequency and severity of extreme weather events and natural disasters is one consequence of climate change that has been acknowledged at both the national and regional levels (Global Forest Watch, 2022). Costs associated with climate change disasters are rising, highlighting the continued importance of climate catastrophe risk reduction to national prosperity (Mosley, 2015). Furthermore, the illicit removal of trees in Somalia to produce charcoal for export is an act that depletes the national capital without benefiting society or the country’s natural resources in the long run. The most apparent effects of this action are desertification, soil erosion, and environmental degradation generally. The long-term consequences of desertifying the country’s sparse forest areas will be the most significant cost of these charcoal production activities (Elmi, 2018).
Figure 2: The Armed Violence in Somalia
The intersection between poverty, armed conflicts, climate change, and the charcoal trade demands multifaceted solutions to tackle them fully. According to the United States Treasury Department, the Al-Shabaab group makes around $100 million annually through various routes. It is believed that almost a quarter of this revenue is spent on weapons and explosives (Ido & Yusuf, 2021). Al-Shabaab has established a vast racket consisting of checkpoint fees, levies on imported commodities, and zakat, an annual Islamic levy (Ogallo, Omondi, Ouma, & Wayumba, 2018). The gang is one step ahead of regional and local military operations. In conjunction with their opponents’ dysfunction and fragmentation, the militants’ adaptability has enabled them to integrate into Somali society. It also makes them difficult to beat, which has allowed the gang to continue profiting substantially from illegally sold charcoal taxes (Grobbelaar, 2022). Environmental crimes such as unlawful logging, fishing, mining, wildlife trafficking, and waste disposal are expected to cost between $70 billion USD and $213 billion USD annually, according to the study (World Bank, 2018). Illegal logging was worth between $30 billion and $100 billion per year, while wildlife trafficking was worth between $7 billion and $24 billion per year.
Organized criminals, militias, and terrorist groups, notably in certain African states, have amassed a substantial share of this unlawful money (UNEP, 2018). Al-Shabaab earns between $8 and $18 million each year from a single roadblock in Badhadhe District, Lower Juba Region, of Jubbaland, Somalia. This road tax on charcoal trucks appears to be the primary source of income for the terrorist group (World Bank, 2018). From 2001 to 2012, Somalia lost around 7.554 hectares of forest, or 0.02 percent of its total land area, according to Global Forest Watch. The annual value of Somalia’s whole illegal export of charcoal is estimated at 360 and 384 million dollars (Global Forest Watch, 2022). In Dubai, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, charcoal for cooking meat manufactured from perfumed Acacia wood (Acacia bussei) is a highly coveted luxury commodity. Kismayo, an important seaport in Al-Shabaab-controlled southern Somalia, is renowned for producing high-quality charcoal (Menkhaus, 2017). Somalia has limited forested areas, with about 9% of the land comprising low-density woodlands mainly consisting mainly of Acacia trees. However, Somalia boasts the longest coastline in Africa, enabling trade with the Middle East and East Africa. The region experiences water scarcity due to low and variable rainfall and high potential evaporation rates. Frequent droughts and subsequent devastating floods further exacerbate water shortages and threaten rural communities dependent on rainwater and livestock. Charcoal production plays a significant role in the energy sector and local economies but contributes to deforestation, desertification, and environmental degradation. Illegal tree removal for charcoal production negatively impacts the nation’s capital and grazing lands, affecting nomadic communities (Elmi, 2018).
II. Charcoal Governance: Reviewing the existing Policies on Charcoal Trade in Somalia
Somalia lacks specific laws and policies regulating charcoal production, trade, and use. However, various plans, policies, and strategies generally address the charcoal value chain of Somalia. The Somalia National Development Plan 2020-2024 focuses on developing resilient communities, raising awareness of alternative energy sources, and supporting the regeneration of degraded lands and forests. The National Disaster Management Policy (2018) formerly implemented by the Ministry of Humanitarian and Disaster Management of the Federal Government of Somalia, aims to improve community resilience and preparedness, incorporating disaster risk reduction into national development plans. Furthermore, the Provisional Constitution of Somalia in 2012, recognizes the importance of protecting the environment and natural resources. It mandates that the government reverse desertification, deforestation, and environmental degradation and adopt general environmental policies in consultation with the Federal Member States. However, the constitution must provide detailed guidelines or mechanisms for regulating charcoal production and trade.
Historically, the Decree of the Supreme Revolutionary Council of Somalia No. 6 of 1969 banned charcoal and firewood exports; consequently, the United Nations Security Council authorized several resolutions, including resolution no—2036 of 2012, 2182 of 2014, and Resolution No. 2385 of 2017. Somalia’s successive federal governments reaffirmed all these resolutions; notably, Somalia’s Cabinet of Ministers reaffirmed these acts on 19 April 2018, but their effectiveness and enforcement were limited and it could have been improved (UNDP, 2018).
Additionally, gaps exist in the legal framework. The regulation of charcoal production, trade, and its environmental impact in Somalia faces significant challenges and gaps. This sector lacks specific laws and policies that directly address charcoal production and trade. This has resulted in unregulated and unsustainable practices, contributing to deforestation, environmental degradation, and exacerbating the effects of climate change.
III. Confronting Charcoal Trade Challenges: Armed Conflicts and Climate Change in Somalia
The widespread illegal charcoal trade in Somalia is a cause for great concern as it poses significant threats to the country’s socio-political stability and efforts toward sustainable development. The lack of robust regulatory frameworks and institutional capacity has fueled the spread of this illicit trade, further compounding the problem. In addition, the weak governance structures have enabled the expansion of the illicit charcoal trade, which has, in turn, exacerbated the already unstable socio-political environment in Somalia and hindered efforts toward sustainable progress. Policymakers must take swift action by introducing effective regulations and building institutional capacity to counteract this issue. Failure to do so will only lead to more harm being inflicted on Somalia’s economic growth and its environmental sustainability, not forgetting its social fabric. By tackling these challenges head-on, we can ensure a brighter future for all Somalis while promoting peacebuilding via sustainable economic development programs within their communities.
The charcoal trade in Somalia presents significant challenges that require urgent attention and coordinated efforts at various levels. Key challenges include ():
- Security Risks: The charcoal trade has been linked to armed conflicts in Somalia, with various factions and armed groups such as Al-Shabaab are controlling and profiting from the trade. This exacerbates existing security challenges and hampers efforts for regional peace and stability.
- Environmental degradation: The charcoal trade in Somalia is resulting in widespread deforestation, leading to soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, and desertification. This poses a severe threat to the country’s already vulnerable ecosystem.
- Resource Scarcity: Charcoal production is driven by the demand for cooking fuel in urban areas and neighboring countries. The unsustainable extraction of trees for charcoal production contributes to resource scarcity, particularly in rural communities that rely on forests for their livelihoods.
- Livelihoods and Poverty: Many vulnerable communities in Somalia depend on the charcoal trade for their livelihoods. Establishing alternative income-generating activities, supporting sustainable agriculture, and offering vocational training can create alternative livelihood options and alleviate poverty.
IV. Driving Forces: Factors Encouraging Charcoal Production and Trade in Somalia
The demand for charcoal in Somalia is influenced by multiple factors that drive its production and trade. Rapid urbanization in the country has increased the need for charcoal as a primary energy source due to limited access to alternative options. Additionally, regional and international demand play a significant role, with neighboring countries relying on Somali charcoal to meet their own energy needs and because of its long burning period, contrary to their own charcoal. Despite its negative environmental and social consequences, the charcoal trade remains profitable, further incentivizing its continuation. Moreover, the prevalence of poverty and limited employment opportunities push many Somalis into the charcoal trade as a means of survival. Ultimately, weak governance structures and inadequate law enforcement exacerbate the situation, enabling the proliferation of illegal charcoal production and trade in Somalia. The following are the main factors that encourage the continuation of this trade ():
- Demand from urban areas: Rapid urbanization in Somalia has led to an increased demand for charcoal, driven by population growth and limited access to alternative energy sources.
- Regional and international demand: The charcoal trade extends beyond Somalia’s borders, with neighboring countries, particularly those experiencing their own resource scarcity, being significant importers of Somali charcoal.
- Profitability: The high profitability of the charcoal trade incentivizes its continuation, despite its negative environmental and social consequences.
- Poverty and unemployment: Widespread poverty and limited employment opportunities push many Somalis into the charcoal trade as a means of survival.
- Weak governance and law enforcement: Somalia’s weak governance structures and inadequate law enforcement contribute to the proliferation of illegal charcoal production and trade.
V. Policy Limitations
The policy limitations surrounding charcoal production and trade in Somalia have significantly affected environmental and climate changes. In this context, addressing the gaps in governmental policies and regulations is crucial for promoting sustainable practices and mitigating the environmental impact of the charcoal industry. Overcoming these policy limitations is essential to regulate charcoal production effectively and trade in Somalia, in order to protect the environment, mitigate climate change, and promote sustainable development. It requires the development of specific legislation, strengthening enforcement mechanisms, enhancing coordination and cooperation, and promoting alternative energy sources as viable alternatives to charcoal. In summary one must understood that the following limitations are there ():
- Lack of specific legislation: One of the critical policy limitations in Somalia regarding charcoal production and trade is the absence of specific legislation dedicated to this sector. This lack of specific laws hampers the effective control and management of the charcoal industry, contributing to unsustainable practices and environmental degradation.
- Inadequate enforcement:Another crucial policy limitation is the inadequate enforcement of existing regulations. This allows for continuing illegal charcoal production and trade, undermining efforts to mitigate deforestation and combat climate change. Strengthening enforcement mechanisms and increasing the capacity of relevant authorities is essential to address this limitation.
- Limited coordination and cooperation:Effective regulation of charcoal production and trade requires strong coordination and cooperation among different stakeholders, including the federal government, Federal Member States, and neighboring countries. However, there are significant challenges in achieving such collaboration. Coordinating efforts among multiple entities and ensuring consistent implementation of policies and regulations remain significant policy limitations.
- Insufficient alternative energy promotion:Promoting alternative energy sources is crucial to reduce reliance on charcoal and to mitigate its environmental impact. However, Somalia’s current policies and initiatives have limited focus on promoting and incentivizing alternative energy options. Insufficient investment and support for renewable energy technologies and sustainable practices contribute to the continued demand for charcoal as a primary energy source.
VI. Policy Recommendations:
The charcoal trade, exacerbated by the armed conflicts and climate change in Somalia, poses significant challenges, including governance issues, environmental degradation, and the influence of terrorist groups such as Al-Shabaab.
- Firstly, the most urgent policy needed is strengthening governance and law enforcement. The Federal Government of Somalia should enhance its institutional capacity and governance structures to regulate and monitor the charcoal trade effectively. Achieving this goal requires the development of a comprehensive National Charcoal Policy, harmonizing and streamlining regional and national regulations, reviewing and amending existing initiatives, and developing strong mechanisms to enforce the ban on charcoal export by the United Nations. Additionally, establishing local forest guards can help create an institutional framework that operates efficiently and effectively at the national, regional, district, and community levels.
- The second most important policy that should be implemented is strengthening the security institutions. To reduce the influence of terrorist groups on the charcoal trade of Somalia, it is crucial to strengthen the security apparatus to counteract the terrorists’ involvement in this business and to double the enforcement efforts and border control measures. The Somali government should enhance the capacity and training of the relevant law enforcement agencies, such as the police and customs officials, to effectively detect and intercept illegal charcoal trade activities. This includes increasing surveillance at border crossings, conducting thorough inspections of vehicles and cargo equipment, and implementing advanced tracking systems to monitor the movement of the charcoal trade. Collaboration with international partners, neighboring countries, such as Kenya, and regional organizations should be prioritized to enhance intelligence sharing and joint operations against terrorist networks involved in the trade. Collaborative efforts among countries in the region, including intelligence sharing, policy harmonization, developing regional strategies, and joint operations, are imperative for effectively curbing the illegal charcoal trade.
- After instituting policies one and two above, alternative energy sources should be invested. The Federal Government of Somalia, in collaboration with its partners, including the business sector and the Federal Member States (FMS), must promote the development and adoption of affordable and sustainable alternative energy sources to reduce the demand for charcoal. This will also undermine the appeals and recruitment of terrorist groups among local communities engaged in the charcoal trade. Therefore, the Somali government should prioritize community engagement and alternative livelihood initiatives and provide technical and financial support to enhance sustainable forest management practices and reforestation efforts in Somalia. The efforts must also prioritize investing in vocational training, job creation, and income-generating projects that provide viable charcoal production and trade alternatives.
- Finally, and for the longer term, all climate-resilient measures must be integrated. The Federal Government of Somalia should prioritize reforestation programs, sustainable land management, and climate-smart technologies to restore degraded landscapes, reduce carbon emissions, and enhance community resilience to climate change impacts. Furthermore, promoting climate-smart technologies and practices among local communities, such as efficient cookstoves and sustainable land-use planning, can reduce the demand for charcoal while addressing climate vulnerabilities.
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() This was revealed in an online interview with three Environmental Management and Climate Change Experts working with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Ministry of Environment and Climate Change of the Federal Government of Somalia, (MoECC) and Office of the Prime Minister of Somalia respectively (Online interview, 2023).
() UNDP (2018). Development of National and Regional Policies for Reducing Charcoal Production, Trade, and Use in Somalia and neighboring Countries. Gaps Analysis Report. This was also revealed in an interview with environmental Management Expert working with the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change of the Federal Government of Somalia (interview, 2023).
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