The Export of Charcoal: A Colossal Loss of Somali Forests

Published on 12th November 2012

The production and export of charcoal represent a colossal loss of the country’s forests. The environment in Somalia has already been severely degraded due to conflict and unsustainable use of natural resources. The ecosystems and livelihoods of the people have been heavily impacted due to floods, famine, droughts, and climate change. Moreover, water depletion is a permanent crisis in many areas. Illegal harvesting of marine resources by foreign vessels and wildlife exploitation are of major concern.

Bearing this reality in mind, the first Cabinet of the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia, formed following the conclusion of the Djibouti Peace Process in 2009, had deemed absolutely imperative to address these challenges head-on. It was the Government’s conviction then that acceding to Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) would present the best opportunity for the country to join the global community in combating the impacts of: the climate change, the increasing loss of biodiversity, the depletion of the ozone layer, and deforestation and land degradation, and also bring to their attention (the global community) the inherently dangerous consequences of the continued environmental degradation in Somalia and its regional and global impacts. 

This has led to the Government’s accession to and the re-activation of, among other important conventions, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer and the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Protocol on Biosafety, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol, the Basel Convention on the Control of Trans-boundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), the Nairobi Convention for the Protection, Management and Development of the Marine and Coastal Environment of the Eastern African Region, and the Programme for the Environment of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden (PERSGA).

During Somalia’s participation in the Climate Change Summit convened in Copenhagen in December 2009, following its accession to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Head of the Somali Delegation at the Summit drew everyone’s attention to, among other important issues, the following:

“Somalia has experienced dramatic environmental shifts following two decades of insecurity and chaos in the country. The protracted crisis has led to an unsustainable use of the country’s resources. Corrupt businessmen, warlords, and other violent radical groups, with the help of external spoilers, have contributed to deforestation and depletion of our wildlife resources.”

“The cutting of trees and the making of charcoal is still considered a lucrative source of revenue for these warlords and for the radical extremists. They export charcoal to some of the countries in the area, where logging is forbidden and the local forests are more protected. The revenue accrued from this export is used in the perpetuation of further exploitation of the country’s resources and in the prolongation of anarchy and violence. This overexploitation of resources and the indiscriminate cutting of trees have led to deforestation and desertification and, as a result, made the country more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The lives and livelihoods of our farmers and of the local communities have been seriously affected by the impacts of the climate change.”

The leadership in the first cabinet of the Somali Transitional Federal Government formed in Djibouti in 2009 had consistently reiterated the inherently dangerous consequences of charcoal export at COP 16 in Cancun, at the Arab League meetings in Cairo and in other venues, at the African Ministerial Conferences for Environment (AMCEN), and at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi. The formulation of Somalia’s Environmental Strategies undertaken by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry of the first cabinet of the TFG in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Somalia Agriculture Technical Group (SATG) had underscored the importance of, inter-alia, the conservation and development of forest resources through the introduction of fuel-wood plantations and the popularization of fuel efficient stoves to reduce tree cutting and charcoal production.

The Ministry of Environment and Forestry in the same cabinet of the TFG had also put forth a plan that called for a Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment throughout the country to determine the level and magnitude of conflict-induced forms of environmental degradation, and to obtain baseline data on the environment following a conflict. This would have helped in the setting of priorities for environmental recovery, and would have assisted in making informed environmental decision-making processes, particularly on issues related to deforestation and toxic waste dumping in the Somali territorial waters. The findings of this assessment in terms of the damage caused to the forests, for instance, would have helped in exerting pressure on those countries which import charcoal from Somalia to stop dealing with the corrupt businessmen and the radical groups involved in the exportation of charcoal.

I hoped that post-Sharmarke cabinets would build on the progress made in terms of the MEAs’ accessions and the implementations of its various provisions. A huge opportunity has ostensibly been squandered. The work related to the follow-up and implementation of some of the most cogent provisions of the Environmental Conventions should have been relegated to institutions – both governmental and non-governmental – and not necessarily to “individuals.” An effort should have been made to reduce the disconnect that exists between governmental and non-governmental actors and promote a strong partnership. Empowering the non-governmental actors would have, for instance, promoted the creation of public awareness as regards the negative impacts of charcoal production and export.

AMISOM has let us all know that charcoal is being exported out of Somalia despite the UN Security Council Resolution 2036. Other sources confirm that boats are shipping out charcoal from Kismayo Port and AMISOM “regrets” that this is occurring notwithstanding the ejection of Al Shabaab from there. Can anybody give us any explanation why the boats are carrying charcoal under the watch of the AU soldiers without resisting the move? If resisting the export of charcoal from the Kismayo Port is not part of the mandate of AMISOM, then what about the charcoal-violence nexus? Isn’t this export an important underlying factor that induces violence in Somalia? 

Ostensibly, this export continues unabated notwithstanding the UN Security Council Resolution 2036. The neighbouring States that import Somali charcoal are Parties to the Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs).  They must be held to account for failing to comply with the main Obligations of Parties under these International Conventions. The States that are suspected of being the main importers of the Somali charcoal are considered to be some of the staunchest supporters of the Climate Change Convention, the Convention on Biological Biodiversity, and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. And yet they are taking part in stripping bare our remaining forests.  Logging in their countries is forbidden and their forests are more protected.

The new Parliament and Government of Somalia must respond vigorously to what is happening in terms of the charcoal export. The continued export of charcoal is tantamount to a further fuelling of insecurity and devastation in Somalia. The countries that have illegally benefited from our charcoal must accept to internalize the social costs of the environmental externalities, and help Somalia in its reforestation programmes. They must also accept to fulfil their international obligations as spelled out in the provisions of the Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) which call for, inter-alia, a response to global environmental challenges.

By Buri M. Hamza

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