Although the export of charcoal has been banned by Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the trade is booming in areas controlled by Islamist opposition groups, with locals saying volumes have risen sharply in past months.
"The trade in charcoal in [the port city of] Kismayo seems to be picking up every day, with the current level and intensity being the highest ever," a civil society source, who requested anonymity, told IRIN on 19 January. Previously cutting trees and burning charcoal was a low-key, low-technology affair, but "now they are using very sophisticated saws and equipment".
A Somali member of parliament, Ibrahim Habeb, appealed to Somalis "to think of the future and the best interests of the people". Decimation of trees, he added, was one of the causes of recurring droughts.
Trees and forests, according to the World Agroforestry Centre, play a vital role in regulating the climate since they absorb carbon dioxide – containing an estimated 50 percent more carbon than the atmosphere. Deforestation, in turn, accounts for more than 20 percent of the carbon dioxide humans generate, rivalling the emissions from other sources.
Trees are also crucial in providing a range of products and services to rural and urban populations, including food, timber, fibre, medicines and energy, as well as soil fertility, water and biodiversity conservation.
“More dangerous than piracy”
A civil society source, who requested anonymity, said the charcoal traders were decimating the last remaining forested area in Somalia and, in the process, "destroying our future and the future of our children."
He added: "They must be stopped. This is more dangerous than the piracy problem."
Almost 80-90 percent of exported charcoal passed through Kismayo, 500km south of the capital, Mogadishu, the source added. In the past, ports in Mogadishu and Merka in the south were also used, but local authorities in other parts of the country had banned the trade.
Al-Shabab Islamist insurgents control Kismayo and much of the south of Somalia and have fought the TFG for the past three years. Charcoal export, the source said, was their biggest source of income.
Most of the charcoal is transported to the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, where a bag fetches about US$15. Traders paid about $5 to cut and burn the charcoal. A Kismayo resident, who declined to be named, said three to four vessels loaded with charcoal left the port every week.
Stopping the export of charcoal is a challenge, however, requiring the cooperation of the Gulf countries as well as the Somali business community, said the civil society source.
Somalia is one of 13 African countries that will face water scarcity by 2025, according to the UN Economic Commission for Africa, partly because of human activities such as deforestation for charcoal production, overgrazing or crowding around watering points and other inappropriate land use measures.
According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, overgrazing and uncontrolled harvesting of trees to make charcoal in parts of the north-west and the Kismayo area have led to environmental degradation in Somalia that may be difficult to reverse.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions