Exporting charcoal was a major source of income for al-Shabaab, who taxed the trade at every opportunity: producers, truckers, traders in local markets, and those shipping it abroad. In Somalia’s semi-arid climate, charcoal for export has already taken a massive toll on Acacia groves and forests, and the speed of desertification is accelerating. As a result, United Nations resolution 2038 imposed a complete ban on the direct or indirect export of charcoal from Somali in February 2012, to reduce “terrorist funding” and to prevent an “environmental crime.”
However, expert opinion is united in the assessment that the ban is ineffective. The relative price of charcoal in the Somali market is rising rather than falling, and there is brisk trade in the key harbors. Charcoal profits are shared among a wider group of beneficiaries than previously, but al-Shabaab still profits. Even though it has been driven out of the towns, the organization still has a stranglehold on much of the countryside and can charge producers locally and trucks at roadblocks. The main export points, Barawe and Kismayo, are now controlled by Kenyan AMISOM troops and local militias, which quickly took over the export side from al-Shabaab for their own financial gain.
The open flouting of the trade ban is an embarrassment to the UN and an environmental catastrophe. Unmanaged logging leads to deforestation and a positive feedback cycle, where increasing numbers of people join the run on the remaining trees as their pastoral livelihoods are compromised by desertification. The charcoal business is driven by the following logic: “free trees, cheap labor, low probability of enforcement, and massive pay-offs in Middle Eastern markets.” How can (and should) we change these incentives? What can we learn from counter-piracy, which is also a UN-supported effort to interrupt a profitable and illegal Somali business venture?
Demand for sweet-smelling Somali hardwood charcoal is strong in the Gulf states, which themselves banned domestic charcoal production for environmental reasons. Somali charcoal fetches high prices and is produced cheaply in Somalia, so the trade is highly profitable. Some of the main importers are known Shabaab sympathizers, while the rest willingly accept false paperwork for “black gold.” At present, there is no political incentive to clamp down on imports.
So what about better enforcemhneent? In Mogadishu there is strong presidential support for the charcoal ban. Cutting off funding to al-Shabaab and other militias currently benefitting from the trade would indeed be beneficial for the government. However, criminalizing anything in Somalia is irrelevant as long as the government does not project power in the regions. And all the indications are that, to the extent that government forces are present in the charcoal-producing regions, they are complicit in enabling production and trade. Hence the recent UN Security Council calls for sea-based enforcement by the international naval forces in the region. However, navies do not have a mandate to stop and search vessels suspected of carrying charcoal—nor a legal-follow-through if they find any. Piracy showed that “catch and release” is not a successful deterrent.
Can we change anything about the “cheap labor” aspect? Charcoal has been a mainstay of the Somali economy for many years. People who lose their livestock in times of drought, economic stress, and conflict turn to charcoal to survive. Because there is effectively free entry into the market, workers are paid very low wages, usually less than a dollar a day. Alternative livelihood programs were also tried to address piracy, but the experience shows that financially realistic interventions cannot outbid a highly profitable criminal business. We don’t just have to offer alternative livelihoods to the people currently engaged in the sector, but to all those who stand ready to replace them as well. Raising wages across the board to a level that makes charcoal production unprofitable would be a very long-term project.
The political discourse on piracy has therefore moved on to encourage local communities to turn against piracy, by attaching an income stream to counter-piracy efforts. The charcoal equivalent would be to pay local elites for conservation efforts. We know that Somalia is full of specialists in “governance without government” and that they organize excellent informal protection, as long as it pays. If we invest money in conservation, we ensure that trees would no longer be available “for free.” Reforestation projects would create additional employment. High-resolution satellite imagery is used to track deforestation; it can also be used to allocate resources to effective woodland managers.
This policy would have a further advantage over an effective export ban, which would hit the already poor households engaged in the charcoal sector twice. First, it would reduce demand for their labor. Second, the vessels picking up charcoal arrive carrying food and fuel. If they do the return journey empty, then prices for imported food and energy will rise, endangering food security. With this comes the danger of internal displacement and political revolt emanating from the stakeholders in the charcoal sector.
To conclude, the most promising avenue for changing the calculation of people engaged in the charcoal business is to solve the “problem of the commons.” Local elites need to enforce property rights over acacia forests. Conservation grants will enable them to take a long-term view on resource management, rather than taking a fistful of dollars to acquiesce in the destruction of their ancient woodlands.