To Fuel the Mideast's
Grills, Somalia Smolders
By MARC LACEY
25 July 2002
The New York Times
Page 4, Column 3
MOGADISHU, Somalia -- Before it ends up in a grill somewhere in the
Middle East, searing lamb or beef, Somalia's ''black gold'' travels a
perilous road from acacia forests in rural areas to one of the country's
Charcoal is perhaps the biggest export of this rugged country, so
collapsed that statistics are among the many things hard to come by. Once,
acacias covered vast swaths of Somalia's south and central regions; today,
the forests are devastated. Despite an official ban on the export of
charcoal, truckloads of it clog the dangerous roads to port bound for
Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates.
''Because of the lack of a central authority, illegal deforestation has
become big business,'' said Abdulkadir Yahya Ali, director of operations
at the Center for Research and Dialogue in Mogadishu. ''It's a lucrative
way for gangs to make money. They are making money from the collapse of a
Abukar Abdi Osman, the environmental minister for the makeshift government
in Mogadishu, declared an end to charcoal exports when he took office this
year. His predecessor had done the same thing last year, to little avail.
''It's not good for the country,'' Mr. Osman declared. ''We now have sand
covering areas where there used to be forests, and there is less ground
for livestock to graze.''
The minister, member of a government whose control does not even extend
throughout the capital, has resorted to taxing charcoal shipments, a step
that he says will eventually allow him to seize the trucks and ships that
carry charcoal and arrest the dealers getting rich from it.
As it is now, Mogadishu's main charcoal market operates less than a mile
from the hotel that Mr. Osman uses as his offices. The market is a grimy
place, where Somalis born with dark brown skin turn completely black
during the workday from the dusk of the coal.
The workers separate large shards, which will bring top dollar, from the
tiny pieces. And they load truck after truck, often piling the charcoal so
high that the bumpy roads inevitably cause bits of black gold to fall to
To turn trees into charcoal, workers dig a huge pit, bury the wood and set
it ablaze, but only limited oxygen is allowed into the fire. What results
are shards of charcoal.
The charcoal trade is one of many assaults on Somalia's environment. Toxic
wastes were dumped into many rivers years ago by foreign companies
unafraid of government regulators. Wildlife, once plentiful in Somalia,
has been killed with such abandon that there is believed to be relatively
little left. But Mr. Osman's crew of six, charged with monitoring a
country about the size of Texas, is barely able to identify the extent of
the environmental devastation, never mind do anything about it.
The former government of Said Barre, which fell in a coup in 1991, had
banned the export of charcoal, and imposed stiff enough penalties on
violators that few made a living off the trade.
Even in the early days of Somalia's descent into chaos, when Gen. Muhammad
Farah Aideed controlled parts of the south of the country in the early
1990's, he continued to ban logging.
But after he died in 1996 and his son, Hussein Muhammad Aideed, replaced
him, charcoal exports soared, driven by the simple logic of economics: a
bag of charcoal that sells in markets here for $4 fetches $10 or more in
Arab countries that have banned their own production of charcoal for
A decade ago, the United Nations estimated that 14 percent of Somalia was
covered with woodland. Some experts say that figure may now be as low as 4
percent. As for charcoal production, the United Nations estimates that
112,000 metric tons were produced in 2000, of which 80 percent went abroad.
Exports of charcoal may have overtaken those of bananas, once a major
source of foreign currency for Somalia.
Livestock exports have long been hindered by a ban imposed by various Arab
countries on camels, sheep, goats and cattle, ostensibly because of
concerns over animal health. So, instead, Somalia sells the charcoal with
which Arabs grill their meat.
Somalia is rugged, with little arable land. It is believed to be rich in
iron ore, tin, bauxite and uranium, perhaps even in petroleum and natural
For now, though, charcoal is Somalia's only precious material, and it
allows thousands of low-paid laborers to make a living.
''It's very dangerous, but it's how I survive,'' said Hassan Ali Farah,
showing a stump where his left thumb used to be, chopped off in an ax
accident, and a nasty burn on his chest, the result of a charcoal fire
that went awry.
Another danger that workers like Mr. Farah face are the land mines
scattered through the Somali countryside in years of war.
Most of the charcoal profits go to the traders and the faction leaders who
control access to the forests. To these men, environmental damage is of
''It's one of the main businesses in the country,'' said Ali Gulied Mahed,
58, a middleman who was standing beside several dozen fully loaded trucks
at Mogadishu's main charcoal market.
To men like him, the economics are simple: the trees are free and the
labor is cheap. A ship laden with 100,000 sacks of ''black gold'' has $1
million in cargo, a haul that is typically traded for the many goods that
Although most of Somalia's charcoal is sent overseas, it remains the main
cooking fuel for Somalis. Throughout the country's previous export bans,
local use has always been permitted.
But in the past, axes were used to fell the trees. Now that charcoal has
become a big business, forests buzz with the sound of chain saws.
''The charcoal problem is really a symptom of the far greater problems
we're facing,'' said Mr. Ali of the Somali research institute. ''These are
armed, irresponsible guys who are ruining the land because they want to
© 2002 New York Times Company