Illegal Charcoal Trade in Somalia: Burning away the natural resource

“Allah created trees, because animals need them as people need land – our life depend on our animals and they depend on trees”   Comments by people living in the Bay region of Somalia describing the value of trees to their livelihood


Somalia, like other countries in East Africa is dependent on natural forests for fuel-wood and charcoal and over 80% of the country’s energy requirement is met by wood. Hence   the natural woodlands /bushes provides easily accessible, free, and relatively cheap firewood wood and charcoal to many rural and urban communities. It would seem that this dependency on natural woodlands/bushes is unlikely to change for many of these people living in developing countries.

Charcoal for export

The forests are often used as fodder and forage for livestock and provide the largest contribution to the economy. It also provides milk, food, and other animal products such as gums (mainly Frankincense) and resins which are also the third most important source of foreign exchange.  Other products of  the natural woodlands/bushes provide include the poles for construction of traditional Somali houses (Aqal, Mundul, Cariish), furniture  milk and water containers grain-husking, grinding, utensils,  farm equipment,  hoes, sacks,  ropes for well  and harness and hedging.

Fuel-wood & Charcoal: Demand and Consumption in Somalia

Many people are alarmed at the extent  as well as the rate  of the disappearances of natural woods/bushes  in Somalia  mainly due to  a) increasing demands of fuel-wood,  and charcoal for  local consumption but  also for  export to the Gulf States and Arabian Peninsula; b)increased number of livestock caused overgrazing ; c) increased demand and utilization of poles for construction purposes for local market; d) for extension of agricultural lands which caused the total clearance of natural woodlands in many parts of Somalia, especially in southern regions.

Towards the end of 1980s it became increasingly clear that charcoal demands   and consumption levels were unsustainable in the face of increasing population in urban areas, particularly Capital Mogadishu and the other major towns and cities in the country.  The charcoal demand for Mogadishu (capital) was estimated to be around 150,000 tonnes per year and this figure is still increasing in mid 1980s. In southern Somalia, the main species used for charcoal making is Acacia bussie (Local name ‘Galool’). Other preferred species include Acacia Senegal (local name “Cadaad “). Baay and Bakool were and still are the main charcoal producing regions in Somalia, especially in the South of the country.

It is imperative to point out that before 1991, a negligible number of the people in the capital and the country used electricity and gas/kerosene for cooking. In fact the last complete energy balance available for 1986 show biomass fuels to constitute 89% of domestic energy consumption.

Table (1): Primary Energy Supplies in Somalia

Energy  (000’s Tonnes of oil equivalent)
Crude oil  58
Petroleum Production 230
Primary Electricity 3
Fuel-wood 1475
Agricultural Residues 40
Total 1798

Source: Alternative Energy Sources for Urban Areas in Somalia 1990

To further highlight the fact that the level of demand and consumption of charcoal has and still is unsustainable, the energy planning study carried by British Forestry Project in Somalia in 1980s highlighted the following:

  1. The rate of growth of the trees used for charcoal production is not fast enough to replace trees used to manufacturing charcoal, and hence the current use is unsustainable.
  2. Uncontrolled exploitation of charcoal in Bay Region, which is the main charcoal producing area in Somalia cannot  continue  without causing hardship  to the livelihood of the people living in the area and  will be seriously undermined as they compete with charcoal manufacturers
  3. Damage to the national economy will result as livestock industry are dependent  upon their natural woodlands for fodder
  4. The study reported that the charcoal producing region of Bay and Bakool regions cannot meet the demands of charcoal, especially for the people living Mogadishu.
  5.  The stock remaining in the charcoal producing regions  could only meet the demand for charcoal in Mogadishu  for less than two years

It was clear from the results of the energy studies  that if alternative energy  to charcoal  use is  not found in the near future,  this in turn would signal disaster for  Somalia as well as the people of  Somali who depend on the remaining natural woodlands for their livelihood as pastoralists  and  agro-pastoralists.

The National Range Agency, the government department responsible for the implementation of the forestry , range and wildlife  policies  in collaboration with British Forestry Projects  research  widely publicised by organising  high profile workshops in Mogadishu. Efforts were also made to draw attention to the urgent need to find alternatively source of energy e.g. Kerosene.

Threats to the natural resource base  

Ironically, the outbreak of the tragic civil war  in late 1990s and  the total collapse of the government  in early 1991,  caused  a large number of people to flee from the capital  Mogadishu and  this  in turn has  reduced the overall  demand  and consumption of  charcoal especially Mogadishu and main southern towns and cities.

The situation has dramatically changed in middle of 1990 as armed militia and greedy business men began to engage illegal charcoal trade by exploiting the few remaining natural woodlands and bushes. The illegal charcoal produced were both for the domestic market as well as for exporting to the Gulf States.  Kismaayo was mainly port for the illegal charcoal export, but other port cities such as Mogadishu and Marka were also sometimes used for exporting out.

There is no reliable data about the extent of the illegal charcoal trade in the country, especially in the past 15- 20 years. However  fact-finding missions  by  the  Somalia Ecological Society  (SES) from  in 2000 and again  2010  reported a very worrying situations  in the country. Amongst other environmental problems highlighted, the illegal charcoal trade is perhaps the most serious environmental degradation facing Somali  people, and  SES’s reports has shown that the illegal trade is out of control mainly in the south-west regions Baay, Bakool and Jubba Valley. Also, the illegal charcoal trade caused a great deal of hardship for the pastoralist/agro pastoralist living in Sanaag and Sool regions. In fact, violence broke out several times resulting casualties between charcoal burners and local communities concerned the damage to their natural resources   base in main charcoal producing areas.

The earlier SES fact finding mission report of (2000) describing the illegal charcoal trade in Sanaag and Sool regions stated:

“that in the areas visited people engaged in illegal charcoal trade set up 140 different camps, which covered 200km sq, and SES mission reported to get an idea the level of trade, and the volume of charcoal going to the small port of Elayo, the mission stayed one night nearby village (Ceel Doofaar) to observe the traffic and it was reported that less than 12 hours, a total 19 lorries all carrying charcoal for export of which seven are 30 tons capacity passed through.”

The recent reports from Kismaayo illustrated the vast amount charcoal (estimated to up to 4 million sacks) in the port ready for illegal export. This has confirmed what many people suspected that armed opposition group (Al–Shabaab) used the illegal charcoal trade as means to generate income for the group,   pay fighters, and perhaps buy weapons. Despite the declaration by the Gulf States that charcoal from Somalia is illegal, there is no indication this announcement will result the reduction of the illegal charcoal export at least in the short term.

To sum up, the damage caused by illegal charcoal trade to the livelihood of both the current and future Somali people as well as the environment is incalculable.


There are major challenges facing the new Somali government and these include improving and maintaining security, re-building the economy, and rebuilding infrastructure and various government institutions. However, there is urgent need to address the issue of illegal charcoal trade.  The importance of natural forest and woodland to the livelihood of Somali people is undisputed and the natural woodland/bushes play an important role on economic development and can improve quality of life in various ways.

Before embarking on any major initiatives, it is imperative to re-visit the previous forestry and related policies in order to ensure that the right forestry and relevant energy policies are in place.  Lessons learnt from the past forestry policy imposed from the top clearly show that such policies have generally failed to secure the support of rural communities. As a result people simply ignored the guidelines and related legislations.

A great deal of effort must be made to involve, and engage local communities in any forestry policy development.  The involvement of local communities will be crucial to the implementation of any policy and partnership between central, regional and local communities. However, the complete absence of central co-coordinating authority and the lack of active, engaging and influential local community groups and organization may make any policy implementation this difficult

Also, any new forestry policy must in link to the wider national development plan. Help must be sought from international organisations to co-ordinate all relevant national energy policies.

Perhaps the most important issue facing the new Somali authorities is the implementations of recommendations made by the Somali energy study report which have drawn attention to the urgent need to find alternative sources of energy (e.g.  Kerosene / alternative sources energy) as current level of demand and consumption were and still are unsustainable.  Any initiate to reverse the current threats of environmental degradation would likely to fail if alternative source of energy for people living in main cities and towns is not found.

Mohamoud Omer Sh Ibrahim

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