How Saudi Arabia’s appetite for Somali charcoal funds terrorFebruary 15, 2012
After Money Jihad’s latest post about Somalia’s charcoal trade funding jihadists, we received a note from a reader wondering how lucrative third world charcoal business could really be. Some background is in order to answer that question.
Janice Hamilton notes that:
Somalis have long used charcoal in their homes for cooking. Charcoal is also one of the country’s biggest exports. To prepare charcoal, people chop down trees, stack the wood tightly, cover it with earth to limit the amount of available oxygen, and set it on fire. Without much oxygen, the wood does not burn completely. The partially burned pieces of wood are charcoal. In the past, woodcutters used axes to cut down trees. In modern times, woodcutters use chainsaws, and warlords largely control the business… As a result, acacia, mangrove, and other trees are rapidly disappearing.
Africa South of the Sahara adds these details:
Since 1991 Somalia has increased exports of acacia charcoal to Kenya and the Gulf states. Areas of charcoal production include the region south of Kismayo, parts of Bay and Middle Shabelle, and several areas in ‘Somaliland’ and ‘Puntland’. This charcoal trade has created a serious environmental problem, as widespread tree-cutting threatens fragile pastoral lands.
Lastly, in Somalia: Economy Without State, Peter Little writes:
Since the collapse of the government, there has been a massive increase in deforestation motivated by a growth in charcoal exports to the Middle East. In northeastern Somalia alone, it is estimated that charcoal production and trade results in deforestation rates as high as 35,000 ha/year. Charcoal is commonly referred to as Somalia’s ‘black gold’ and much of it is exported to Saudi Arabia, where it fetches $5 per bag or about 300 percent more than local prices. Conflicts between charcoal makers and camel herders who need trees for their herds, and between the former and militia factions who control the trade have resulted in several armed skirmishes. Clan elders attempt to control the trade and extraction of trees, but have been only minimally successful.
Notice that the heaviest buyers of Islamist warlord charcoal are Gulf states like Saudi Arabia. Think of the difference it would have made over the years, both in terms of deforestation and in funding militant Islamists, if Saudi Arabia had boycotted al-Shabaab charcoal. Instead of having to send Kenyan soldiers to war against al-Shabaab today, Saudi Arabia could have helped strip al-Shabaab of its financial muscle before it became an economic powerhouse.
A cynical analyst might even suspect that Saudi Arabia likes being able to help out al-Shabaab by buying its charcoal.