MOGADISHU , 6 Nov 2006 (IRIN) - When the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) first came to power in June, it was applauded for issuing an official ban on the export of charcoal. But within two months, exports of charcoal resumed. Now, the huge volume of trade in charcoal is clearly visible on the streets of Mogadishu , with long convoys of up to 20 or more heavily-loaded charcoal trucks moving along the roads or lined up on the outskirts of the city. Towers of grimy sacks are piled along the streets. The trade in ‘black gold' is booming.
The period since the collapse of Somalia's central government in 1991 has coincided with a voracious demand for charcoal in the Arab States, particularly Saudi Arabia and Dubai. Restricted by their own laws on charcoal production and deforestation, countries in the Arab States have taken full advantage of lawless Somalia .
Exports of charcoal were temporarily slowed in the mid-1990s when the faction leader in charge of Mogadishu and its port, General Mohamed Farah Aydid, imposed some restrictions on exports. However, following his death, competing factional leaders have openly exploited and encouraged the trade.
As the UIC began to take control of security in various areas of southern Somalia from 2000, some local leaders made attempts to contain the devastation. As early as July 2000, a circular signed by Tahlil Mahmud Ibrahim, representative of the Islamic courts of Shabelaha Hoose Region, southern Somalia , banned the cutting of trees, threatening strict punishment under Shari'a law.
But charcoal remained available and profitable, throughout the factional conflicts. It has become a critical component of the Somali economy – and is difficult to halt.
In Mogadishu, the continuation of charcoal exports is said to be due to traders pressuring the UIC to allow them to finish exporting existing stocks, already committed to export. But there is concern that this is being used as a loophole.
"If the UIC were genuinely committed to the ban and not under pressure from the business community, then they would have issued another official statement to end the confusion," said one Mogadishu resident.
In Kismayo – the epicentre of the charcoal trade – the official message is more mixed. Just after Kismayo was taken, the local media ran a statement from a UIC representative which said that charcoal exports had not been stopped.
According to Abdulkadir Shirwa, a civil society activist in Mogadishu , the charcoal trade in Somalia is 'a dangerous game'. It has attracted a lot of attention over the last few years. In the absence of unified authority, Somalia has become one of the few countries in the world without restrictions on mass deforestation and environmental devastation. Hundreds of kilometres of brush and forest have been turned into desert, particularly around Kismayo and in the Juba area.
"This is not a few men with axes making charcoal for local consumption, but large-scale mechanised machine-cutting, which targets an area over a couple of days to lay to waste, and burn," says Shirwa.
Local traders, using small, labour intensive methods with axes and machetes, are more likely to operate in the Bay, Hiraan and Galgadud region.
Small-scale traders, like the exporters, know that the charcoal trade is riddled with controversy. Charcoal trader, Miriam Mohamed Ali, agreed to talk to IRIN while safely hidden among her sacks of charcoal in downtown Mogadishu . She is the sole provider for five children and her husband, and has been trading charcoal for 17 years.
"We get the charcoal from the countryside. Some people bring it here and we buy it and we resell to get some profit – but it is just for survival."
Because of the improved security since the takeover in June, Miriam says business is better and women feel safer. She says gunmen used to steal or extort money at road blocks, and women were vulnerable to rape. Now, profits have increased because public transport is cheaper without the road blocks.
Miriam told IRIN that as long as security was maintained in Mogadishu , she would be willing to find other ways to make money. "If they say stop, we will stop because what we want more than anything else is security. I would do any business to support my family."