Deforestation and the Illegal Charcoal Trade in the Horn of Africa

By Safiya Hassan, GLOBUS Correspondent

In October 2018, a ship carrying 200,000 bags of charcoal was intercepted in the strategic Iraqi port of Umm Qasri, located in the Persian Gulf (Xinhua,2018). These bundles of charcoal were believed to have been sourced from the prized, and rapidly decreasing, species of Acacia, known as Acacia Bussei, and endemic to the Horn of Africa[i]. Acacia Bussei, which takes hundreds of years to grow, is often vulnerable to logging for charcoal, to then be shipped from the Southern Somali ports of Mogadishu, Baraawe and Kismaayo. It is often shipped under fake certification, often tracing it instead to locations such as West African nations, the Comoros and Iran, which is also a transit point for the travelling charcoal shipment to its destinations of Iraq and the UAE (Reuters, 2018). This lucrative trade is estimated to be worth about 120 million dollars (Deutsche Welle, 2018). So how does a shipment of UN embargoed Somali charcoal journey through the Indian Ocean? How does this relate to the rapid land degradation in Somalia’s southwest state of Jubbaland? And, how does this intertwine with the political landscape in the troubled region?

Jubbaland, the Southwestern autonomous region of the fragile Federal Government of Somalia, is literally named after the Jubba river, one of the two rivers of Somalia, both of which flow through the south of the country, making it the most fertile region of the country. From this, the settlements surrounding the river have enjoyed a rich ecosystem and history. In the middle ages, it was home to an Ottoman allied empire, called the Ajuuran Sultanate, which was Africa’s first hydraulic empire. The empire used to take advantage of the Jubba river, and often traded agricultural commodities through the port cities, in what was part of the northern route of the silk road[ii]. This vast region, previously full of abundant greenery, was also the home to Somalia’s only national park in its prosperous heyday of the mid-20th century. Even with a lack of environmental data, due to Somalia’s anarchic vacuum between the years of 1991-2011, the degradation of land is visible with the naked eye; whereby pockets full of trees have become deserts. A study published in the American Journal of Climate Change concluded that the area has experienced a 50% reduction in forest cover between the years of 1993-2014[iii]. Deforestation, having profound effects upon carbon dioxide emissions, can cause a multitude of subsequently damaging environmental effects, such as flood risk, soil destabilization and the acceleration of drought (New York Times, 2015). This begs the question, therefore, as to who is responsible for the catastrophic regression of the southwest of Somalia into a barren desert?

Figure 1: Circa 1970, elders sit under a Galool tree (Acacia Bussi)

Figure 2: a traditional nomadic Somali house known as Aqal                                   

Trees in nomadic Somali culture are a symbol of life. Within the courtyard of every Somali hospital, a tree would be found, as, traditionally, nomadic women would give birth beneath trees. Tribal elders gather below their branches, and hold their customary clan judicial laws known as Xeer; see Figure 1. Nomads have, and still use, trees to build houses and to sustain their livelihoods; see Figure 2. Seeing as the nomads have coexisted peacefully with nature, even revering certain species of trees for thousands of years, it is highly doubtful that they are to blame. Concrete evidence could instead be found within the decline of nomadic culture in the past thirty years, due to a civil unrest that has ushered people from their nomadic settlements, to the miseries of sprawling IDP and refugee camps.

So, who are the beneficiaries of the destruction of tree habitats in Jubbaland? One group which takes the cake would be the declining insurgent group Al-Shabaab, which has remaining territories and villages under siege, particularly in central and southwest Somalia. The charcoal trades yields the Al-Qaeeda affiliated Islamist group an estimated 7.5 million dollars annually (Associated Press, 2018). The insurgent group is the biggest threat hindering peace in the Horn of Africa, with their impacts and influences found beyond the Somali borders, as seen in January during their raid on a hotel in the Kenyan capital (theguardian, 2019). However, another obstacle is to change the attitudes of many Somalis who use traditional charcoal burners called burjiko for cooking. Thankfully, as the country recovers steadily from decades of chaos, many households are switching to natural gas (BBC Arabic, 2014).

The Somali government is still in its infancy; the administrative state of Jubbaland was only formed six years ago. A stable and transparent government would be able to combat the charcoal trade before the country reaches the peak of irreversible damage, something Somalia has yet to achieve. What the country needs is awareness, reforestation and a purging of itself from Al-Shabaab. As Somalia turns a new page, we need not raze our beloved trees to the ground to sustain consumer habits in the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman, which are, according to the UN, the most popular markets for Somali charcoal exports[iv]. As a diaspora observer, my main concern would be the development, re-emergence, industrialization and stability of my homeland. Usually, environmental concerns would be last on my list, but this issue has showed me that sustainable development is not mutually exclusive, and that it trumps all.

Header Image: Maxime Niyomwungeri on Unsplash


[iii] Ajuang Ogallo et al. 2018. Land Cover Changes in Lower Jubba Somalia. American Journal of Climate Change. 7, pp. 367-387.

[ii] Thomas, C. (1970) FEDERALISM IN SOMALIA: OBSTACLES, ASPIRATIONS, AND OPPORTUNITIES IN JUBALAND. PhD. Thesis. George Mason University. Available at: (Accessed:  3 April 2018).

[iv] Un Assistance Mission in Somalia. 2019. ReliefWeb. [Online]. [3 April 2019]. Available from:

[i] UN Environment, 2019. UN Environment. [Online]. [3 April 2019]. Available from:

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