It is certain that the bulk of the illegal Somali charcoal trade is carried from Somali ports on vessels registered in other States, so the trade is very clearly part of a broader transnational criminal enterprise that extends well beyond the activities of Al Shabaab and others inside Somalia itself. Nor does the illicit trade have only transnational organised crime dimensions – charcoal production creates massive deforestation and desertification problems, which in turn reduces the available grazing land for livestock, the dominant Somali export industry.
The UNSC has responded by placing a sanctions regime around the import of illegal Somali charcoal. However, this sanctions regime has three primary weaknesses:
a. It has not been applied over exports, thus it does not directly authorise any international action (in conjunction with the Somali Federal Government – SFG) in terms of interdicting illegal Somali charcoal shipments at the point of export;
b. The sanctions regime relies upon SFG implementation on the Somali export side of the trade, but the SFG has to date been unable to make significant inroads into this issue – understandable given the many other severe security and governance challenges it currently faces; and
c. The import sanctions regime does not appear to be enforced in importing States on a systematic and comprehensive basis, meaning that it does not yet appear to have sponsored any substantial reduction in the trade.
So what is to be done?
There are a few immediate steps the international community might consider. The first is to engage in a detailed fact finding and analysis exercise, aimed at enhancing the important work carried out by – amongst others – the Monitoring Group, in trying to get to grips with the scope the illegal Somali charcoal trade and the networks that facilitate it.
The next step, on the basis of such mapping and analysis, should be to bring to the attention of States the names of businesspeople, companies, vessels and so on that carry their flag or nationality, but which are engaged in this illicit trade. While demand outside Somalia continues, and sanctions on imports are haphazardly applied or not honoured at all, the trade will continue to seek and find a degree of impunity born of official inaction. States other than Somalia need to step up to their responsibilities to Somalia, and to the international community. Concurrently, however, the international community must also invest in meaningful alternative livelihood programmes to support subsistence Somali tree-cutters who currently survive only through this trade. Just as eradicating poppy fields in Afghanistan without meaningful alternative livelihood options produced less than ideal results, the same dynamic needs to be factored in as we consider the Somali charcoal conundrum.
Third, the UN Security Council should consider strengthening the sanctions regime so as to authorise maritime interdiction operations to seize sanctions-busting vessels and cargo as they depart Somali ports – as has been the case with sanction regimes in relation to Iraq and the Former Yugoslavia, for example. The sanctions regime is already mandatory and carries UN Charter Chapter VII authority; the additional step of extending international authority to implement the sanctions regime at the point of export as well is certainly within the realms of possibility.
Somalia faces many challenges right now. It will face many more in the next decade. Ought we not be doing all we can to mitigate, even if just a little, this deforestation and desertification catastrophe Somalia now faces as well?
The Charcoal Conundrum; Ending the Somali illegal charcoal trade
The UN Security Council has noted on several occasions that ‘charcoal exports from Somalia are a significant revenue source for Al Shabaab and also exacerbate the humanitarian crisis’.
Recent estimates by the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea are that upwards of 40% of Al Shabaab’s funding comes from various forms of involvement with the illegal Somali charcoal trade. There are indications that this has