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To Fuel the Mideast's Grills, Somalia Smolders
By MARC LACEY
OGADISHU, Somalia Before it ends up in a grill somewhere in the Middle East, searing lamb or beef, Somalia's "black gold" travels a perilous road from acacia forests in rural areas to one of the country's busy ports.
Charcoal is perhaps the biggest export of this rugged country, so collapsed that statistics are among the many things hard to come by. Once, acacias covered vast swaths of Somalia's south and central regions; today, the forests are devastated. Despite an official ban on the export of charcoal, truckloads of it clog the dangerous roads to port bound for Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates.
"Because of the lack of a central authority, illegal deforestation has become big business," said Abdulkadi Yahya Ali, director of operations at the Center for Research and Dialogue in Mogadishu. "It's a lucrative way for gangs to make money. They are making money from the collapse of a state."
Abukar Abdi Osman, the environmental minister for the makeshift government in Mogadishu, declared an end to charcoal exports when he took office this year. His predecessor had done the same thing last year, to little avail.
"It's not good for the country," Mr. Osman declared. "We now have sand covering areas where there used to be forests, and there is less ground for livestock to graze."
The minister, member of a government whose control does not even extend throughout the capital, has resorted to taxing charcoal shipments, a step that he says will eventually allow him to seize the trucks and ships that carry charcoal and arrest the dealers getting rich from it.
As it is now, Mogadishu's main charcoal market operates less than a mile from the hotel that Mr. Osman uses as his offices. The market is a grimy place, where Somalis born with dark brown skin turn completely black during the workday from the dusk of the coal.
The workers separate large shards, which will bring top dollar, from the tiny pieces. And they load truck after truck, often piling the charcoal so high that the bumpy roads inevitably cause bits of black gold to fall to the road.
The charcoal trade is one of many assaults on Somalia's environment. Toxic wastes were dumped into many rivers years ago by foreign companies unafraid of government regulators. Wildlife, once plentiful in Somalia, has been killed with such abandon that there is believed to be relatively little left. But Mr. Osman's crew of six, charged with monitoring a country about the size of Texas, is barely able to identify the extent of the environmental devastation, never mind do anything about it.
The former government of Said Barre, which fell in a coup in 1991, had banned the export of charcoal, and imposed stiff enough penalties on violators that few made a living off the trade.
Even in the early days of Somalia's descent into chaos, when Gen. Muhammad Farah Aideed controlled parts of the south of the country in the early 1990's, he continued to ban logging.
But after he died in 1996 and his son, Hussein Muhammad Aideed, replaced him, charcoal exports soared, driven by the simple logic of economics: a bag of charcoal that sells in markets here for $4 fetches $10 or more in Arab countries that have banned their own production of charcoal for environmental reasons.
A decade ago, the United Nations estimated that 14 percent of Somalia was covered with woodland. Some experts say that figure may now be as low as 4 percent. As for charcoal production, the United Nations estimates that 112,000 metric tons were produced in 2000, of which 80 percent went abroad. Exports of charcoal may have overtaken those of bananas, once a major source of foreign currency for Somalia.
Livestock exports have long been hindered by a ban imposed by various Arab countries on camels, sheep, goats and cattle, ostensibly because of concerns over animal health. So, instead, Somalia sells the charcoal with which Arabs grill their meat.
Somalia is rugged, with little arable land. It is believed to be rich in iron ore, tin, bauxite and uranium, perhaps even in petroleum and natural gas reserves.
For now, though, charcoal is Somalia's only precious material, and it allows thousand of low-paid laborers to make a living.
"It's very dangerous, but it's how I survive," said Hassan Ali Farah, showing a stump where his left thumb used to be, chopped off in an ax accident, and a nasty burn on his chest, the result of a charcoal fire that went awry.
Another danger that workers like Mr. Farah face are the land mines scattered through the Somali countryside in years of war.
Most of the charcoal profits go to the traders and the faction leaders who control access to the forests. To these men, environmental damage is of secondary concern.
"It's one of the main businesses in the country," said Ali Gulied Mahed, 58, a middleman who was standing beside several dozen fully loaded trucks at Mogadishu's main charcoal market.
To men like him, the economics are simple: the trees are free and the labor is cheap. A ship laden with 100,000 sacks of "black gold" has $1 million in cargo, a haul that is typically traded for the many goods that Somalia lacks.
To turn trees into charcoal, workers dig a huge pit, bury the wood and set it ablaze, but only limited oxygen is allowed into the fire. What results are shards of charcoal.
Although most of Somalia's charcoal is sent overseas, it remains the main cooking fuel for Somalis. Throughout the country's previous export bans, local use has always been permitted.
But in the past, axes were used to fell the trees. Now that charcoal has become a big business, forests buzz with the sound of chain saws.
"The charcoal problem is really a symptom of the far greater problems we're facing," said Mr. Ali of the Somali research institute. "These are armed, irresponsible guys who are ruining the land because they want to eat."
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