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Denuding Somalia - A Commentary by M. M. Afrah


Denuding Somalia

A Commentary by M. M. Afrah

Ceel-macaan is a dilapidated natural harbour north of the capital where unscrupulous merchants are doing a thriving business, turning a key component of the country’s rare woodlands into an inhabitable desert, a shorthand for another disaster in the making.

One of General Mohamed Siyad Barre’s lasting legacies, apart from the writing of the Somali language, was the banning of charcoal export and the cutting of trees. His regime also banned the export to Saudi Arabia of female livestock, but woefully failed to plant new trees in the process.

One can see a landscape surrounded by endless horizon of scrubby brush, smoke rising from distant hamlets to signal, somewhere off, kilns of charcoal burning. The rolling countryside, still in its late Gu session is slowly becoming a green mirage. But soon this green mirage will vanish under the axe of the indifferent charcoal burners.

The neophyte entrepreneurs made famous by the clan/civil wars have been taking advantage of the lawlessness and anarchy in the country and are smiling all the way to their banks (my last editorial.)

Ceel-macaan port is the main trafficking port of 120 tonnes of charcoal daily – and almost 20,000 trees – destined for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. In addition the rare Somali cheetah, lion cubs, gazelles, dick dicks, ostrichs, female goats and camels are also exported by the same greedy merchants.

« No wonder, » said a Somali youth, jockingly over the phone, « The Somalis could not sit under a tree to settle their differences as in the old days, because there are NO more trees in the country to accomodate them». He said the new crop of leaders are scared of conference halls and paparazzi in foreign lands.

“They are not even versed in the work of a technical committee and minute taking, let alone the language and procedure of the conference,” he said.

Conservationists reported the destruction of Somalia’s scanty woodlands could be the biggest threat to future generations. A UNEP (The United Nations Environmental Protection) official based in Nairobi who attempted to investigate the illicit trade nearly lost his life.

Dozens of heavily armed youngsters on gun-mounted customized vehicles shield the charcoal barons from possible “foreign” interference. They block all roads leading to Ceel-macaan and impound vehicles suspected of interfering with port operations, and in some cases murder the driver and his passengers in cold blood.

                   THE NEOPHITE TREE CUTTER

The tree cutter who never heard the word Qaad before now puts a fistful of the green stuff in his left pocket and cuts the trees with his right hand. He believes that the green leafs cool up things out just right for him, that he could see the trees at night like he could see them through a nightscope.

“They (the Qaad leafs) sure give you the range and size of the trees,” he would say.

Initially, his heart tried to punch its way through his chest. Because he observed everybody around him carried a gun and that any one of them could go off at any time, putting him where it wouldn’t matter whether it had been an accident or not. So he bought for himself an M-16 with his first paycheck from the baron’s paymaster. Guns are dirt cheap in Somalia, he thought. Then he observed that everybody, including the paymaster was chewing what they called Qaad and smoked cigarettes and sipped bottles of Pepsi (also imported), so he bought a bundle of the stuff and cigarettes from the paymaster who sells them as a side show. He was hooked!

He chain smoked and chewed Qaad and for the first time in his life his pockets are lined with few US Dollars and Saudi Rials, and he slept at night with his eyes open after consuming fistfuls of Qaad. He never had it so good, because not long ago he worked as a camel herder for others who never paid him cash, only a gourd full of milk from the same camels in exchange for his toil. Now he doesn’t give damn if the charcoal barons are harvesting millions of dollars. And like everybody else he carries a fully loaded automatic rifle and the traditional double-edged knife, just in case, and he thought you was a freak because you wouldn’t carry a weapon.

Ceel-macaan may not appear on the Somalia map, but figures estimated by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that the charcoal barons harvested 2.3 million tones of charcoal in 2001 alone and that the port is a beehive of activities in that part of the African continent, second only to Lagos in Nigeria. 

The FAO statistic hardly reveals the enormity of the same problem in Somaliland and Puntland, because the authorities there are cautious about charcoal export. The export business at Berbera and Bossaso ports are so discreet that these are hardly figures to quantify it.

Then there is the profusion of Qaad and cigarettes in the country, a country that is reeling under the vicious circle of clan wars, food scarcity, disease, drought and man-made famine. There’s Qaad and cigarette glut in big cities and towns, but food is eluding the starving majority who do not relish the luxury of remittances from abroad.

Some of those who do, however, concoct stories to their hard toiling relatives in the Diaspora (by daily telephone calls, sometimes after midnight!) of being poor and starving, yet emptied their pockets to buy bundles of Qaad and packets of cigarettes flown in daily from Kenya in light aircraft by similar voracious merchants of death as the charcoal barons at Ceel-macaan. They too are dubbed as the Qaad and cigarette barons.                             

“We import death and disease from Kenya and export the last trace of our fauna and flora to the oil rich Arabs,” the French news agency (AFP) quoted a Somali doctor at Digfer General Hospital.

By M. M. Afrah ©2002,


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