When farmer Mohamed Ibrahim Aden isn’t tending to his own fields, you can often find him watering seedlings at a small community nursery in the Somali village of Gobweyn.

The acacia trees Aden is growing will be replanted across this semi-arid stretch of Somalia. Located a few hundred metres from the Indian Ocean, they are part of an ambitious effort to green a land ravaged by deforestation.

I will maintain the tree seedlings in a good way,” said the 64-year-old Aden, who called them a legacy for his children and grandchildren.

The nursery project, supported by several United Nations agencies, is designed to help restore southern Somalia’s forests, which have been devastated by years of illegal logging. The disappearance of the region’s tree cover has sped soil erosion and robbed the land of its ability to hold water, a daunting combination in a country suffering through its worst drought in 40 years.

“Regeneration of the environment is incredibly important not only for soil health, but also for easing tensions over natural resource competition and reducing displacements due to flooding and droughts,” said Christophe Hodder, the United Nation’s Climate Security and Environmental Advisor to Somalia.

Falling down

Acacia trees, slow-growing hardwoods, play a pivotal role in Somalia’s hot and arid climate. They improve soil fertility by storing water, fixing nitrogen, a key fertilizer, and reducing surface run-off and soil erosion during the rainy season.

A man stands beside a carcass of a goat
Somalia’s worst drought in 40 years has devastated lands already suffering from deforestation and over-grazing. Photo by Reuters/Feisal Omar

However, a booming illicit trade in charcoal – the substance is made from burning wood – is decimating the trees. A recent study put the annual rate of decline of one threatened species, Acacia bussei, as high as 5 per cent. Areas particularly affected are Jubaland, Sool Sanaag and Buhoodle.

Charcoal is a key source of energy for Somalia, where few have access to electricity. It has also been exported to countries like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates.

Although Somalia introduced a ban on charcoal and firewood exports in 1969, it has been difficult to enforce. Illegal, unrestricted charcoal production skyrocketed after the Government of Somalia collapsed in 1991.

As the United Nations Development Programme has shown, the growth of the charcoal industry in Somalia has been a source of conflict. Tensions have flared between woodcutters, militias involved in the charcoal trade and rural communities, whose livelihoods are threatened by deforestation.

In 2012, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2036, which banned the export and import of Somalia’s charcoal.

This was followed in 2016 by the launch of the Programme for Sustainable Charcoal Reduction and Alternative Livelihoods (PROSCAL), a collaboration between the United Nations Environment Programme, the United Nations Development Programme, and the Food and Agriculture Organization.

The programme has helped Somali officials enforce the ban on charcoal, supported the development of alternative energy sources, rehabilitated degraded land and helped local residents secure more sustainable jobs.

“The PROSCAL programme has increased the level of awareness, educating the public about the effect of illegal charcoal production and the need to stop or to reduce it,” said Hodder. It has also helped spur the uptake of liquified petroleum gas as a fuel, reducing the need for charcoal, he said.

The climate problem

As climate change accelerates, more frequent and more severe droughts are expected to blight the Horn of Africa. Experts fear those may devastate already fragile ecosystems – including those affected by overgrazing, overcultivation and deforestation – and leave populations at risk of famine. The country is currently facing its more severe drought in decades. More than seven million livestock have died and millions of people face the threat of starvation.

A family stands beside a canvas hut.
A United Nations-backed project is helping Somali communities find alternatives to charcoal production, which is driving deforestation. Photo by Reuters/Zohra Bensemra

At the same time, Somalia cannot rely on food aid to compensate for barren soils, said Hodder. Last year, 53 percent of the food that the World Food Programme received in Somalia came from war-torn Ukraine and global food prices are skyrocketing.

The PROSCAL programme is designed to help make communities more resilient to threats like those, in part by tree planting. Two nurseries have been established, in Gobweyn and the village of Yontoy, in a bid to support land reclamation and provide sustainable livelihoods to villagers.

“I encourage people in my village to plant trees so that they can use them in the years to come,” said 40-old Deeqa Abdi Osman.

She lives with her three children in Yontoy. A member of the local tree nursery committee, she is grateful for support from the United Nations and the European Union, which is partially funding the project.

“The project has increased our capacity and skills related to natural resource management, group management and financial management, which in the long run will be beneficial to us as individuals and to the community in Yontoy,” she said.

At the same time, the project has provided access to more environmentally friendly sustainable sources of energy, such as fuel-efficient stoves and solar panels. At the end of 2021, more than 12,000 households within the programme area had already transitioned away from locally sourced charcoal to liquified petroleum gas for cooking.

The first phase of the PROSCAL programme will end in December 2022. Its achievements will need to be replicated and amplified, both in Somalia and elsewhere, as the UN embarks upon its Decade of Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, said Hodder.

Last year, the Federal Government of Somalia initiated discussions with the three United Nations agencies to turn PROSCAL into a nationwide programme. The next phase is expected to emphasize the political and security dimensions of unsustainable charcoal production, highlighting the links between climate security, displacement and conflict.



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