Environmentalists warn that charcoal industry is causing disastrous strain on local acacia trees.
African Union peacekeepers who control one of Somalia’s most strategically important ports have allowed ships carrying charcoal to leave, violating a UN Security Council ban, a presidential order and Somalia’s own laws.
Local witnesses and security sources said at least three freighters and 10 dhows departed from Kismayo on Monday, most carrying charcoal, under the watch of Kenyan soldiers who are serving with the peacekeeping force AMISOM.
The Kenyan troops and fighters from Ras Kamboni – a local militia – seized Kismayo from al-Shabab fighters early in September.
Al-Shabab profited from the charcoal trade that environmentalists say has done enormous damage to the fragile ecosystem.
In February this year, the Security Council banned the trade to stop both the flow of money to al-Shabab and slow the environmental damage.
Local businessmen who smuggled charcoal out of Kismayo while it was under al-Shabab’s control have continued to build the stockpile, now said to be at least four million bags worth an estimated $20m.
Since the rebels left, the businessmen say there is no need to keep the ban in place and have lobbied hard to have it lifted.
But President Hassan Sheikh ordered the port to remain closed to all commercial shipping until the delicate question of who should control the port is resolved, and agreement is reached over what should happen to the charcoal.
Charcoal exports are also illegal under a 1969 statute.
An Amisom spokesman did not deny that charcoal exports had taken place despite the bans and presidential order, but he said the peacekeeper’s mandate “does not extend to stopping the charcoal trade”.
A statement from the peacekeeping mission said: “Although AMISOM is not mandated to scrutinise commercial activities in Somalia, the mission is cognizant of its responsibilities in contributing to restore peace, security and law and order in the country.
“In this regard, AMISOM reaffirms its commitment to support the Federal Government of Somalia in its efforts to stamp out this illegal trade in charcoal.”
The fate of the charcoal has become the focus of a fierce row with the traders, the Kenyan military and a group of neighbouring states called IGAD who all advocate lifting the ban, and the fledgling government which is opposed to it.
Security sources say al-Shabab can still export charcoal from Baraawe port further to the north, so any lifting of the ban would help them as well as local businesses.
Environmentalists argue that it would also encourage continued burning of the region’s already denuded forests.
In an attempt to resolve the crisis, Sheikh appointed a nine-member taskforce to investigate the charcoal stockpile and report with recommendations within seven days.
But as the taskforce and a group of journalists were about to board a UN flight at the start of a three-day mission, officials said the trip had been cancelled due to “security concerns”.