NAIROBI — Along one of Africa’s busiest – and most dangerous – roads, Mombasa Highway, you can stop by a shop for gas, a bottled soda and, maybe, a bag of recently burned charcoal. The grey-ish black blocks are sold in plastic burlap bags and provide many rural residents with their primary source of home fuel for cooking and heating.
Some of this African black gold, however, goes to funding groups such as al Shabaab and possibly even Boko Haram, harming local economies while fueling terror networks and contributing to the continued political destabilization around the continent, according to a freshly released report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and INTERPOL.
“The illegal trade in natural resources is depriving developing economies of billions of dollars in lost revenues and lost development opportunities, while benefiting a relatively small criminal fraternity,” said UNEP executive director Achim Steiner in the report.
The report was released at the first United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) held in Nairobi, Kenya, last week. The 108 pages of research entitled “The Environmental Crime Crisis” covers the gamut of illegal trade, including elephant ivory poaching, other animal poaching, illicit timber and charcoal extraction, illegal fisheries and improper waste dumping.
Environment ministers and other delegates from around the world attended UNEA shortly after al Shabaab took credit for attacks in Mpeketoni on the Kenyan coast adding to the imperative nature of the findings.
Charcoal and Terrorism
About 90 percent of the wood consumed in Africa is used for woodfuel and charcoal. Much of the charcoal that is found for sale along the roads is legally produced but much of what is exported supports organized crime, militias, and terrorist groups and some even goes to fund civil strife such as that in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
According to the UNEP report, al Shabaab has earned between $38 and $56 billion in revenue from the charcoal trade and related activities including surreptitious exports from Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya.
The overall value of the illegal charcoal export from Somalia – where al Shabaab – has been estimated at $360 to 384 million per year. Some of al Shabaab’s income comes from the “illegal taxing” of charcoal exports – as well as that of other commodities – through roadblocks and other means suggesting control of distribution and not just production.
This is important, says Christian Nelleman, head of the UN’s Rapid Response Unit and editor-in-chief of the report.
“The value of illegal wildlife and charcoal at the point of production is very low,” he told MintPress News. “But once you get into the distribution routes that’s where the terrorist groups can make a lot more money than in the past. When you control the road, you’re in a different ballgame.”
“You can compare it to the Mexican drug trade,” he concludes. In fact, the trade in illegal wildlife is greater than the drug trade in Africa – “by several times.”
The report shows a greater scale partly because of its comprehensiveness, Nelleman says. In addition to tracking losses in wildlife and flora, they also used criminal intelligence from Interpol and UN security reports and information on traffickers, militias and terrorist groups.
From Wildlife to Wood
The new research debunks prior news reports Al Shabaab was shipping more than 30 tons of ivory out of southern Somalia was unlikely noting that “To do so, they would have to gather all or nearly all ivory from killed elephants from west, central and eastern Africa and bring it to one port in southern Somalia.”
Ivory and rhino horn has been used to finance militant groups as seen in nepal and the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Charcoal and forest crime is 10 to 20 times the wildlife trade in terms of funding terrorism, Nelleman said.
“The reality is the scale of funding of militias from wildlife crime is much more modest than claimed previously” he noted.
However, ivory poaching is still a major contributor to the funding of other terrorist groups and is believed to be a major source of income for Uganda-based Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) which is known to engage in attacks on civilians in Uganda and South Sudan, abduction, mutilation, child-sex slavery, and the forcible use of child soldiers.
In the DRC, there’s little discernment. Dozens of militia groups kill elephants and hippos, harvest timber, and produce or tax charcoal, all to finance their roles in the Congolese conflict and in neighboring countries. Such environmental crimes have added to the income from “conflict diamonds.”
Still, as Nellerman says, “The link between wildlife and terrorism is there but it is dwarfed by the illegal forest trade.” The report values the total of that trade between $30 and $100 billion.
Nelleman points to rosewood as an example of how the income can add up. Rosewood can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars per cubic meter and can easily be hidden with legal timber – sometimes going undetected by law enforcement – and greatly adding to the coffers of whatever militia is able to profit from it.
The report includes maps of trade routes, one of charcoal being exported from Somalia, Kenya and other African countries to recipient nations, many in the Middle East such as Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Dr. Saad Al Numairy, an environmental advisor and member of the UAE delegation to UNEA was largely dismissive of any claim that his country had a significant demand for charcoal.
“We have free gas,” he told MintPress News. “Why would we need charcoal?”
He was adamant that they “follow the law” and are vigilant at the border.
However, Al Numairy said he supports action on the supply chain, particularly funding that would incentivize other trades.
“We need to provide the right resources to the people who live in these forests so they don’t take from the forests,” he said.
Nelleman also called on the different nations to allocate adequate resources to enforce the law at the point of origin.
“The criminal networks have to be targeted,” he said.
The report, for examples, calls for “capacity building.” The world community needs to assist targeted nations with aid for beefing up enforcement, the report advises. Additionally, it calls for greater support for international enforcement mechanisms such as Interpol and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species as well as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
However, the report does also suggest greater enforcement on the demand side such as enhancing certification programs in which imports to recipient countries are certified as legal trade.
“That would be helpful in the long-run,” Nelleman concluded.