Militant terrorist group Al-Shabaab funds itself, in part, through the illegal production and sale of charcoal, turning Somalia’s trees into “black gold.” Because areas of the country controlled by the group aren’t accessible to researchers, it’s difficult to determine just how many trees are cut down to fuel Al-Shabaab’s violent agenda. So Michele Bolognesi, a researcher at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, decided to use satellite imagery to solve that problem. His team's results were recently published in the scientific journal Energy for Sustainable Development.


As the study states, there is a critical need for data on tree loss in Somalia.

“Despite high exports of charcoal from Somalia, and its contribution to tree cover loss, consequent land degradation, and reduction of ecosystem services provided by trees, little quantitative information on tree cover loss in Somalia during the past two decades is available," the authors write. "Moreover, Somalia is predicted to be one of the nine African countries that will face water scarcity by 2025, and therefore land degradation will worsen the water scarcity effects by increasing the population's vulnerability to drought.”The researchers found that between 2011 and 2013, a survey area of 5,000 square kilometers (1.2 million acres) under Al-Shabaab control produced some 24,000 metric tons of charcoal, which can fetch as much 10 million Euros ($11.2 million) when sold, usually in markets on the Arabian Peninsula.

Producing that much charcoal required 372,000 cubic meters of biomass (over 13 million cubic feet) -- or, in other words, 438,000 trees, amounting to 2.7 percent of the total tree coverage in the surveyed area.

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