MOGADISHU, Somalia – Thousands of sacks of dark charcoal sit atop one another in Somalia's southern port city of Kismayo, signs of a trade once worth some $25 million dollar a year to the Islamist extremist rebels who used to control the region.
The good news sitting in the idle pile of bags is that the al-Shabab militants can no longer fund their insurgency through illegal charcoal exports. Kenyan troops late last month invaded Kismayo and forced out the rebels, halting their export of charcoal, a trade the U.N. banned earlier this year in an effort to cut the militants' source of funds.
The loss of the charcoal trade "will cut a major source of revenue and thus will have a detrimental effect on their operational capacity to carry out large scale attacks," Mohamed Sheikh Abdi, a Somali political analyst, said of al-Shabab.
But the flip side to the charcoal problem is that residents who made their living from the trade no longer are making money, a potentially tricky issue for the Kenyan troops who now control the region.
Recognizing a potential problem for Kenyan forces who hope to win hearts and minds, the African Union this week urged the U.N. Security Council to consider adopting an "urgent solution" to the piles of sitting sacks.
Local leaders want to be allowed to sell off the large stockpile of supplies. One issue: Some of that money from any potential sale could find its way back to al-Shabab fighters.
Charcoal is one of the only ways to make money in this arid region. But the trade is causing huge environmental damage. The Somali Agricultural Technical Group says that the cutting of trees to produce charcoal is leading to deforestation, the destruction of grazing lands, the extinction of wildlife and soil erosion.
Charcoal is a daily necessity for the vast majority of Somalis who don't use gas or electricity to cook. Inside the main charcoal market in the capital, Mogadishu, traders watch over a dwindling number of charcoal sacks, one result of the U.N. ban.
"Without exports, our business will dramatically decline. Local markets are not enough," said charcoal businessman Muhummed Abdullahi.
Though traders in the capital say that exports are dwindling, a U.N. report in June found that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are still importing large quantities of Somali charcoal.
Because of the U.N. ban, traders say that charcoal suppliers have cut production, leading to dwindling supplies and higher prices in the capital.
"The supplies are inadequate, and demand is high," said Habiba Yasin, a trader at the Towfiq charcoal market. "Since exports have been banned, business is not that good."
Fadumo Yusuf, a charcoal trader in Mogadishu, hopes the ban will be lifted.
"For me, it was like a lifeline, because I am a widow who was feeding her children with the money I was earning. Now, I can't buy it to sell because it's doubled in price," she said. "I hope that decision will be abolished and resume the export again because al-Shabab only live in the jungles now."