A twisted, leafless acacia stands in the middle of Cantar Hussein’s house in the small village of Qaamqaam, near the southern port town of Kismayo.
The image of the dead tree contrasts sharply with the rest of the village, which is densely dotted with umbrella-shaped acacia trees on one side and picturesque coconut palms on the other, along the bank of the Juba River, which flows into the Indian Ocean a few kilometers away.
Cantar, a father of 10, had recently moved to the village in the early 1990s when he cut the main trunk of the tree without realizing the consequences he would face.
The local elders immediately showed up and accused him of “killing the tree”. They declared that the offense amounted to killing a human being and demanded that he pay Diya (blood price) about $ 1,500 as compensation.
They also ordered him to leave the village within hours.
“I was shocked, I thought I had been targeted for other reasons but they explained the local rules to me, so I had to pay the fine and move my family to another village,” Cantar said.
The verdict was delivered by the village chief, Ali Farah Ismail, a former soldier now in his seventies with a large henna-dyed beard. He was one of the first group of people who settled in the area in 1991.
Qaamqaam, formerly a military training camp, is located approximately 20 km (12 miles) north of Kismayo and falls under the administration of Jubbaland Regional State.
Ismail was based at the camp as a coach during Siad Barre’s government.
When civil war broke out in 1991, Ismail and his fellow officers decided not to take sides in the conflict and instead protect those who fled to the area.
“We all agreed to help protect our people and also the environment. We were free from all politics and clan affiliation, so people trusted us a lot and the rival groups that grew out of it didn’t bother us, ”Ismail said.
Unlike other rural areas in the region, Qaamqaam is known for its thick, drought-tolerant acacia trees, which have long been the backbone of Somalia’s illicit multi-million dollar charcoal trade. The village currently has a tight-knit farming community of around 2,000 families.
Decades ago, when Cantar cut down the tree after arriving in the village, he had no intention of using it to burn charcoal and therefore appealed against the elders’ decision. He says he was forced to cut the trunk because it was dripping corrosive sap on his yard. And after nine months, he was accepted back to the village.
“When I tell people that I paid the blood price to cut down a tree in my own house, they think I’m crazy but they don’t appreciate the benefits we get from the trees. We cannot live without them, we must appreciate their importance and protect them by all means, ”Cantar said.
Somalia faces the effects of climate change, which include increased risks of drought, flash floods and extreme weather conditions. The massive deforestation caused by the production of so-called black gold has only worsened the situation.
“There had been widespread destruction of trees for charcoal production after the fall of the central government, so we had to do something to protect them,” says Ali. “For the past 30 years, we have agreed to apply a strict rule to treat our trees like one of us,” he added.
This unique approach is to blend customary law and environmental protection law, forming a hybrid legal system that also includes aspects of Islamic law.
“Every time a new resident comes to the village, we explain the rules to them and everyone is invariably happy,” says Ali. “And for those who break it, not only are we fining them, but we are also expelling them from the area to send a clear message to the rest of the population,” he added.
The Horn of Africa country lacks effective environmental regulations, and despite a 2012 UN Security Council ban on importing charcoal from Somalia, the commodity has continued to find its way into markets from the Middle-East.
The un estimates nearly three million people are displaced by conflicts and climatic hazards across the country. More than 80 percent of the country is currently experiencing moderate to severe drought conditions.
“Climate change is already wreaking havoc in Somalia, with frequent droughts and displacement reaching record levels in recent years,” said Omar Ahmed Nur, head of the Department of Environmental Sciences at the National University of Somalia .
“Urgent action is needed to put in place climate adaptation measures that will help reduce the vulnerabilities of poor communities,” he added.
However, grassroots efforts such as Qaamqaam seem to be having an effect. The beauty of the village and its unique approach to the trees have caught the attention of local tourists, who flock to the village on weekends and holidays.
“I regret that I cut the tree in my house because it has withered and died since,” says Cantar, who is now a member of the village elders. “I always ask God for forgiveness because it haunts me every time I see it,” he added.
Iidle Aadan contributed reporting from Qaamqaam, Somalia.