Obsessed with violence, engulfed in chaos for years, Yemen’s problems may be growing even more and even entering an environmental crisis.
Yemeni lumberjack Ali al-Emadi spends hours chopping down an acacia tree with an ax as his 12-year-old nephew helps split logs.
In a war-torn country, al-Emadi must turn to logging in its northern al-Mahweet region to earn a living. An economic collapse has wiped out the agricultural and construction work for which he used to travel around the country.
However, as the demand for firewood rises due to fuel shortages, there are now fears that the country’s humanitarian crisis, with millions facing starvation, has exacerbated the risk of deforestation – threatening both Yemen’s environment and all hopes of a long-term supply for men. Emadi.
A boy working as a lumberjack rides a donkey as he drags a felled tree in the Bajil district of Hodeida province, Yemen, June 24, 2021. (Reuters Photo)
“The owners of bakeries … use wood and stone to heat their ovens. In the past they used gas, but now there is only firewood,” said Emadi.
“Should there be plenty of firewood, we live, thank goodness. But nowadays there are scarce trees,” said the father of seven. “If I get something, we eat. At least we live or die together,” he said.
More than six years of war between the recognized government backed by a Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi movement in line with Iran have killed tens of thousands of people and left 80% of Yemen’s population dependent on aid.
The lack of fuel due to a coalition block in areas held in Houthi, including restricting access to Hodeidah’s main port, has led companies and families to switch diesel and gas to firewood.
The alliance says the blockade is needed to prevent arms smuggling.
Trees are uprooted
About 886,000 trees are felled annually to feed bakeries and restaurants in the capital Sanaa alone, says Abdullah Abul-Futuh, director of biodiversity and nature reserves at Yemen’s environmental protection agency in the city, which is run by Houthi authorities along with most of northern Yemen.
About 5 million trees have been felled in the past three years in the north, he said.
“This is equivalent to 213 square kilometers of forest, knowing that only 3.3% of Yemen’s total area is classified as forest,” said Abul-Futuh.
The authority could not provide comparative figures and said that this was a new phenomenon.
After the gas was discovered in the Marib region in the 1980s, woodcarving was restricted to remote areas, but the war has stifled Yemen’s energy production, forcing it to rely first on imports and now on wood from trees commonly used to build homes.
Yemen has few woodlands but a relatively rich flora in the oil-producing desert region of the Arabian Peninsula. In al-Mahweet, known for its thick canopies, several types of acacia, cedar and spruce disappear.
Affordable loggers buy an acacia tree from landowners for the equivalent of about $ 100 and then sell logs to traders who send them to the cities.
A 5-ton truck loaded with logs nets is equivalent to $ 300- $ 700 in Sanaa, depending on wood and transportation distance.
A man walks past a truck loaded with logs at a wood market in Sanaa, Yemen, July 17, 2021. (Reuters Photo)
“Demand depends on the number of fuel vessels going to Hodeidah Harbor. Today (demand) is very high,” said logger Sulaiman Jubran, who scratches his head and sells firewood to visiting traders.
“We are afraid that the country will become a desert, it is already happening … you no longer see the trees that once covered the mountains,” he said.
Forests are largely privately owned and poor families were traditionally allowed to cut firewood for free as long as they only cut branches and spared the trunks for renewal.
“Now we are pulling them up with carpets (picks) … nothing is left,” al-Emadi said.