Gas shortage: Residents in Socotra are logging trees for wood

Published on 4 December 2014 in Report
Ali Ibrahim Al-Moshki (author)

Ali Ibrahim Al-Moshki


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Socotra resident Abdulrahman Al-Socotri said some residents have made a business out of cutting down Socotra’s trees. (Photo: reversehomesickness.com)

Socotra resident Abdulrahman Al-Socotri said some residents have made a business out of cutting down Socotra’s trees. (Photo: reversehomesickness.com)

Ranked as the world’s fourth most exotic island and a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2008, the island of Socotra has for many years been known as the jewel of Yemen’s tourism industry. Located south east of the Yemeni mainland in the Indian Ocean, Socotra is known for its beautiful beaches and clear climate.

Recently, the island’s pristine nature and rare plant life has come under threat from a domestic fuel crisis that has left locals without gas or electricity, forcing many to begin cutting down the rare trees to collect firewood to warm their homes as winter on the island intensifies.

The island is home to 853 types of rare plants and trees, 362 are found only on the island. Most famous among them is the Dragon Blood tree, known locally as ‘Dam Al-Akhwayn,’ or ‘the blood of two brothers.’ Locals say the first dragon tree sprouted on the island shortly after Cain, son of Adam and Eve, killed his brother Able. The legend claims that following his death, Able’s blood seeped into the ground, giving birth to the first dragon blood tree.

Socotra is one of Yemen’s nature reserves, and is therefore protected under the country’s Natural Reserve Protection Law 275, passed in 2000. The law forbids, “All forms of logging, and destruction or targeting of plant and animal life in all five of Yemen’s natural reserves,” says Ahmed Said Suleiman, director of the General Authority for Environment Protection in Socotra. “The biological diversity that has made Socotra so unique is in real danger of being wiped out in the medium to long term, due to illegal logging by locals,” he added.

The fuel crisis that led locals to start logging began in June when the state-run Yemen LNG Gas Corporation, run by Yemen’s Ministry of Oil, ceased providing fuel shipments to the Al-Aisi Organization for Investment and Commerce, also known as Raha, according to Salem Dahaq, director of the Hadibou District, home to Hadibou city, the capital of Socotra. The organization, owned by business mogul and former chairman of the Yemeni Football Federation, Ahmed Al-Aisi, is Socotra’s sole fuel provider according to Dahaq. It is responsible for transportation of fuel from mainland Yemen to Socotra, and distribution of fuel supplies to citizens on the island.  

Gas shipments ceased, according to Dahaq, because Al-Aisi had accumulated a large amount of debt that was owed to the Yemen LNG Gas Corporation. “The total debt is in the hundreds of millions of riyals,” according to Dahaq. The Yemen Times was not able to independently verify this figure. A source within Yemen’s Ministry of Oil, who asked to speak on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the Yemen LNG Gas Corporation, which falls under the authority of the ministry, had stopped sending gas shipments to Raha, due to the company’s unpaid debts. He would not comment on the total size of the debt.

According to Dahaq, Socotra residents were able to weather the shortage between June and October, as the local government had stockpiled large amounts of gas to be used during crisis situations. This stockpile ran out in late October, according to Dahaq, at which point local residents began illegally cutting down Socotra’s trees and plant life.

“Locals are chopping down the island’s trees without distinguishing between rare and common trees,” he said. “They don’t care, they just need firewood for their homes in order to cook and stay warm.”

According to Ahmad Said Suleiman, the General Authority for Environment Protection in Socotra has sent several letters to Prime Minister Bahah pleading for assistance to help address this issue, but to no avail. No response has yet been received, according to Suleiman. In a phone interview with the Yemen Times, Dahaq claimed he traveled to Sana’a on Dec. 3 to meet with Prime Minister Bahah and oil minister Mohammad Abdullah bin Nabhan to discuss the crisis.

“Last week, a proposal was put forth by Yemen LNG to have the Yemeni Economic Corporation replace Raha as Socotra’s gas supplier,” said Suleiman. “However, this would require that the company buy a new fleet of gas shipping tankers, gas cylinders, and other equipment needed to transport the fuel, a process that would take a long time, and not provide a solution to Socotra’s immediate fuel needs,” he added. Dahaq claimed that the possibility of commissioning The Yemeni Economic Corporation to replace Yemen LNG was discussed at the meeting held Wednesday with the Minister of Oil and the prime minister.

The Yemen Times made many calls to both Yemen LNG and the Al-Aisi Organization for Investment and Commerce, but both repeatedly declined to comment. Socotra Island is distinguished for its wild life and trees, whose leaves are included as ingredients in a number of local herbal medicines used to treat diseases ranging from asthma, headaches to skin infections. Among them is the Al-Saber Al-Socatri tree, Mur tree, Boswellia Carteri tree, Euphorbia Milii and Jaraz tree. Palm trees and Al-Amata tree are also spread out heavily throughout the island, particularly along various riverbanks.

Suleiman further bemoaned the effects tree-cutting would have on tourism. “Socotra is the only part of Yemen tourists come to, because it’s the only part of the country that’s safe,” he said. “Tourism has been steadily increasing since the labeling of Socotra as a World Heritage sight. Last year, we received 1,400 foreign tourists, a huge boost to the local economy,” he added.

Suleiman said cutting down the trees would eliminate incentive for tourists to visit. Cutting down trees would also cause Socotra’s rare bird population, another reason tourists travel to the island, to migrate, he added.

“We’ve had gas shortages before, they usually occur once a year. Usually they last ten days. However Socotrans have now been without gas for almost a month and a half and we haven’t seen any reaction from the government,” he said.

“Locals have cut down hundreds, if not thousands of rare trees already. If steps aren’t taken to address this crisis, Socotra will never be the same again.”

Abdulrahman Al-Socotri, a resident of Hadibou, told the Yemen Times that gas in all houses in Socotra had run out since late October, and that residents had taken to cutting down trees to use as firewood. “Some have made a business out of it,” he said. “They go out into the center [of the Island], cut down trees, load them in trucks and sell them back in town to residents. It’s the only option we have, even if it is destroying the environment.”

Ali Yahya, an ecologist based in Socotra, says that among the trees being cut are the Croton Socotranus, locally known as Matrer; the Carphilia Abovata, locally knows as Shaihat; and the Ziziphusspina-Christi, known locally as Dha'd. The latter is found only in Socotra, he said.

Ahmad Al-Aisi had been accused in 2011 in a number of Yemeni media outlets of illegally smuggling large quantities of diesel to Djibouti, allegedly in cooperation the Aden Refining Company. On Aug. 4, 2014, the news outlet “Aden Al-Ghad,” published ten photos of various undisclosed documents from the Yemeni Customs Agency, Ministry of Finance, and Aden Refining Company that allegedly link Al-Aisi and a number of other Yemeni businessmen and government officials to the smuggling of fuel outside the country. Neither Al-Aisi nor the Aden Refining Company were ever brought to court or prosecuted in or outside of Yemen on any charges related to these allegations.