Modern Express' Cargo Stirs Environmental Controversy

Cargo operations for the Modern Express (courtesy ERL)

Published Feb 8, 2016 9:07 PM by The Maritime Executive

The head of European Roro Lines (ERL), the operator of the stricken ro/ro Modern Express, has disputed claims by Greenpeace that the vessel should be investigated for carriage of a cargo of illegal timber.

Greenpeace, echoing reports in the press that the vessel was loaded with timber of uncertain and potentially illicit origin, has recently called for French and Spanish authorities to investigate. The group called for officials “to take immediate steps, seize the timber and determine whether the operators involved acted in compliance with their obligations under the E.U. Timber Regulation,” or EUTR. In addition, the group said that “in the case of non-compliance with the timber regulation, sanctions should be imposed.”

The EUTR requires that timber sold within the E.U. must be legally obtained in its country of origin. It applies to whole logs and to wood products, including lumber and composites.

For those trading in timber, says the Forest Stewardship Council, the EUTR means an obligation to either: 1) deal in wood products that have an accepted third-party certification; or 2) to conduct “due diligence” in investigating suppliers to ensure that the timber is legal.

Greenpeace suggested that the probability that the wood was illegally obtained could be high. “All countries that could potentially be the origin of the timber are part of the Congo Basin, a region where illegal logging is a widespread problem. The forestry sector in the region is beset by rampant corruption, a lack of transparency and a lack of proper monitoring and law enforcement on the ground,” the group said.

ERL said in its statement that both the Gabonese Customs Department and the Préfecture Maritime have confirmed the nature of the cargo. On its regular runs from Europe to West Africa, the Modern Express is loaded with vehicles heading south and lumber heading back.

Karim Chami, director of ERL France, said in a statement that “the [cargo] is composed of four different species of lumber: Okan, Azobé, Movingui, [and] Tali.” None of these species appear on the United Nations' list of endangered trees. Additionally, he said, the vessel was definitely not carrying whole logs, as “this type of vessel is not at all suitable for transporting [them].” Whole logs are typically shipped aboard general cargo vessels as breakbulk freight.

But both whole logs and sawn lumber are included in the scope of the EUTR, and Greenpeace's questions regarding the shipment do not center on either the type of product or the species of tree - rather, they focus on whether the owner of the cargo acted in accordance with the EUTR.

Gabonese Minister of the Economy Regis Immongault has called for an investigation and for penalties for anyone found to be involved in illegal wood exports, including a port operator and potentially for the nation’s Customs Department, said Gabonese media.