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Where There is a Will There is a Way - 66 Containers of Stolen Illegal Timber Return to Mozambique

On May 16th, 66 containers of logs that had been illegally harvested and shipped out of Mozambique returned to Pemba, some of them having sailed home on a journey of 20,000 kilometers.

While positive outcomes to international illegal timber trafficking sagas are rare, this example demonstrates what is feasible and should set the bar for implementing routine efficient measures going forward.

Mozambique is Africa’s third largest exporter of logs. Between 2017 and 2020, Mozambique exported 2.6 million tons of logs, valued at US$900 million; 99 percent of these logs went to China. This trade persists in violation of Mozambique’s log export ban, in effect since 2017.

It also violates additional actions taken by the government in 2018, prohibiting the logging of the principal species exported as logs. At that time, the Minister of the Environment, Mr. Celso Correia, reportedly described the situation as being nothing short of a “war” against organized crime.

This case began in August 2020, when Mozambique authorities seized 82 containers of illegally harvested, Chinese-bound logs and detained them at the port of Pemba. Those containers were subsequently smuggled out from custody and exported in December 2020. The containers were still on international waters when Mozambique authorities launched a broad investigation to locate and bring back the stolen cargo.

Five months later, after working with Maersk Line (the world's largest container shipping company) and United Africa Feeder Line, the two companies involved in the transport of the containers between Mozambique and China, 66 containers were returned to Mozambique’s Pemba port. An additional ten containers may be returned soon.

“This is a victory against traffickers and organized crime, but the war against illegal timber trade from Mozambique is not over,” said Octavio Zilo, chief prosecutor of Cabo Delgado province, of which Pemba is the capital. “Broader and deeper productive collaborations with shipping lines and demand side countries like China will be needed.”

For years shipping lines have minimized or denied their role in the illegal timber trade. In recent months, however, prominent shipping companies have made commitments to combat illegal timber trade.

Significantly, in response to reports about timber trafficking from The Gambia, Compagnie Maritime d'Affrètement-Compagnie Générale Maritime (CMA-CGM) announced an embargo on all timber from The Gambia, and Maersk Line quickly followed suit.




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