On January 11, a perfect blue sky framed the Safmarine Akwaba in the port of Bayonne, in the south of France. Between the blue sky and the white cranes, the 140-meter (460-foot) freighter, not yet even five years old, made for a postcard-perfect image of the shipping trade — if only it weren’t for the cargo.
That same cargo landed this ship on the blacklist of a British environmental organization called Global Witness on this particular January day. In its hold, the Safmarine Akwaba held 929 cubic meters (32,800 cubic feet) of tropical wood from Liberia. According to Global Witness, the buyer for this freight was Treemex, a lumber importer in the German town of Nordenham.
Tropical wood remains a lucrative business, in demand in Europe for dining-room tables and hardwood floors, or to lend an air of cold power to the wood-paneled offices of corporate CEOs. If the lumber is certified to have been cultivated legally, the buyer obtains not only a visually pleasing construction material, but also a halfway clear conscience.