Sri Lanka court asks minister to appear before court in Hippo Spirit case

A Sri Lankan court had asked a government minister to appear before the court and state on oath that no imported organic fertilizer would be offloaded into Colombo Port from bulk carrier Hippo Spirit (IMO 9135523).

On November 11th the Court of Appeal directed the Attorney General to inquire whether the Minister in charge of the subject was prepared to give an assurance to the court that organic fertilizers allegedly containing harmful micro-organisms imported from China would not be unloaded from the ship to Sri Lanka.

The directive was issued when a Writ Petition filed by the Centre for Environmental Justice and a group of its officials seeking an Interim Order and a writ order prohibiting the importation of organic fertilizer into the country was taken up before a Bench of Court of Appeal Justices Sobhitha Rajakaruna and Dhammika Ganepola. The next hearing date is set for December 8th.

As reported in IMN at the beginning of November, it would appear that the Hippo Spirit has become caught up in a diplomatic disagreement where there are powerful Chinese forces at play.

The carrier had left Qingdao, China, on September 21st with a cargo of 20,000 tonnes of fertilizer produced by Qingdao Seawin Biotech Group Co Ltd, which is China’s leading maker of seaweed-based organic fertilizer.

Before the vessel arrived, Sri Lankan regulators commissioned a lab test of the cargo to determine its suitability for import. The test, carried out by Sri Lanka’s National Plant Quarantine Service (NPQS), indicated that the cargo was contaminated with bacteria of the genus Erwinia, which can be responsible for plant diseases such as fire blight and bacterial wilt.

Sri Lanka’s Agriculture Ministry therefore refused to allow the product into the country and ordered that the ship should be denied permission to enter port. After a second lab test confirmed the results, Sri Lanka’s Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage temporarily suspended all imports of organic fertilizer from China.

Qingdao Seawin protested, with strong support from the Chinese embassy in Colombo. This went public on Twitter, where the embassy account saw China call on Sri Lankan authorities to retest the fertilizer with Switzerland’s SGS Group, described as a more prestigious lab company. After the initial rejection, the Hippo Spirit set sail for Singapore and anchored off the Malacca Strait. It then became the Seiyo Explorer, and returned to Sri Lanka