Blog August 29, 2014

When is a shipping container not a container?

By Nicola Byers

The answers in this case are:

A. When it’s a soapbox

B. When it’s a barricade

Housing, schools, surgeries, laboratories, restaurants, sports centres, shopping centres, artists’ studios, disaster relief shelter … freight containers are now put to a wide variety of non-conventional uses and Intermodal Eye has reported on a number of these in the past.

But the latest news in from the BBC adds a new political dimension. Imran Khan, veteran Pakistani cricket player turned politician, is reported to have spent $120,000+ on a heavily customised container. Articles in the Pakistani media say that the container has been bomb-proofed and air-conditioned and sports a sound system for rallies. It is also said to have meeting facilities, a bathroom, and a spiral staircase. Khan is pictured in the BBC article addressing supporters from the roof of the container, presumably accessed via said staircase.

Reporting on the clashes this August between the government and protestors pushing to topple it, journalist Fahad Desmukh observed that containers seem to have emerged as a “must-have accessory” for Pakistani politicians and police alike. During this latest conflict, police forces also placed hundreds of containers on Islamabad’s roads in an attempt to block protestors’ movements.

Desmukh adds that for the past five years, the Pakistan government has stockpiled containers near key state institutions in major cities, ready to be used as a barricade when protests erupt. But opposing political parties have equally discovered that containers make excellent stages for rallies and they are now “an essential item for any big political event.” Containers have also been converted to mobile homes for political sit-ins.

Many of the containers used by the government carry the official Pakistani police logo, said Desmukh. But that’s not the whole story. Yasir Naseer, President of the All Pakistan Truck Trailer Motors’ Owners Association, told Pakistani media organisation Dawn that up to 1400 of its members’ containers had been commandeered by officials, with “meagre” or no compensation offered.

Naseer said that around 80 per cent of the seized containers were normally used in the trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and for import/export business with other countries. Some of the commandeered containers were actually loaded with goods, including perishables, he added.

On a less contentious note, Intermodal Eye’s attention has also been drawn to Maersk Line New Zealand and Port of Auckland’s Art-Box social media project. Aimed at boosting public awareness of container shipping, Art-Box is a decorated 40ft Maersk reefer container that has been making its way round the world for the past 7 months as part of the year-long creative initiative. The reefer unit was painted by two Kiwi street artists at the SeePort 2014 open day in Auckland this January. Most recently this July, Art-Box arrived in Casablanca, Morocco, with a load of chocolate. It had previously visited Philadelphia with a shipment of seafood from New Zealand, and then Jebel Ali, Dubai with a consignment of US military supplies.