Timber seized by authorities in Laos after being harvested illegally is being offered for sale in state-run auctions, but discrepancies remain in the number of logs being sold and the number of trees cut down, sources say.
In an order issued in May, Lao prime minister Thongloun Sisoulith banned the export of timber in a bid to end the rampant smuggling of logs to neighbors such as China and Vietnam, where the wood is used to make high-end furniture.
Deforestation has been a major problem in the last two decades for Laos, whose forests now cover less than 40 percent of the country’s land, according to the Lao Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment.
Smuggling continues in the Southeast Asian nation’s central and southern provinces, though, because provincial governors profit from the trade, a civil society organization (CSO) official working in Champassak province told RFA’s Laos service.
“The governors of these provinces take the opportunity to enrich themselves by running sawmills and timber businesses in cooperation with Vietnamese investors,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“I have seen in Bolikhamxay, Khammouane, Savannakhet, and Champassak that these provinces don’t reveal the numbers of logs that have been seized,” he said, adding, “This means that something is being hidden under the carpet.”
“Governors have helped investors hide the confiscated timber ever since the national government began taking measures to stop the logging, and the number of seized logs never matches the number of trees cut down,” he said.
Border easily crossed
Smugglers still move logs from Sekong province to Vietnam by truck each day “because the province borders Vietnam, and the trucks can easily cross the border without passing through major checkpoints,” a resident of the province told RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The logging is protected by the governors,” he added.
Speaking separately, a resident of Paksong district in Champassak said he often sees timber left for pick-up near the sites of dams being built in Paksong.
“Those logs are waiting to be exported, and no officials come to confiscate them,” he said.
Reached for comment, Thongphanh Lattanalungsy—deputy director of the forest inspection department of Laos’ Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry—declined to speak to an RFA reporter.
Calls to Khenthong Sisouvong, deputy governor of Attapeu province in southeastern Laos, meanwhile rang unanswered.
Reported and translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Richard Finney.