‘Corrupt’ Officials in Laos Blamed Over Illegal Timber Trade with Vietnam

2014-11-26
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A Vietnamese truck loads timber from a forest in southern Laos in an undated photo.
A Vietnamese truck loads timber from a forest in southern Laos in an undated photo.
(Photo courtesy of an RFA listener.)

Top government officials in Laos have been linked to the flourishing illegal timber trade between the country and neighboring Vietnam, according to sources who cite unofficial crossings along the border as conduits for the illicit activity.

“The smuggling of logs cannot be stopped because some of the Lao national leaders are involved in it,” an official who works at one of the non-governmental groups on forest conservation in the country told RFA’s Lao Service.

Some of the mining companies operating along the Champassak, Attappue and Saravan provinces in southern Laos claimed that some national leaders pressured enforcement officials not to take action against the smuggling activities.

When asked about the claims, an official who works in the investigation department at the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry declined to comment.

The UK-based nongovernmental organization Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) said the illegal timber trade had thrived so far because of poor enforcement by both Laos and Vietnam.

“The enforcement on the borders between Laos and Vietnam is very, very weak. The enforcement in Vietnam is very, very weak. So Vietnam is very willing to take timber smuggled from Laos into Vietnam.”

Chronic problem

Illegal logging and timber exports have long been a chronic problem in Laos.

A police report indicated that 257 cases related to the illegal trading of timber were discovered last year, topping an annual list of the country’s economic-related crimes, the Vientiane Times reported.

To repopulate the nation’s forests, the government wants to reach forest coverage of 65 percent of the land by next year, and 70 percent by 2020, from the current 40 percent, according to an official estimate. One independent expert, however, says the current coverage is less than 30 percent.

The government reaffirmed its commitment to achieving the 65 percentage level at a November 2013 meeting with its development partners.

But at a roundtable meeting this month, development partners asked Lao government officials to conduct a proper assessment of current forest coverage based on accepted international definitions, a source who attended the meeting told RFA.

The integrity of Lao officials involved in the country’s afforestation efforts is also being questioned.

“Villagers do not trust government officials in afforestation campaigns, because when the trees are mature, national leaders order that they be cut,” said the NGO official who requested anonymity.

“Forest officials in practice find it difficult to seize and arrest timber smugglers, especially the big logging business that is backed by big politicians, or otherwise they will be removed if they block the politicians’ interests,” the source said.

laos-timber-for-export-to-vietnam-nov-2014-400.jpg
Logs in a field in Attapeu province, Laos, await export to Vietnam in an undated photo. (Photo courtesy of an RFA listener.) (Photo courtesy of an RFA listener.)
Permission and quotas

The government allows trees to be felled in areas where mining, road and electricity grid and hydropower dam construction projects are being implemented, reports say.

Although officials must give permission to businesses to log in certain areas and place quotas on the amount of wood they can produce, the reports say some firms are believed to cut down trees from areas that are not permitted by law.

One of the ways in which illegal logging takes place is that businesses hire villagers to cut down trees and sell the timber to them, according to the Vientiane Times.

The timber is often moved though unofficial border crossings with neighboring Vietnam to bypass inspections, according to sources. The growing timber demand from Vietnam and China and other countries in the region has strained Lao forests.

The government prohibits export of logs to boost domestic supplies to wood processing plants and add value by processing wood products to increase their price before exporting them, according to the Vientiane Times.

“The amount of logs in the field never matches the permitted quotas because the officials who issue the permission always want a share of the interest in logging,” the NGO official said. “Therefore, the company that received permission must extract more logs for officials.”

Pilot program

As part of the government’s efforts to crack down on illegal logging, Lao officials introduced a pilot program in July in the southern provinces of Savannakhet and Saravan (also known as Salavan), which border Vietnam, to track the source of timber from sawmills and wood-processing plants.

The scheme came about after Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong disclosed that illegal logging had become a major problem for the country, according to reports.

The pilot program requires all logs in sawmills and wood-processing plants to be inspected before export and a framework to ensure logs are derived from legal sources.

Another source told RFA that in Savannakhet, military officials—not forestry officials—have taken advantage of the situation to inspect logging trucks and extort money from smugglers.

“In the meantime, logging in the province is out of control,” said the source, who did not want to be identified. “Local authorities have conspired with the smugglers to carry out logging without quotas.”

In some instances, foreign investors are participating in the illegal export of unprocessed logs.

“A Chinese investor has operated a sawmill in Luang Namtha province [in northern Laos, bordering China and Myanmar] and still exporting unprocessed logs although the government has declared that only processed logs can be exported.

“That is against the government’s regulations on the exporting of wood, and the central government must investigate this issue,” the source, who wanted to remain unnamed, said.

Reported by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

Comments (6)
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Anonymous Reader

If I had a teak tree in my back yard that was worth $100,000, I'd cut it down. They have the power; they cut the trees; they get richer. What do you expect?

Dec 22, 2014 10:13 PM

Superman

from Krypton

Soon, after all the lumbers are completely decimated, all of the wildlife are next to become extinct. Then, the corrupted Lao communist government will pretend to care about Laos and its wildlife. The only viable to save Laos is to get rid of the government from the root. But, the Lao civilians are way too scared for their lives and busy drinking beerlao. Oh well, just let the country implode.

Dec 01, 2014 10:25 PM

LAONOR

DEAR LAO PEOPLE,TIAO FA NGUM CUT PHAINAM,HIS LOST THE WAR.NOW LAODENG CUT THE WOOD,LAO GO TO LOST THE LAND & COUNTRY.TO LAO PEOPLE DON'T BE LAZY,DON'T MATTER, WHERE LAO PEOPLE LIVE

Dec 01, 2014 06:59 AM

Zendi

Laotian overseas and those within Laos has been trying to tell the Lao Government for years that it is their own Official ranked that is causing future instability of Laos economy and the Lao people future. Now we don't even know if Laos has a future with millions of illegal logging industry has wipe out Million of acre of old ancient trees the most crucial part of Laos environmental and business progress. Most of these money that was made during this years could of went towards Laos and the people. But rather, Top officials greedy as they are kept it for themselves and their family and while the ordinary Lao suffer from lack of support. Vietnam and the Vietnamese does not care about Laos and the Lao people. Only our own people do! And Laos has the opportunity to make a difference for our own people and motherland!

Nov 27, 2014 08:21 AM

Superman

from Krypton

hahaha,the government officials that drafted the laws are the ones violating it. The only way to stop this illegal timbering is to just absolutely get rid of the law and let everyone chop the trees away until there's no more. Let there be floods, land erosion, landslides, and many other natural disasters associated with this activity. It is the only way to stop the corrupted government from this activity.... if you can't stop them, join them.

Nov 27, 2014 04:08 AM

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