Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith took to Facebook this week to call for a strict implementation of his country’s timber export ban and asked the public to become forest watchdogs in the face of a so-called “log mafia” that is attempting to evade the moratorium.
The new Lao government banned the export of logs and timber on May 13 in a bid to reduce rampant and widespread illegal wood shipments outside the small Southeast Asian nation’s borders, and the government estimates that there are more than 100 truckloads of illegal lumber stashed in the forests as smugglers try to evade the ban.
While the moratorium requires all ministries, provincial governors, and mayors to implement strict measures to control and inspect the felling of trees, log transportation, and logging businesses, it's unclear how effective Sisoulith’s appeal will be, as some lower-ranking government officials appear to be less than enthusiastic about enforcing the ban and some Laotians fear retaliation from what they refer to as the “log mafia.”
'They know each other'
“The governor pretends to inspect the loggers for smuggling, but in fact the officials assigned to work in the field help the smugglers export all the timber before the rainy season because they know each other,” a government official in Khammuane province told RFA’s Lao Service.
The official, a member of the committee established to monitor logging in the province, told RFA that attempts to run a contraband load of lumber out of the country literally blew the smugglers’ cover in early May.
“At first the smugglers would export 170 trucks of timber to Vietnam, but on May 2 a Vietnamese truck loading timber had an accident and an explosion killed nine Vietnamese workers, so the public was alerted,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Then the smugglers hid the timber in sawmills and forests.”
The Sayphouluang, Yernlavy, Ban Phone, Don Peuy, and Saynamyom sawmills, where the timber is hidden, lie in the Yommalath and Boualapha districts in Khammuane province, the official said. In Khamkeuth district, Bolikhamsay province, logs and timber were found hidden in sawmills and in the forests, he added.
Over the past two decades, 20 square kilometers in the Khamkeuth district were designated as a development area for the Phoudoi Development Company that has extensively logged the area.
A district resident urged the government to conduct an investigation of logging in the area, telling RFA that smugglers have hidden thousands of cubic meters of cut logs there.
Fear of the 'log mafia'
“I would like the officials to come inspect in the province because now there are more than 10,000 cubic meters of logs and timber hidden in the forests and sawmills,” the resident told RFA. “There are many in the log mafia, and people here know it well, but they dare not say anything.”
The resident said it wouldn’t take long for the government to find out what’s going on. Residents of the area say a sawmill in Paksan district in Bolikhamsay province is owned a lady surnamed Nok, who is locally well known as a member of the log mafia.
“If the officials come inspecting here [district] for a few days, they will know the facts,” the resident said.
Phongsavanh Pathamavath, head of the log inspection division and director general of the agriculture and forestry department of Bolikhamsay province, declined to give any details.
Laos has long suffered from the rampant smuggling of logs and timber to neighbors such as China and Vietnam.
A report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) leaked online last October revealed huge increases in illegal logging in Laos and suggested government collusion. The report prompted some Lao officials to examine discrepancies in timber export and import figures with China and Vietnam.
The report found that the value of Lao wood product imports reported by China and Vietnam exceeded that of reported Lao exports more than tenfold, based on an analysis of Lao customs data.
It focused on conversion forestry—logging in areas marked for the development of infrastructure projects such as hydropower dams, road building, and mining operations—which is used as an excuse for large-scale logging that otherwise would not be permitted under Lao law. The government has also issued logging quota exceptions in areas where infrastructure projects were being built.
While the current logging ban may be less than complete, the government has taken steps to reign in the log mafia, seizing eight log trucks in Vientiane and holding them since May 2. In Savannakhet province in central Laos, officials on May 4 seized two trucks of timber and now keep them in the provincial military headquarters.
Reported and translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA's Lao Service. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.