Luxury rosewood illegally logged throughout Laos is routinely smuggled north across the border to China by family members of the country’s elite officials along a route paved with bribes to local authorities, according to sources with knowledge of the network.
In the past, rosewood logs—which are used to make pricey reproduction Qing and Ming Dynasty furniture—were smuggled into Thailand before being moved across the border into China, a source told RFA’s Lao Service on condition of anonymity.
However, Thai authorities have increased monitoring along the border since the beginning of the year, with one particularly large rosewood shipment discovered in containers from Laos in Thailand’s Nonthaburi province in January, prompting Lao smugglers to focus exclusively on routing the timber to China through their own country.
“The smugglers have been collecting rosewood from many provinces [in Laos] and exporting it to China since 2014,” the source said, adding that a total of 200 tons of the wood was sent across the border last year—the majority of which came from the south of the country.
“The person behind the smuggling is a son of one of the country’s politburo members and while transporting it from the south, the smuggler bribes officials to clear the way.”
According to the source, the rosewood is collected in the capital Vientiane at warehouses located in Xaythany district’s Donnoun village along Route 13 South, Saysettha district’s Samkhe village and Hatsayfong district’s Kilometer 8 village.
The wood is then driven north to Luang Namtha province, along the border with China, where it awaits export across the border to Mohan, in the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture of southwestern China’s Yunnan province, the source said.
Seven warehouses have been built in Mohan to accommodate the vast amounts of rosewood flowing across the border, he added.
An RFA reporter who traveled to Nateuy village in Luang Namtha witnessed several hundred thousand rosewood logs stacked up in preparation for transport across the border.
Khammerng, the director general of Luang Namtha’s Agriculture and Forestry Department told RFA he was unaware of the illegal rosewood smuggling in a telephone interview.
“I don’t know about this issue—it is the responsibility of the forestry inspection units and customs officers,” he said.
Khamphout Phandanouvong, director general of the Forestry Inspection Department of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, also said he did not know about the smuggling route through Luang Namtha.
“We have not received a report or other information about this issue,” he said when contacted by RFA.
Route to Vietnam
Additionally, a source close to a central government official’s family in the southernmost Lao province of Attapeu told RFA that loggers there are bundling illegally harvested timber along with wood which has been legally collected and selling it to buyers across the eastern border in Vietnam.
“Log smuggling is big there now, especially as wood is being harvested from the Xekaman dam project and from the Namkong area of Phouvong district, along the [southern] border with Cambodia,” the source said.
According to the source, loggers frequently take timber from outside the areas that have been designated as part of the development and concession sites and mix it up with wood they are allowed to harvest.
The “son-in-law of a national leader,” who is in charge of granting permits in the province, runs a company which has been logging the timber, he added.
An RFA reporter who traveled to Attapeu province last month witnessed a number of large trucks carrying logs to the Vietnamese border.
Khenthong Sisouvong, the deputy governor of Attapeu province who is also in charge of the forestry sector, said he was too busy to answer questions about the smuggling problem when contacted by RFA.
A third source told RFA that smugglers in southern Laos’ Champassak province are also purchasing timber—including that which has been harvested from endangered species of trees such as rosewood—from villagers with funds sourced from Chinese businessmen, under the protection of the “wife of a former state leader.”
The global trade in rosewood has been restricted since 2013, but Chinese demand for antique-style “hongmu” furniture is increasing and the illegal trade has ballooned since the ban was announced, London-based environmental watchdog Global Witness said in February.
Reported by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.