The Lao government’s attempt to strangle the illicit lumber trade is forcing smugglers to become more creative as they play a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities, RFA’s Lao Service has learned.
With the government’s ban on the export of logs and timber now in full force, smugglers are shunning the big border checkpoints where they used to openly move their cargo, according to sources in Laos.
“The Chinese smugglers used to transport the wood through the Boten-Bohen Lao-Chinese border checkpoint, which is an international border checkpoint,” a truck driver told RFA’s Lao Service.
“But after the prime minister’s ban on timber was issued, the officials there took strict measures against the smuggling,” the driver said. “So the smugglers are now transporting the timber through the small border checkpoint in the Namore district instead of the Boten-Bohen border checkpoint.”
Not only are smugglers using out-of-the-way check points to spirit the valuable hardwood across the border, but they are taking pains to cover up their activities by hiding their loads in farm produce and paying off the border guards.
Hidden in the corn
“The timbers transported to the border were hidden in corn-carrying trucks with help from the officials at the checkpoints,” the driver told RFA.
Laos has long suffered from the rampant smuggling of logs and timber 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.
Laos’ forest sector shifted away from the export of mainly unfinished wood products to managed plantations and export-based forest production, according to a report issued last October by the London-based NGO Chatham House, with logs shipped primarily to Vietnam, Thailand and China, often through illegal sales.
But Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith and the Lao government are trying to crack down on deforestation and the government banned the export of logs and timber earlier this year in a bid to reduce rampant and widespread illegal wood shipments outside the small Southeast Asian nation’s borders.
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.
That trend appears to be continuing even as the government attempts to stop the timber harvest.
Iron mine owners target valuable trees
Much of the timber that is being smuggled across the border in the Namore district is cut near the iron mines that are controlled by Chinese investors, who see a valuable tree and then harvest it under the loophole.
“The timber was cut down in the mountains where iron mines are operated by Chinese investors,” according to the driver. “The timber is then transported to China even though the mine has not operated since last year.”
Officials at the Phouluckham border checkpoint denied to RFA that they are allowing the smugglers to use it as their new pass-through.
“No officials here are involved in illegal log shipments, and we do not have information for you,” an official told RFA. “Any questions you can contact the customs department.”
In August, Thai police confiscated 20 containers of rosewood from Laos after the rare wood was transported through the checkpoint between Laos’ Vientiane and Thailand’s Nongkhai provinces.
Chalermkiat Srivorakan, deputy commissioner general of Thailand, told RFA that they were waiting on the final report from the Thai customs department before taking action.
“The investigation of illegal rosewood from Laos is not developed because [Thailand’s] customs department has not reported,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.