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Leaked report reveals massive illegal logging in Laos

  • In 2013, the report found illicit exports to China and Vietnam amounted to 1.4 million cubic meters— more than four times higher than the national quota, and almost 10 times greater than the country’s officially registered harvest.
  • Most of the timber was likely harvested from forests rather than tree plantations, threatening the wildlife that live within them.
  • The report recommends that the Laos government “take immediate actions” to avert “a worst-case scenario.”
Deforestation near Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area in Laos. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Systematic and rampant illegal logging are wreaking havoc on Laos’ forests on an astonishing scale, a recent report has found, painting a vivid picture of the dire ecological situation in one of Southeast Asia’s most opaque countries.

Assessment of Scope of Illegal Logging in Laos and Associated Trans-boundary Timber Trade, a recently leaked WWF report dated June 2015, details the extent at which the impoverished socialist republic is felling its forests, primarily due to demand from neighboring countries.

In 2013, the report found illicit exports to China and Vietnam amounted to 1.4 million cubic meters— more than four times higher than the national quota, and almost 10 times greater than the country’s officially registered harvest. This is in part due to the increasing export value of Laos wood products, which increased more than eight times from 2009 to 2014. In 2014 alone, China and Vietnam accounted for 96 percent of Laos wood product exports in terms of value — 63 percent and 33 percent, respectively. From 2008 to 2014, China’s importation of timber from Laos increased a startling 24 times, from $44.7 million to over $1 billion.

The figures are especially troubling given how few plantations in the country are planted to produce hardwoods.

“The high dependence of China and critical dependence of Vietnam on timber supply from Laos makes it unlikely that the governments of these countries are ready to take steps to control import legality,” the report says. “Almost all of this import value is likely generated by natural timber as [Laos] plantations produce very limited volumes of high-value hardwood.”

Hydropower dams, roads, mines and plantations are some of the primary drivers of Laos’ deforestation. The virtually nonexistent oversight of such projects, and even protected areas, has allowed illegal logging to wreak havoc on the country’s woodlands.

The report finds Saravan and Sekong, two southern provinces, have been particularly affected by illegal logging. One mining project investigated in Saravan resulted in 99 percent illegal timber extraction, while the road construction project in Sekong led to 100 percent illegal extraction.

Furthermore, in Saravan and Sekong, as well as Champassak and Attapeu, the report found that over 50 percent of the timber harvested was derived from unknown sources. Yet government agencies seized only five percent of the country’s estimated illicit timber from 2011-2012, and focused almost exclusively on small holders when they did crack down.

“The sheer volume of undocumented timber involved suggests that its extraction and transportation was conducted by large companies who had been permitted to legally assemble and operate a very high number of heavy equipment inside the extraction areas and to and from the country’s borders,” the report states.

Deforestation in Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area, Laos. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Deforestation in southern Laos. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Jago Wadley, a senior campaigner with the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency, which in 2011 tracked the operations of a Vietnamese military-owned company’s government-sanctioned logging activities in Attapeu in its Crossroads report, said that his NGO considers the WWF report the “most detailed and honest” assessment of the situation in Laos ever produced.

“The report describes in detail an overall situation that was known to and witnessed by EIA and other researchers working on Laos for some years,” he said in an e-mail. “What is new is the level of detail that shows how things happen in the field, and how the state fails to deal with them.”

However, the report has not yet been published and is still being reviewed.

“This report is currently in the draft stage and is undergoing a review process with a variety of stakeholders and is not ready to be formally published at the moment,” WWF-Greater Mekong communications director Lee Poston told the Straits Times.

Wadley said that while the government of Laos has made mention of helping alleviate the situation, excessive corruption and cronyism, coupled with limited transparency and accountability, have prevented any real measures from being taken. Laos is considered one of the most corrupt countries on earth, with Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index ranking the country 25th on a scale of 0 (“Highly Corrupt”) to 100 (“Very Clean”) .

“It is difficult to see how Laos can tackle the vested interests involved without root and branch governance reform,” Wadley said, adding that even though the government issued another log export ban in August 2015 that supposedly contained no exemptions or caveats, illegal wood continues to flow across the border.

According to Global Forest Watch data, Laos lost 191,031 hectares of forest in 2014, compared with 80,543 hectares in 2008. Unregulated and unchecked forest loss has resulted, predictably, in a host of problems for Laos’ plant and animal species.

Wadley said loggers in Laos tend to target hardwoods such as Burmese rosewood and Burmese padauk, though EIA has noted a large influx of Lagerstroemia being shipped to Vietnam recently, as well.

Additionally, Wadley noted that the saola, a critically endangered antelope-like species endemic to Laos and Vietnam found in the Xe Sap National Protected Area, which straddles Champasak and Attapeu, has also been suffering due to hunting and habitat loss.

Global Forest Watch data show Laos lost 1.6 million hectares — more than 8 percent — of its tree cover from 2001 through 2014. Little of the country still contains intact forest landscapes – large areas of undisturbed primary forest. Even protected areas have been affected, with Xe Sap National Protected Area losing 1,400 hectares in that same period. Large areas of cleared forest in the southern extent of the reserve (inset) are visible from satellite imagery. The roads built to allow logging trucks into an area also give easy access poachers, which pose a big threat to Xe Sap’s critically endangered saola.

“Deforestation and degradation resulting from bad forest management have also exacerbated the impacts of widespread hunting on a host of [other] endangered fauna across Laos,” Wadley said.

The report recommends that the Laos government take immediate action to quell the current state of affairs.

“Contrary to the government’s good intentions developments under the actual scenario will undoubtedly lead to the sheer depletion of commercial timber stocks in its natural forests — on the same path that Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia have already taken,” it states. “Were the [Laos] government serious to change the status quo and avoid a worst-case scenario it would have to take immediate actions to assure that logging quotas for conversion timber meet fundamental legal requirements.”