- In recent decades, rich tropical forests of the Greater Mekong region have been steadily depleted by the world’s growing appetite for timber.
- Recognizing the impact of the timber trade on natural forests, governments in the Greater Mekong region have come up with laws to regulate logging and timber exports.
- However, insufficient political will and collusion between officials, businesspeople and criminal groups means enforcement is often limited.
- There is a clear need to strengthen local laws and enforcement, but pressure from foreign governments, businesses and consumers can help.
Since the 1950s, the rich tropical forests of the Greater Mekong region have been steadily depleted by the world’s growing appetite for timber. Did you know that if all the countries in the region excluding China — that’s Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam — were counted as one, they would rank among the top five largest exporters of wood and wood products in the world?
Recognizing the impact of the timber trade on natural forests, governments in the Greater Mekong region have come up with laws to regulate logging and timber exports over the last few decades. These regulations have sought mainly to protect existing forests while encouraging a shift toward value-added wood processing industries.
Some countries, like Vietnam and Thailand, have successfully managed the transition to wood processing. But Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos continue to struggle with implementing and enforcing forest laws. Insufficient political will and collusion among officials, businesspeople and criminal groups have been some of the biggest obstacles, resulting in wood processing countries benefitting at the expense of their poorer neighbors.
For instance, Vietnam is today one of the biggest wood processors in the world. Its second-biggest source of tropical timber is Cambodia, which continues to experience rampant forest crime. In 2016, Cambodia’s government banned timber exports to Vietnam to curb illegal logging and trade. Despite the ban, researchers estimate that between 2016 and 2018, nearly half a million cubic meters (18 million cubic feet) of wood was smuggled across the Cambodian border to Vietnam.
As Cambodia’s forests continue to be depleted, much of this wood is coming from protected areas. Between 2018 and 2020, investigators from the NGO Global Initiative used ground interviews, GPS trackers, night-vision cameras, pinhole cameras and more to document illegal-logging activities in Cambodia’s Prey Lang and Prey Preah Roka wildlife sanctuaries. They analyzed satellite imagery from Google Earth to confirm forest loss, and flew drones to document large logging yards.
They found companies harvesting timber in protected areas outside their concession boundaries, loggers cutting down tree species protected under Cambodian law, and employees coercing local communities into giving up their rights while paying minimal compensation — even as each of these firms earned hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue from their logging.
Even though there is a clear need to strengthen local laws, pressure from foreign governments, businesses and consumers can help. For instance, when IKEA and other furniture firms began buying greater volumes of certified sustainable wood, Vietnamese factories were forced to increase their imports of certified wood too, to comply with these major buyers’ demands.
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