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A logging site inside a forest in Laos’ Bolikhamsai Province, in a file photo.
Lao authorities have launched a pilot program to track the source of timber from sawmills and wood-processing plants after Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong disclosed that illegal logging has become a major problem for the country, reports say.
The pilot program requires all logs in sawmills and wood-processing plants to be inspected before export and to lay a framework for documentation that they are derived from legal sources, according to the reports.
The program has been introduced in Laos’ western Savannakhet and southern Saravan provinces, according to government officials quoted by the state-owned Vientiane Times.
Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong told the country’s parliament earlier this month that the government has been unable to stop slash-and-burn cultivation and illegal logging despite having numerous laws and policies.
Under intense questioning from lawmakers in the National Assembly, he disclosed that the main reason for illegal logging was the large potential financial profit.
Most of the illegal timber was exported to China, the top investor in landlocked Laos.
“Illegal logging continues in Laos because the price of wood is very high in the market,” and so, “many logging companies hire villagers to illegally log,” he said.
He went on to emphasize the importance of cooperation between local authorities and villagers as a method to help contain illegal logging.
“In order to stop illegal logging, all local authorities and villagers have to cooperate; if there is no cooperation, we can’t stop [illegal logging],” he said.
The government legally allows timber to be extracted in only four areas—areas where mining, roads, and electrical transmission line projects will be undertaken, as well as in water catchment areas slated for hydropower construction which may be inundated, according to the Vientiane Times.
However, insufficient enforcement and loopholes make for easy exploitation by illegal loggers, the report said.
According to police reports, illegal logging cases topped the list of “economic-related cases” in 2013, with 257 cases reported out of a total of 559.
Much of the illegal logs are destined for neighboring countries, such as China, where demand for rare and expensive timber such as Hongmu (redwood) is strong.
The lucrative Hongmu trade has surged in demand over the past decade, according to London-based green group the Environmental Investigation Agency [EIA].
The Mekong region, of which Laos is part, accounts for nearly half of China’s imports of Hongmu, valued at nearly U.S. $2.4 billion, since 2000.
Laos is concerned over the financial loss resulting from illegal logging due to eroding revenue from tax collection, which fell this year and missed the government target.
Lao Finance Minister Lien Thikeo informed the National Assembly that during the first six months of this year, the government was only able to collect 36.5 percent of projected tax revenue, forcing the authorities to lower the national budget.
“Revenue was down; for example, revenue from mining. We planned to collect at least 1.8 billion kip [U.S. $223.6 million], but we were able to collect only 1.1 billion kip [U.S $136.7 million],” he explained.
Over time, widespread deforestation has decimated the forest cover in Laos, declining from 71.6 percent of the total land mass in the 1960s, to 47 percent by 1992, and then down to 41.5 percent by 2002, according to the Vientiane Times.
Total forest cover currently stands at 40.3 percent and Lao authorities plan to increase it to 65 percent by 2015 and 70 percent by 2020.
An initiative to manage, protect, and conserve forests was also presented in the recent session of the National Assembly by the government, according to the Vientiane Times.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Lavery. Written in English by Di Hoa Le.