Environmental activists have accused the Vietnamese army of smuggling wood from the jungle of Laos, threatening the livelihoods of millions of rural and indigenous people.
The London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) claims that one of the biggest loggers in Laos is the Vietamese Company of Economic Cooperation (COECCO), owned by Vietnam’s military.
According to the EIA, inadequate enforcement and corruption among Lao forestry officials has enabled at least 150 million dollars worth of timber smuggling across the Laos-Vietnam border each year.
Full Release: Vietnamese army named as timber smuggler [EIA International, 28 July 2011]
“What is happening here is almost displaced deforestation,” said Julian Newman, campaign director of the EIA. “Vietnam is almost annexing swathes of Laos to feed its industry.”
Hanoi has denied the EIA’s claims, saying there is “no smuggling of timber or logging from Laos by the Vietnamese army.” COECCO officials say the company has a license from the Lao government to import logs in exchange for roads and irrigation projects.
“Vietnam pays special attention to environmental protection [and] strictly forbids smuggling and illegal exploitation of timber,” said Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga.
Report & Analysis: Vietnam army smuggling timber in Laos: activists [AFP, 28 July 2011]
A similar investigation by the EIA in 2008 found an equivalent volume of timber being smuggled in the same illicit trade between Laos and Vietnam, prompting the EU to initiate talks with Vietnam on how to verify the origin of wood products destined for the EU market.
Vietnam, which closed its own forests to logging in 1997, currently exports an estimated 4 billion dollars in wood products, with about 15 percent going to the EU. In 2013, the EU will enforce a timber regulation that will prohibit the sale of illegally logged timber on the EU market.
Report & Analysis: Report: Vietnam makes millions off illicit log trade with Laos [DPA, 28 July 2011]
But the forests in Laos, some of the Mekong region’s last intact forests, are dwindling fast. Forested area covered 70 percent of the land-locked country in the 1940s, but has now dropped below 41 percent. By 2020, the figure could be as low as 30 percent.
Although the government has imposed an export ban on raw timber, this law is “routinely flouted on a massive scale,” the EIA said. There is also rampant logging, often associated with the country’s mushrooming dam projects and agricultural plantations.
International aid agencies in Laos frequently complain that provincial power brokers often make private business deals with foreign companies, sometimes in contravention of government laws and regulations.
Report & Analysis: Environmental group says illegal log trafficking to Vietnam destroying rich forests of Laos [AP, 28 July 2011]
“The governments of Vietnam and Laos urgently need to work together to stem the flow of logs and curb the over-exploitation of Laos’ precious forests before it’s too late," said Faith Doherty, head of EIA's forest campaign.