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    Southeast Asia
     Oct 5, 2010

A tree falls in Laos
By Beaumont Smith

VIENTIANE - With Pakistan suffering from unprecedented deforestation-driven flooding, are once forested, now denuded Southeast Asian countries the next natural disasters in waiting? The collusion between government, military and illegal loggers largely responsible for Pakistan's humanitarian crisis has taken a similarly severe toll on Southeast Asia's crucial upland forests.

The widespread destruction of the forests of Malaysia and Indonesia to make way for biofuel, palm-oil, rubber and paper-pulp plantations has been well-documented, and witnessed in the smog that frequently floats over the region from slash-and-burn deforestation. Now, the impact from years of unregulated logging in Laos, often presumed to be one of the last bastions of old forest in the region, is coming into sharper view.

The fact that the Laotian military maintains both legal and illegal


logging operations is an open secret here; what is less known are the details of the profit-sharing agreements the military has with neighboring Vietnam and how these deals have contributed to massive deforestation in recent years. The Vietnamese army is widely believed to be extracting payment in timber along the border for the costs it incurs to help defend Laotian territory.

The state of Laos' forests is increasingly relevant to discussions on global climate change. Scientists now weigh the relative importance and efficiency of old and new forests for carbon sequestration, or the ability to absorb rising atmospheric carbon loads. Among the old forests of global significance are the stands of sequoias, redwoods and Douglas firs that extend from northern California to British Columbia, and the wet tropical forests of Laos, Malaysia and Indonesia, experts say.

These last wooded stands have sparked a sharp debate about how forests should be managed, particularly whether carbon-storing older trees should be cut to make way for carbon-using younger ones. The picture is made more complicated by news that old-growth forests' capacity to absorb carbon has declined recently, ironically because of droughts attributed to climate change. The ambiguity surrounding the carbon-absorbing value of old-versus-young trees has provided a lacuna within which forests are being felled.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has suggested that countries should strive to maintain 40% cover to sufficiently protect forest lands. Some forestry experts, however, take issue with the sufficiency of that measure and how regional governments massage their numbers. Laos claims to maintain this benchmark percentage, but independent experts question that official assessment considering the widespread cutting underway.

"Laos insists it still has 40% of its forests, but in fact the dense crown cover, that is the old growth or relatively intact forest, accounts for only 3% of what is left," said a forestry consultant with over 40 years' experience in Asia. "And that only exists because it's hard to access."

"Laos has an additional 23% that is seriously degraded, that is a few tall trees with lots of bamboo understory and regrowth saplings, and another 11% that is so scrappy it has little or no value for biodiversity," he said.

The consultant also said official statistics indicate that Laos is felling around 50 million cubic meters of wood per year, but that harvest does not show up in export statistics. "Our question is: where is it going?" he said. "We found that Vietnam exports more than it produces, so we can only surmise that Laotian trees find their way into Vietnam. We know there is a lot of cross-border trade."

During a recent investigation at the southern Laotian border crossing at Attapeu, the consultant saw several trucks loaded with unmarked logs rolling into Vietnam. When he asked customs officials whether the logs were being exported in accordance with national guidelines, they responded that Laos did not have the capacity to process the wood so it was sent to Vietnam. They said the wood was often shipped from Vietnam to Russia to pay debts owed from their Cold-War-era patron-client relations.

"The figures all across Asia are unreliable," the expert said. "Indonesia, for instance, only records what is exported and does not account for its huge domestic market - and what gets shipped offshore in the dead of night."

Martial chainsaws
There are powerful military interests behind Laos' timber trade.

General Cheng Sayavong, whose enterprises now include the country's only private TV station, previously headed the Borisat Phattana Khed Phudoi (BPKP) - or the Mountain Areas Development Company - and once served as chairman of the country's National Tourism Authority. The BPKP, which once consisted of 58 subsidiaries, is believed to have deforested much of the precipitous terrain to the south of Vientiane province, where the national capital is situated.

Given a key contract for highway maintenance in and around Vientiane, the BPKP logged most of the mature Honduras mahogany trees lining the road into the city. These trees, highly valued for their shade and beauty, were planted by French colonial landscape architects nearly a century ago. Commercially extinct in the wild, it is worth as much as US$6,000 per cubic meter as sawn timber, experts say. The general has allegedly also been involved in the trade of rare hinoki cypress wood, which his companies are said to have extracted by helicopter and shipped to Japan via Vietnam.

The World Bank has attempted to limit the role of other military-backed companies in the Laotian economy, but with limited success. Many have persisted in the trade and through their privileged access to remote areas have diversified into mining. Laos' Ministry of Forestry, which is responsible for enforcement of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), has tried to regulate logging, particularly in protected areas.

"We catch many people. We ask them who they are working for and they give us the names of some very important people," said one forestry inspector who requested anonymity. "We then phone to ask them about the activities and they deny it. What can we do? They are big-bellied people."

Because there is no unified enforcement mechanism of CITES obligations, international conservation organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), play a leading watchdog role. A WWF staff member who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the provincial government of Sekong in southern Laos was often so strapped for cash that it resorted to logging its remaining forests to generate funds.

"The provinces are promised 10% of the royalties paid to the central government for timber concessions. It rarely arrives," the WWF staffer said. "The upshot of that is that a plan we had to protect existing forest had to be modified into developing new community forests when the local governments literally ran out of funds and had to cut their trees."

That has raised questions about Communist Party control over peripheral areas. Eisel Mazard, an independent scholar who works on Laotian issues, wrote that in early 2007 a number of highly placed members of the politburo wanted an absolute end to logging inside the country's conservation areas.

The call came after extreme deforestation in the Phou Khao Khouay National Biodiversity Conservation Area caused low water levels at the area's three hydroelectric dams. Despite those concerns, government policy still allows for logging, farming and the development of industrial estates inside these national conservation areas.

That policy is at least partially motivated by an urge to manage dissent in the poorly paid military. "The Laotian army reminds me of Napoleonic forces that lived off the land, pillaging and foraging," mused Jim Osborne, a visiting military historian. The WWF staffer agreed, "They don't get paid, so they have to cut timber, poach or mine for income."

Philip Smith, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Analysis in Washington, wrote this year that illegal logging and political persecution of forest dwellers, in particular the Hmong, had recently accelerated under the watch of Vietnamese troops.

Other experts say that controlling logging in Laos is nearly impossible without accurate data and enforcement mechanisms. Technical assistance agencies such as the FAO seem willing to go along with the Laotian government's inflated 40% estimate of forest cover. But the reality is that Laos and the region's last stands of ecologically important old forests are falling fast.

Beaumont Smith is a Vientiane-based journalist.

(This is an amended version of the article first published on October 5)

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