Illegal logging in southern Laos’ Champassak province was particularly devastating on forests in July, according to a local police officer, who said businessmen working in tandem with high-ranking officials raced to cut timber in the region ahead of the start of the rainy season.
The police officer, who spoke to RFA’s Lao Service on condition of anonymity, said that logging trucks bearing both Lao and Vietnamese registrations, and carrying both legal and illegal loads, can be seen at all times throughout central and southern Laos hauling timber into neighboring Vietnam.
And while local authorities often know that the wood has been illicitly procured, there is little they can do to stem the flow across the border.
“Last month, my colleagues and I stopped illegal-logging trucks, but the driver called someone and told me to talk with the man on phone,” the police officer said.
“The man I talked with on the phone is one of the provincial leaders [in Champassak] who ordered me to let the trucks go and escort them, rather than seize the logs.”
According to the source, the encounter was just one of many last month, as logging firms dashed to collect as much timber as they could from the province—with the backing of corrupt officials—before bad weather hampered their ability to do so during the rainy season.
In June, a source close to a central government official’s family in the southernmost Lao province of Attapeu told RFA that loggers there are bundling illegally harvested timber along with wood which has been legally collected and selling it to buyers across the eastern border in Vietnam.
The “son-in-law of a national leader,” who is in charge of granting permits in the province, runs a company which has been logging the timber, he added.
According to the source, loggers frequently take timber from outside the areas that have been designated as part of the development and concession sites and mix it up with wood they are allowed to harvest.
Authorities on both sides of the border have cooperated in a bid to tackle illegal log smuggling, with officials from the Forest Inspection Department of Laos holding talks with their Vietnamese counterparts last week to determine what measures to implement.
“We hold meetings to identify annual work plans, discuss what both sides are capable of, and exchange experience,” Thongphane Latthanalungsi, deputy director general of Lao Forest Inspection, recently told RFA.
The two Forest Inspection Departments have had a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in place since 2009, and Thongphane said they plan to expand their cooperation by signing similar MoUs between officials in provinces straddling the border.
“The important thing is that the police, customs and military officers are also playing a supporting role in law enforcement to control the illegal logging,” he said.
The illegal export of timber from Laos to Vietnam has had an immense effect on the economy in impoverished Laos, though it is difficult to estimate the cost.
In mid-2013, the Lao Ministry of Finance reported that the value of timber exported to Vietnam during 2012 was in the hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars, but revenue from tax and tariff collection only amounted to U.S. $20 million.