A plan by Lao authorities to plant saplings on 30,000 hectares throughout the country in a bid to increase the amount of forested land to 70 percent coverage by 2020 is only an attempt by the government to try to save face following a report that officials and a Vietnamese company have been involved in pervasive illegal logging, a forestry official said.
The country’s Environmental Investigation Agency previously implicated some national leaders and a Vietnamese defense company in illegal logging activities in a 2011 report on the timber trade between Laos and Vietnam.
“It will be difficult for the government to afforest to meet the 70 percent of the forest coverage in practice, but in the document [Laos’ national forest strategy to 2020], they can write down as required,” a forest expert working in southern Laos, but who declined to be identified, told RFA’s Lao Service.
Based on the forest criteria of the Foods and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the country’s forests currently cover 68 percent of its land.
Villagers in the area where the expert works told him that they could reforest and conserve existing forestland for the government, but police and forest officials there could not investigate and seize trees that had been illegally felled in districts or provinces, he said.
“Seventy percent is too challenging for the government to achieve, considering the concessions [it has granted] for hydropower dams, mines and electrical networks,” he said. “The government will use the concessions to cover up the logging. In some case, the logging is taking place in conserved forest.”
Large trucks loading logs for export to Vietnam have become symbols of deforestation in Laos, which could use the timber to build and repair its own schools and other public buildings. An RFA reporter witnessed several such trucks in the southern province of Attapue in mid-May hauling logs to Vietnam to be used in furniture-making factories.
Three types of forest
Lao’s Forestry Law defines three kinds of forests — conserved, producing and protected forests — and only permits logging in producing forests. Laos has more than 20 national conserved forests.
A government decree on conserved forests issued on May 13, allows for the use of national and provincial conserved forests or some areas of them for state-interest purposes, but such use must be approved by a parliamentary standing committee.
Article 32 of the decree says that individuals and organizations permitted to perform logging activities and build hydropower dams, mines, roads, electricity networks and development projects must contribute money to the afforestation or reforestation of affected areas at a cost of $800 per hectare per year. Hydropower developers must pay an additional $2 per hectare of land annually to help manage and conserve watershed forests.
But the decree’s articles and the Forestry Law’s articles contradict each other in terms of practice, the forestry expert said.
“The law does not allow conserved forests to be used, but the decree does,” he said. “In practice, the conserved forest has been used for logging.”
He said big trees were felled for logs in the Dong Houa Sao, Xe Sab, Phouphanang, Pounkhaokhouay conserved forests.
Forestland in crisis state
The forest expert also said the country’s forestland was in a crisis state, despite assertions by high-ranking officials that there is still enough such land for development.
Thongpath Vongmany, director general of the Department of Forestry at the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, told RFA that Laos had 16.5 million hectares of forest, 4.5 million hectares of agricultural land, and 2.6 million hectares of land for development.
“The land for development is also covered by forest, so it will be necessary to cut down the trees when the development begins because we still have surplus forest.”
Felling trees in the conserved forests cannot be avoided because the country lacks the number of officials that are needed to protect such large areas, Thongpath said.
“But what can be done is to strictly protect them,” he said. “Conserved forests are not only cut in Laos, but also in neighboring countries.”
Legislators have attempted to amend the Forestry Law during the last four years to control logging in Laos, but they have yet to debate a draft amendment. The process has been delayed because some politburo members are involved in logging activities.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.