BANGKOK—The number of forestry officials in Laos charged with taking bribes is increasing despite an ongoing crackdown, according to a top government lawyer.
Rangsy Sibounheuang, deputy chief public prosecutor, said logging companies in central Laos have been bribing officials to cut logs beyond their government-approved quotas.
“If a lumber company’s quota allows them to cut 1,000 cubic meters (35,300 cubic feet) of wood, they will cut 1,500 cubic meters (53,000 cubic feet) instead and then bribe the inspectors for the difference,” he said.
“This is happening primarily in Savannakhet and Khammuan provinces and the recipients of the bribes are mainly middle-level officials—we’ve convicted some of them already.”
But Rangsy Sibounheuang said the number of incidents involving bribery of forestry officials is slowing after two to three years of increases because stricter penalties are proving to be an effective deterrent to would-be offenders.
“[The bribery] is now decreasing because we have been giving out stiff penalties. If the incident is serious enough, it will merit jail time and fines,” he said, adding that penalties differ from case to case and also depend on the level of the official involved.
Rangsy Sibounheuang said that while the bribing of Lao forestry officials is largely perpetrated by logging companies, widescale illegal logging continues throughout Laos, including at the individual level.
“It’s not just companies, but also citizens without permits. Citizens continue to illegally cut logs in national forestry preserves as well as in national parks,” he said.
Logging remains a problem
Despite a number of new regulations regarding the timber industry, excessive logging remains a serious problem in Laos.
According to a recent World Bank report, a relatively low population density and moderate rate of natural resource exploitation compared with neighboring countries have allowed significant natural resources in Laos to survive.
But the report added that natural resources play a significant role in supporting rural livelihoods and contributing towards the national economy.
While Laos enjoys forest cover that is substantially higher than in surrounding countries, it is precisely this natural resource that attracts investment from abroad.
The report named timber and hydropower as the country’s primary exports, accounting for two-thirds of total export value.
“Forest cover has declined from 70 percent to 43 percent over the last 50 years, largely due to clearing of lowland forest for permanent agriculture and unsustainable logging,” the report said.
Forest cover shrinking
The World Wildlife Federation (WWF) says forest cover in Laos is currently shrinking by 0.6 percent a year.
“If no action is taken to change this trend, Lao’s forests will dwindle to 31 percent by 2020,” the wildlife and environmental protection organization said.
WWF called for strengthened management capacity for the country’s extensive national protected areas and protection forests, which encompass about 50 percent of national forest cover.
It said a wave of foreign investment from China, Thailand, and Vietnam is bringing economic growth and job opportunities to Laos but also increasing pressure on land and local communities who utilize the country’s natural resources.
The Lao government has targeted a total area of 500,000 hectares (1.24 million acres) of industrial tree plantations by 2020 for pulp export, part of insufficient land-use planning that is encroaching into local community boundaries and protected forest areas, WWF said.
In other cases, agricultural production is moving into protected forest areas leading to deforestation, wildlife trade and biodiversity loss.
Original reporting by Krongkran Koyanakkul for RFA’s Lao service. Lao service director: Viengsay Luangkhot. Translation by Viengsay Luangkhot. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.