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Laos: Illegal Timber Exports

(Dec. 16, 2016) Recent reports indicate that despite a national ban on timber exports issued in May 2016, illegally harvested timber is still being sold at auctions supported by local governments in Laos.  The smuggling is especially common in the central and southern provinces.  (Richard Finney & Ounkeo Souksavanh, Logging Continues in Laos as Provinces Ignore Export Ban, RADIO FREE ASIA (Dec. 7, 2016).)

An un-named civil society organization has reportedly claimed that provincial governors personally profit from the trade, running sawmills and managing the trade in cooperation with investors from neighboring Vietnam.  The organization also claimed that governors in Bolikhamxay, Champassak, Khammouane, Savannakhet provinces have helped investors hide timber, with the amount of seized logs reported by local governments not congruent with the number of trees that have been felled.  (Id.)  Residents of the areas in Laos near the Vietnam border have claimed that smuggling timber into Vietnam is easily accomplished by truck and also asserted that the provincial governors protect the operations.  (Id.)

Background

Laos has experienced serious deforestation in the last few decades.  Between 1992 and 2002, the forest cover declined an average of 134,000 hectares each year, with the density of forests also declining.  The degradation is due in part to illegally harvested timber, according to the United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD) in Laos.  (REDD in Laos, REDD website (last visited Dec. 13, 2016); About the UN-REDD Programme, REDD website (2016).)  Although in the 1950s, 70% of the country was covered with forests, it is estimated by the Lao Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment that less than 40% of the country is now forested.  (Jeffrey Hays, Deforestation, Forests and the Environment in Laos, FACTS AND DETAILS.COM (last updated May 2014); Finney & Souksavanh, supra.)

The May Moratorium on Timber Exports

While there are laws to regulate the logging industry, there is widespread abuse of their provisions and illegal operations are common.  Therefore, on May 13, 2016, Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, on his 24th day in office, created a moratorium on the export of timber.  The moratorium, which has 17 main points, requires all government offices, including those of governors and mayors, to strictly control all logging.  It totally bans the export of “logs, timber, processed wood, roots, branches, and trees from natural forests, as well as logs the previous government had recently approved for export.”  (Roseanne Gerin & Ounkeo Souksavanh, New Lao Prime Minister Issues Ban on Timber Exports, RADIO FREE ASIA (May 16, 2016).)

The moratorium document specifies that logging be suspended in production forests.  (Id.)  “Production forest” is one of the three categories of forests established by the Forestry Law, as amended, and is distinct from conservation forests and protected forests.  Production forests may be natural or planted and are designated for the production of wood and wood products.  (Forestry Law, No. 6/NA (Dec. 24, 2007), arts. 9 & 12, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) website; Pei Sin Tong, Lao People’s Democratic Republic Forestry Outlook Study (2009), Working Paper No. APFSOS II/WP/2009/17, FAO website.)  Under the moratorium, plans must be filed with the government for any future operations in those forests, including work by project developers and infrastructure-concession holders.  Wood for those projects is to be logged by the government and sold to developers.  Project developers cannot use timber to pay for infrastructure development.  (Gerin & Souksavanh, supra.)

Creation of Enforcement Committee

A few weeks after the moratorium was announced, Sisoulith established an ad hoc committee to enforce its provisions, with the goal of blocking illegal forestry activities within 60 days.  The committee comprises officials from government inspection agencies and anti-corruption organizations, together with representatives of several ministries, covering forestry, natural resources, the environment, defense and security, industry and commerce, and finance.  (Roseanne Gerin & Ounkeo Souksavanh, Lao Government Appoints Committee to Enforce Timber Export Ban, RADIO FREE ASIA (June 3, 2016).)  The document announcing the formation of the committee noted that it will work with “relevant ministries, governors and mayors to implement the ban on timber exports … .  It also will support, inspect and monitor ministers, mayors and governors in [how they implement] … the ban on timber exports.”  (Id.)