The prognosis for the forests of Laos is bleak. Industrial-scale illegal logging under the guise of special projects is routine and conducted by untouchable companies, abetted by corruption.
A leaked WWF report exposes the scale of illegal logging in Laos. Almost all of timber exports from Laos go to Vietnam and China.
In 2013, Laos exported 1.4 million cubic metres of timber to these two countries.
That's more than 10 times the official timber harvest in Laos. Conclusion: over 90% of logging in Laos is illegal.
The Environmental Investigation Agency has posted the report on its website. The June 2015 report is titled 'Assessment of Scope of Illegal Logging in Laos and Associated Trans-boundary Timber Trade'.
Last year, China imported US$1 billion worth of timber from Laos, up from US$45 million in 2008. Vietnam is the sixth largest wood-product exporter in the world, but imports 80% of the timber used by its wood processing industry.
Marked "Final draft: for internal use only", the report was written by Denis Smirnov for WWF. The research for the report was carried out from November 2012 to May 2015 under a WWF project called, 'Avoidance of deforestation and forest degradation in the border area of Southern Laos and central Vietnam for the long-term preservation of carbon sinks and biodiversity ("CarBi Project")'.
The CarBi project is funded by Germany's International Climate Initiative (ICI) of the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) through KfW, with additional funding from WWF Germany.
In a statement about the report EIA's Jago Wadley commented: "The prognosis for the forests of Laos is bleak. Industrial-scale illegal logging under the guise of special projects is routine and conducted by untouchable companies, abetted by corruption.
"The timber sectors in Vietnam and China are exploiting the situation for their own gain. Laos needs to fully enforce its log export ban and neighbouring countries should ban imports of illegal timber."
Illegal logging linked to infrastructure projects
WWF's study found that almost all the logging operations are linked to infrastructure projects such as hydropower dams, roads, mining, and plantations. WWF's researchers investigated a limestone quarry in Saravan province and a road building project in Sekong province. They found that 100% of the timber extracted from the road project, and 99% from the quarry was illegal.
Logging took place outside concession boundaries, in one case 40 kilometres away from the road construction site. Species of trees were logged that are prohibted for logging under Lao law. Species were exported without documentation of the harvest (including rosewood species). On the road project, the volume of timber exported (as reported to Vietnamese customs) was three times the official documented harvest.
In 2011, EIA's report 'Crossroads' revealed how the Vietnamese Company of Economic Cooperation (COECCO), linked to Vietnam's military zone four, had obtained a contract from the Laos Government to log 100,000 cubic metres a year from the Xe Kaman 1 reservoir area.
WWF's report shows that between 2007 and 2014, almost three-quarters of the logging in the Xe Kaman 1 dam area took place outside the planned reservoir area, including inside protected areas.
In May 2013, WWF's researchers came across a COECCO logging truck in Ban Phon, Sekong province. From the dam site to the Lao-Vietnam border crossing is about 70 kilometres. Ban Phon is 200 kilometres from the border crossing. COECCO used the concession in the Xe Kaman 1 reservoir area a to log wherever it wanted.
There is a massive wood processing over-capacity in Saravan and Sekong provinces. WWF's report notes that "Official logging quotas in the provinces of Saravan and Sekong can only fill 25% of installed wood processing capacity at best. The remaining capacity is likely filled with illegal timber."
Lao authorities have done practically nothing to address illegal logging and timber smuggling. They do not conduct inspections of logging operations linked to forest conversion projects:
"In the four southern Laos provinces they confiscated only about 3-5% of the estimated illegal timber volume in 2011-2012. But even this confiscated timber originated from small operations and the large-scale commercial operations by big companies remained untouched."
Laos: Talking sustainability but doing exactly the opposite
In August 2005, the Lao government launched its Forest Strategy to the Year 2020. According to this, Laos would transition to sourcing timber from plantations and production forests. Logging would be based on a scientifically calculated annual allowable cut. Timber would be processed in factories in Laos. The government would enforce the export ban on logs and sawn wood.
According to the Forest Strategy, logging concessions linked to infrastructure development would rapidly decline, "as the requirement for construction of major roads and dams comes to an end."
WWF's report describes logging in Laos as "exactly opposite" to what was proposed in the Forest Strategy. In 2014, the value of wooden products exported from Laos was US$1.6 billion. Logs and sawn wood accounted for 97.6% of this figure.
Logging is "evolving under a worst-case scenario", according to WWF: "Contrary to the government's good intentions developments under the actual scenario will undoubtedly lead to the sheer depletion of commercial timber stocks in its natural forests - on the same path that Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia have already taken."
According to EIA, the situation is desperate: "Lao Government's stated policy of banning exports of logs and sawn timber to promote domestic processing has been an abject failure, with opaque 'exceptional' permissions ensuring the flow of wood into neighbouring continues unabated."
The report: 'Assessment of Scope of Illegal Logging in Laos and Associated Trans-boundary Timber Trade' is written by WWF and made available by EIA.
Chris Lang edits REDD Monitor.
This article was originally published on REDD Monitor.