OPINION: Lao govt’s crackdown on illegal logging, trading bears fruit
VIENTIANE (Vientiane Times/ANN) - When Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith took office in April 2016, he made it clear that illegal logging and trading of timber would be among the top issues his administration would address.
Just a month after his election as prime minister by the National Assembly, he issued the so-called Prime Ministerial Order No. 15 imposing comprehensive measures in a bid to put an end to this chronic problem.
What are these measures?
The main highlights of the four-page order demand that local and central state departments take thorough action to regulate and inspect logging, the removal and transport of timber, and regulate wood processing plants.
The export of unprocessed wood products has been prohibited under the order. State departments are banned from using trees as a form of disbursement or exchange for the development of infrastructure projects. The collection of dead trees in forests is also not permitted. All of these measures are designed to close the loopholes for illegal logging.
Action must also be taken to prevent Laos from being used as a transit point for the illegal import of timber for export to a third country.
Shortly after the order came into effect, the government issued an additional measure that brought a halt to the annual logging quota, ending the 200,000-cubic-metre wood quota previously allocated for felling every year.
This means that only trees that need to be cut to allow development projects to proceed - such as hydropower, mining and infrastructure development – may be felled for use by the local wood processing industry.
This decisive move by the government has been viewed as a far-sighted vision and the reasons for it are obvious in light of the following issues.
Losses from illegal logging, trading
Illegal logging was widespread for many years, channelling money into the pockets of illegal businesses and individuals and causing a huge loss of national income.
Some analyses have suggested that Laos has lost more than it has gained from logging. Timber exported from Laos enabled importing countries to process the wood into finished products and make a huge profit, while forest cover in Laos declined dramatically, undermining the country’s efforts to promote the production of clean hydroelectricity for export to countries in the region.
Officials say statistics provided by neighbouring countries suggest that the amount of wood exported by Laos each year far exceeded the 200,000-cubic-metre annual quota, which included wood supplied to the local processing industry. This reflects the fact that Lao forests have been overexploited, raising the alarm that urgent action needed to be taken.
Without doubt, the move by PM Thongloun’s administration was wholeheartedly welcomed and supported by the general public.
The results of action taken to realise the government’s crackdown measures are clear for all to see.
Criminals held responsible
As many as 595 people have been held responsible for involvement in the illegal exploitation of forest resources including illegal logging and trade over the past year, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.
They include 50 state officials, 56 businesspeople, 363 members of the Lao public, 121 Vietnamese, and five Chinese.
Five people have been given one to two year prison sentences.
Ten other people are being prosecuted in court. Several hundred others are being investigated, prosecuted, fined, and educated depending on the severity of their crime.
Over the past year, 74,367 cubic metres of timber have been seized and an additional 274 tonnes of wood have been impounded.
As many as 9,871 chainsaws along with a number of bulldozers, trucks, buses, tractors and other equipment used for illegal logging and transport have also been impounded.
Most impressively, 1,740 wood processing and family-based furniture plants operating unlawfully have been shut down since the implementation of Order No. 15. These included 20 wood processing plants located inside forest areas including protected forest areas, which were operating in gross violation of the law. How could such a serious transgression be allowed to continue for so many years?
It is convincing that, if the current course of action being taken by the government continues, it will bring an end to the unlawfully lucrative reign enjoyed by all too many illegal businesses and influential individuals.
Those who considered themselves privileged and flouted the rule of law for so many years must now pay a big price.
Maximise timber and forest resources
One of the ultimate goals of the government in this move is to maximise the benefits from timber and forest resources. Banning the export of unprocessed wood products will enable Laos to supply sufficient wood to feed the growing need of local wood product manufacturers to grow their business and drive the country’s wood processing industry, while adding value to their products before export.
To pursue this goal, two groups of wood-processing plants have been established under the guidelines of the Prime Minister’s Order No. 15 in a bid to implement government policy in this regard and enhance the manufacture of finished wood products for export.
Director General of the Industry and Handicraft Department under the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, Mr Manolack Rasachak, says the demand for wood products in the region is growing and Laos is looking at ways to take advantage of this.
On top of that, the Prime Minister’s Order No. 15 aims to significantly protect Laos’ forests from massive logging, thus helping to increase forest cover from 58 percent as surveyed in 2015 to 70 percent by 2020 as targeted.
This attempt will enhance Laos’ confidence about having more forest cover to generate enough water for the many hydropower plants it has built to produce and export clean energy to countries in the region.
There is a saying in Laos that goes ‘het hai sout khoud hai theung’ meaning exerting the utmost effort to pursue one’s goals. Following this ancient teaching phrase will enable the government to achieve the goals set in the Prime Minister’s order.