Businessmen in Laos’s Attapeu province are selling timber hidden for years in the forest after being harvested illegally, mixing it with other timber allowed by provincial authorities to be sold by local villagers, Lao sources say.
Now being sold to private businessmen, the contraband timber was stashed before a July 23, 2018 flood from the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy dam disaster swept away homes and caused severe flooding in Attapeu and nearby Champassak province.
It is now being brought out of hiding to be sold with logs and other old wood permitted for sale to vendors in Laos and from China, an Attapeu resident told RFA’s Lao Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Provincial officials are allowing private businessmen to buy old wood from villagers in the dam-affected areas in Sanamxai district,” RFA’s source said. “But they also have timber hidden in the forest, and are mixing it with the wood bought from villagers in order to send it to the saw mills.”
Mills in the province are not granted licenses themselves for logging, “but provincial officials are letting private businessmen buy old wood from the villagers so they can bring out the timber that was hidden,” he said.
Lao and Chinese businessmen are now buying timber from villagers in Khokkong, Mai, Hadyai, Sompoy, and Pakbo villages located near the province’s Xepian national protected forest, the source said.
At least 3,000 cubic meters of timber permitted by the province for sale are now waiting for transport to saw mills in Saysethha district, 10 km. from the provincial center, he added.
“The amount of timber that was hidden is many times greater than what they are buying [legally] from the villagers,” he said.
In an effort to curb the widespread trade in Laos in illegal logging, Lao prime minister Thongloun Sisolith in 2016 imposed a ban on the sale of timber, and only Attapeu—working without approval from central authorities—now allows timber to be sold by local residents.
Beginning in early January, the timber trade in Attapeu has been attracting vendors from Laos, China, and Vietnam, a resident of Sanamxai district told RFA.
“I see villagers selling timber now to vendors at costs of so much per kilogram, and many thousands of cubic meters are being sold at Mai village alone,” he said.
“The provincial and district authorities are just allowing Chinese vendors to buy the timber,” another district resident said.
Another district resident said that timber, tree roots, and logs brought by villagers from the forest are all being brought now to businessmen for sale. “Normally, this is banned, but the provincial and district governors are giving the vendors permission to do this,” he said.
‘We do not cut the trees’
Speaking to RFA, Phonephaseuth Thongsithavong—director general of the province’s Agriculture and Forestry Department—denied that any of the wood being sold had come from the national protected forest.
“We do not cut the trees in the forest to get the logs, and we do not have timber hidden away there,” he said.
“[Vendors] are just buying old timber from villagers in the dam-afffected areas according to the government’s decision no. 919. This does not violate the prime minister’s ban on the sale of timber,” he added.
Asked if good-quality timber previously harvested illegally and hidden in the forest is now being brought to businessmen for sale, Phonephaseuth replied that officials have ordered vendors not to buy any that is brought to them.
“Our officials are inspecting the timber and collecting information,” he said.
“Chinese and Lao vendors have been buying this timber since early January, though, and are still buying it now,” said RFA’s source in Attapeu—a red zone in Laos for illegal logging for many years.
In 2017, task force officials assigned by the central government and coming from other provinces seized 27 trucks carrying illegal timber belonging to the wife of Attapeu’s governor, who was later fired over the incident.
And in July 2020, officials seized four trucks carrying illegal timber at an Attapeu border checkpoint.
Laos has a history of widespread government corruption, with the Government Inspection Authority (GIA) reporting in early 2020 that the government lost up to $120 million in 2019 to corruption, disciplined 700 state employees, and fired 400 of them.
In the previous year, the GIA found 970 were involved in corruption amounting to $107 million.
Transparency International reported in January 2021 that Laos’ corruption ranking had worsened, dropping from 130th in 2019 to 134th in 2020 out of 180 countries.
Reported and translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.