Vietnam is acquiring huge quantities of illegally logged timber from neighboring Laos and turning it into furniture for consumers in the United States and Europe, an environmental group said Wednesday.
"Vietnam's booming economy and demand for cheap furniture in the West is driving rapid deforestation" in Laos, Julian Newman of the Britain-based Environmental Investigation Agency said at a news conference.
Every year, an estimated 17.6 million cubic feet of logs are smuggled across the border after false documents are produced and bribes paid, the group said.
Newman said businesses in Thailand are also buying illegally cut timber from Laos, which has some of the last great forests in mainland Southeast Asia.
"The cost of such unfettered greed is borne by poor rural communities in Laos who are dependent on the forests for their traditional livelihoods," Newman said.
Vietnamese and Thai officials were not immediately available for comment. The governments of both countries have in the past acknowledged the illegal trafficking of timber from Laos, although the scope of the trade has not previously been clear.
"The ultimate responsibility for this dire state of affairs rests with the consumer markets which import wood products made from stolen timber," Newman said.
An EIA report also released Wednesday noted that Vietnam has taken steps since the 1990s to conserve its own forests while at the same time expanding wooden furniture production, much of it with illegal timber.
"The plundering of Laos' forests involves high-level corruption and bribery and it is not just Vietnam which is exploiting its neighbor.
Press Release: 19 March 2008
VIETNAM: HOW THE COUNTRY HAS BECOME A HUB FOR THE REGION'S ILLEGAL TIMBER TRADE.
EIA Web Site
Vietnam is operating as a centre for processing huge quantities of unlawfully-logged timber from across Indochina, threatening some of the last intact forests in the region, a major new report reveals.
Undercover investigations by the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Indonesian NGO Telapak have revealed how Vietnam’s booming economy and demand for cheap furniture in the West is driving rapid deforestation throughout the Mekong river region.
Field investigations in Vietnam and neighbouring Laos, including secret filming and undercover visits to furniture factories, have demonstrated that although some countries like Indonesia have cracked down on the illegal timber trade, criminal networks have now shifted their attention to looting the vanishing forests of Laos.
This illicit trade is in direct contraventionof laws in Laos banning the export of logs and sawn timber and EIA/Telapak are calling for urgent international action.
Investigators visited numerous Vietnamese furniture factories and found the majority to be using logs from Laos. In the Vietnamese port of Vinh, they witnessed piles of huge logs from Laos awaiting sale.
At one border crossing on one occasion alone, 45 trucks laden with logs were filmed lining up to cross the Laos border into Vietnam. The report estimates at least 500,000 cubic metres of logs are moved in this way every year.
Since the 1990s, Vietnam has taken steps to protect to conserve its remaining forests while at the same time, massively expanding its wooden furniture production.
Vietnam has an unenviable track record in using stolen timber. Past investigations have revealed it laundering illegal timber from both Cambodia and Indonesia
The plundering of Laos’ forests involves high-level corruption and bribery and it is not just Vietnam which is exploiting its neighbour; Thai and Singapore traders are also cashing in.
Posing as investors, EIA/Telapak investigators met one Thai businessman who bragged of paying bribes to senior Laos military officials to secure timber worth potentially half a billion dollars.
“The cost of such unfettered greed is borne by poor rural communities in Laos who are dependent on the forests for their traditional livelihoods,” said EIA's head of Forests Campaign, Julian Newman.
He said the local people gain virtually nothing from this trade, with corrupt Laos officials and businesses in Vietnam and Thailand, the profiteers.
The report concludes that to some extent the dynamic growth of Vietnam’s furniture industry is driven by the demand of end markets like Europe and the US.
“The ultimate responsibility for this dire state of affairs rests with the consumer markets with import wood products made from stolen timber,” said Julian.
“Until these states clean up their act and shut their markets to illegal wood products, the loss of precious tropical forests will continue unabated.”
EIA/Telapak are calling for: better enforcement by the timber-producing and processing countries and new laws banning the import of products and timber derived from illegal logging in the EU and US.