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New Lao Prime Minister Issues Ban on Timber Exports

The new Lao government has issued a moratorium on the export of logs and timber in a bid to reduce rampant and widespread illegal wood shipments outside the small Southeast Asian nation’s borders, according to a copy of the document obtained by RFA’s Lao Service.

Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, who assumed office on April 20, issued the moratorium on May 13. It requires all ministries, provincial governors and mayors to implement strict measures to control and inspect the felling of trees, log transportation, and logging businesses.

The moratorium contains 17 points, including one that forbids 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.

It also specifies that all types of wood must be turned into finished products before they are exported, according to standards set by the country’s Ministry of Industry and Commerce.

“Logging is suspended in the production forests,” the moratorium says. “A plan of the production-forest allocation must be completed and submitted to the government for approval.

“The moratorium does not exempt project developers or infrastructure-concession operators, and requires them not to use timber to pay for infrastructure development projects.

The government is in charge of logging and selling wood directly to project developers and infrastructure-concession operators, the document says.

Before the moratorium was issued, forestry officials had been surveying certain production forests with the aim of asking the government to reopen the areas to logging activities possibly by the 2016-2017 fiscal year, according to a report in the Vientiane Times.

Doubts about implementation

Although the moratorium closes loopholes that has allowed for continued timber smuggling, one Lao legal expert doubts whether it will be properly implemented.

“I am happy to hear that the prime minister issued the moratorium, but I am not quite sure if it can be strictly implemented,” said the expert who declined to be named. “Many laws related to logging issues have been implemented in the past, but they were only paper tigers that didn’t scare big loggers.”

He went on to say that the person behind the logging for major infrastructure projects is a family member of former President Choummaly Sayasone.

“All the national leaders and Lao people know it, but no one can do anything other than talk about it at coffee shops and sometimes have debates during ordinary sessions of the National Assembly,” he said. “But everyone has seen trucks transporting huge logs from Laos to Vietnam.”

Lao’s forest law designates three kinds of forests-protected, reserved, and production forests, the last of which is used only for logging. In practice, however, illegal logging is done in all three categories of forest.

“Land concessions for industrial trees, and mining and dam projects can be used as excuses to justify logging activities,” the expert said. Industrial trees are those grown for rubber and cashews.

Khamphout Phandanouvong, director general of the Forest Inspection Department at the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, declined to comment on the government’s latest measures to prevent timber smuggling.

Dodgy exports

Laos has long suffered from the rampant smuggling of logs and timber to neighbors such as China and Vietnam.

The government previously issued moratoriums and notices of suspension of logging activities and bans on timber exports to deal with the problem. They included:

– a notice issued by the prime minister’s office in August 2015 that prohibited the export of logs and mandated that all timber must be processed in Laos before it is exported to foreign countries

– a notice issued by the prime minister’s office in May 2015 prohibiting the export of logs and timber

– a notice issued by the central committee of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party in February 2014 regarding the ban on exporting logs, timber, roots, and half-finished wooden products

– an order issued by the Ministry of Finance in July 2013 pertaining to the control of log exports and collection of tax from selling logs

– a moratorium issued by the prime minister in November 2012 suspending logging in production forests and providing clear classifications of production forests for the government

A report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) leaked online last October revealed huge increases in illegal logging in Laos and suggested that government collusion had prompted some officials to take action to examine discrepancies in timber export and import figures with China and Vietnam.

The report found that the value of Lao wood product imports reported by China and Vietnam exceeded that of Lao exports more than 10-fold, based on an analysis of Lao customs data.

It focused on conversion forestry-logging in areas marked for the development of infrastructure projects such as hydropower dams, road building, and mining operations-which is used as an excuse for large-scale logging that otherwise would not be permitted under Lao law.

The government previously issued logging quota exceptions in areas where infrastructure projects were being built, Khaphout Phandanouvong told RFA in a past report.

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