Authorities in Laos are allowing timber companies to fell trees in an area that was flooded after a dam collapse described as Laos’ worst flooding in decades, much to the ire of residents of the formerly flooded forests.
The flood occurred on July 23, 2018, when water poured over a saddle dam at the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy (PNPC) hydropower project following heavy rains. It inundated 12 villages and killed at least 40 people in southern Laos’ Champassak and Attapeu provinces.
While the government says it is allowing private companies in because it is necessary to remove dead trees before they rot, the residents are angry that the decision was made without consulting them.
“I obtained a document indicating that the government had given permission to a wood trading firm to cut down 20,000 cubic meters (about 706,000 cubic feet) of timber, then transport it out of the area for sale,” the chief of a village in Attapeu’s Sanamxay district told RFA’s Lao Service Wednesday.
“As we speak there are Vietnamese [workers] cutting trees, both dead and alive, everywhere,” he said.
The chief told RFA that on Jan. 6, he and village authorities seized 10 logs that had been cut within the limits of his village.
“We seized these logs because [the central, provincial, and local] governments gave permission [to fell trees] without consulting us and without our authorization,” the chief said.
“In addition, if they are going to cut down trees here, the wood should be used to build homes for survivors of the dam collapse instead of being sold to [companies] in Vietnam,” he added.
The chief said that the area where the timber companies are allowed to cut trees is quite extensive.
“They are felling all the trees on both sides of the Xe Pian River, within 250 meters of the river.”
Another source sent a video to RFA showing timber being loaded for export. An accompanying text message said the firm behind the operation was Savangxay Company, which owns a furniture plant in Attapeu.
Another source, a survivor of the dam collapse asked RFA, “What are they cutting all these trees for? For export?”
Government says felling is necessary
Sanamxay District Governor Bounhome Phommasane confirmed to RFA that tree felling was taking place on a massive scale.
“They are cutting all the dead trees in the area that was flooded by waters from the dam collapse,” said the district governor.
“The [permission] comes from the prime minister’s office, not the province. The central government gave [them] permission to cut these trees before they all die and rot,” he added.
As for the timber profits, Bounhome Phommasane said that they would go toward a good cause.
“The government will sell the logs and the proceeds will be used to develop our country. Our province [Attapeu] may or may not receive a part of the proceeds,” he said.
The district governor said that the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry had performed a damage assessment with the district and the province.
“They even marked which trees are dead or still alive, and which ones should be felled or not,” he said.
When asked why the proceeds would not be used to help survivors of the dam collapse, Bounhome Phommasane said it was out of the district’s hands.
“It’s all up to the [central] government. We are only following orders. Those orders are to cut the trees as soon as possible,” he said.
“The proceeds will be under the direct control of the central government and the district and province [will] have no rights to them,” he added.
The district governor also said that the central government issued the permission to fell trees in the affected area in February last year.
Reported and translated by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Eugene Whong.