Authorities in southern Laos’ Attapeu province continue to turn up caches of illegally logged timber, despite a pledge by the governor to eradicate the trade when he took over administration of the region a month ago from his predecessor, who was removed because of ties to lumber smuggling.
On Dec. 13, a provincial inspection team discovered 250 pieces of illegal timber, measuring around 180 cubic meters (6,350 cubic feet), buried underground in a forest area of Attapeu between posts 766 and 770 of the Lao border with Vietnam.
According to a senior provincial official, who spoke to RFA’s Lao Service on condition of anonymity, the cache “must belong to Lao and Vietnamese businessmen who colluded in this illegal activity.”
“We found it before they were able to deliver it,” he added.
In addition to timber that was partially processed, the inspection team also uncovered a pile of uncut logs, two power saws, and a saw table in the forest near a village along the border, the official said.
Teams will continue to investigate in the area, he said, adding that inspectors expect to find additional logs of varying stages of processing hidden along the borderline.
Days after last week’s discovery, a provincial inspection team stopped a Toyota SUV driving through Saysetha district towards the border with Vietnam and uncovered 11 pieces of hidden rosewood timber valued at around U.S. $20,000, according to reports by local media.
The driver was reported to be the former deputy head of immigration police at Laos’ Phoukeua International Border Checkpoint, which regulates crossings from Attapeu into western Vietnam’s Kon Tum province.
The two arrests are the latest to uncover illegally logged wood believed destined for Vietnam since Leth Xaiyaphone assumed the governorship of Attapeu province on Nov. 21, assuring the public that he would pursue the prosecution of those who disregarded state law, as well as a Communist Party directive banning logging in certain areas and exports of timber from Laos.
In May, Lao authorities seized a convoy of 27 trucks of logs owned by Seng Viyaketh, wife of Attapeu’s then-governor Nam Viyaketh, at the Phoukeua International Border Checkpoint. Authorities determined that the timber was illegally obtained in Laos, where logging is heavily restricted as a measure to curb widespread deforestation.
Three Lao officials from Attapeu’s finance, forestry, and commerce departments are being investigated for their roles in the scheme and have since been ordered to stop working.
The Politburo issued an order early last month reassigning Nam to work with the country’s National Social and Scientific Council and replacing him with Leth as part of a “reshuffle of high-ranking leaders … in accordance with job requirements for the new era.”
While Nam and his wife denied any connection to the trucks seized in May, an official source who inspects timber in the southern provinces of Laos told RFA that the governor’s dismissal was directly related to the incident, as well as “conflict of interest for his family” and embezzlement.
High-ranking officials in Attapeu are regularly involved in illegal logging and cross-border sales, despite a ban on the export of timber issued by Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith in May 2016 as part of an effort to end rampant smuggling to China and Vietnam, where the wood is used to make high-end furniture.
Sources have told RFA that provincial officials who take bribes to facilitate the smuggling include those from the departments of commerce, forest, public works and transport, customs and tax, and the provincial cabinet office.
Some 10,000 cubic meters (353,150 cubic feet) of illegally harvested timber seized from smugglers in Attapeu province this year has gone missing, likely the result of local authorities looking the other way or actively selling the wood on the black market.
Most of the illegal timber is obtained through conversion forestry—clearing 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.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service and translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.