Vietnam now a hub of illegal timber trade

Posted: 20 March 2008

Vietnam has become a hub for processing huge quantities of unlawfully-logged timber from across Indochina, threatening some of the last intact forests in the region, a detailed investigation has revealed.

Undercover investigations by the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Indonesian NGO Telapak have discovered how Vietnam's booming economy and demand for cheap furniture in the West is driving rapid deforestation throughout the Mekong river region.

Much of the illegally-imported wood is made into furniture for export to garden centres and merchants in the UK.

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 contravention of laws in Laos banning the export of logs and sawn timber and EIA/Telapak are calling for urgent international action.

Truck convoys

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.

Illegal logging in Vietnam
Illegal logging in Vietnam
Illegal logging in Vietnam. Photo © EIA
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.

Stolen timber

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.

Growing market

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.

Source: IEA/Telepak report, 19 March 2008