A report launched in Bangkok by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) revealed that the cross-border smuggling of logs has gone on unabated over the past three years, despite ongoing talks between Vietnam and the European Union to crack down on the use of logs harvested illegally in Laos.

'What we have here is what might be called displaced deforestation,' the independent group's campaign director Julian Newman said.

Laos, Vietnam's land-locked communist neighbour, slapped a ban on log exports three decades ago, but the ban has been circumvented by well-connected Lao and Vietnamese companies, the EIA disclosed in its latest report, titled Crossroads, the Illicit Timber Trade Between Laos and Vietnam.

Vietnam, which closed its own forests to logging in 1997, is now blamed for the rampant deforestation taking place in southern Laos.

The EIA report, conducted between October last year, and May by EIA researchers who posed as timber merchants, found that the Vietnamese Company of Economic Cooperation (COECCO), owned by the Vietnamese military, was one of the biggest illegal loggers currently operating in Laos.

The report fingered two other companies, Phonesack Wood of Laos, and Nicewood of Vietnam, as two other major players in the illicit trade that amounts to an estimated 500,000 cubic metres of logs per annum, worth between 160 to 170 million dollars in Vietnam.

Nicewood's import-export manager Tony Xuan told the EIA investigators that Lao authorities had allowed the company to log forests and transport the timber across the border to Vietnam.

'Ho Chi Minh said nothing is difficult if you have money,' Xuan told the EIA team in a meeting captured on film as part of their investigation.

The estimated volume of timber smuggled in 2010 was around the same as the group found during a similar investigation into the same illicit timber trade between Laos and Vietnam in 2008, despite negotiations with export markets on how to stop the illegal trade.

The 2008 report prompted the EU to initiate talks with Vietnam on how to verify the origin of wood products destined for the EU market.

Vietnam currently exports an estimated 4 billion dollars in wood products, with about 15 per cent going to the EU.

'The Vietnamese are now negotiating with the EU to develop a system in Vietnam whereby European consumers would know where the wood came from,' EIA's campaign team director Faith Doherty said.

'But while they are all sitting around trying to design this new program we were horrified to see that nothing has changed on the ground,' she said.

In March, 2013, the EU is to enforce a timber regulation that will prohibit sales of illegal logged timber on the EU market, slapping penalties on the initial importer.

'At this rate there won't be any forests left in Laos by the time the law is enforced,' Newman said.

The EIA urged Laos to enforce its ban of log exports and Vietnam to actively crack down on the illicit import of timber from its neighbour.

Deutsche Presse Agentur - July 28, 2011