A leaked report has revealed near epic-scale illegal logging in Laos, with virtually no law enforcement.
In 2013 for instance, Laos exported 1.4 million cubic metres of timber to Vietnam and China, or more than 10 times its official harvest.
Last year, China and Vietnam were responsible for 96 per cent of Lao wood exports in value terms - almost all of it generated by natural timber as Lao plantations produce very limited volumes of high-value hardwood, the report says.
The 106-page report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) marked "final draft for internal use only" has caused a stir in the scientific and activist community but has been relatively little reported in the wider media.
But its findings are startling, indicating that Lao forests are being plundered and illegal logging is out of control.
Titled Assessment Of Scope Of Illegal Logging In Laos And Associated Trans-Boundary Timber Trade, the report appeared online more than a week ago. It was taken down apparently at WWF's request - but reappeared at another location on the Internet.
"The situation with timber harvesting in Laos is evolving under a worst-case scenario exactly opposite to what was envisaged by (the country's official) Forest Strategy to the Year 2020," the report says.
"The total value of Lao wood products as reported by importing countries exceeds the value of exported wood products by analysis of data from Lao state Customs statistics many-fold."
Laos' state forest inspection and other enforcement agencies have little impact on the industry, in rare cases targeting small players when the scale of the illegal logging is such that only big companies with fleets of heavy equipment could possibly be doing it, the report says.
"Such large fleets of heavy equipment are usually only assembled to convert forest lands for plantations, roads, transmission lines, reservoirs, mining, or geologic prospecting."
There is a clear association with the dramatic increase in Chinese and Vietnamese investments in mining, agriculture, forestry and hydropower in Laos - with the majority of the associated projects' concessions located in forested areas.
The Britain-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) said the report was credible and "echoed the findings of a series of field investigations undertaken in the region" since 2007.
The EIA's senior forest campaigner Jago Wadley said: "The prognosis for the forests of Laos is bleak. Industrial-scale illegal logging under the guise of special projects is routine and conducted by untouchable companies, abetted by corruption."
Laos must urgently crack down and implement its laws, the WWF report urges.
"Business as usual" logging practices will "undoubtedly lead to the severe depletion of commercial timber stocks in its natural forests - as has already taken place in other South-east Asian countries", it warns.
"Avoidance of a similar scenario requires that the Lao government take immediate actions to ensure that logging quotas for conversion timber meet fundamental legal requirements," the report adds.
Laos is a relatively opaque one-party communist state, positioning itself as the "battery" of ASEAN based on its hydropower potential. But it is worrying neighbours which share the waters of the Mekong with its dam projects on the river. And its economy and landscape is increasingly dominated by China.
Asked for comment, the WWF was cautious. In an e-mail, WWF-Greater Mekong's communications director Lee Poston wrote: "This report is currently in the draft stage and is undergoing a review process with a variety of stakeholders and is not ready to be formally published at the moment."
This article was first published on October 25, 2015.
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