Cambodia and Laos share a border and a problem: vast swathes of their forests have been cut down, loaded on trucks and driven east to Vietnam and often sent onwards to China.
In a bid to stop the long-documented depletion of their natural resources, both countries last year announced export bans to their eastern neighbour. Their solutions, however, have delivered very different results, according to a recent report based on Vietnamese customs data by US-based NGO Forest Trends.
Relative to Cambodia, Laos has made huge inroads into curbing timber flowing out of its territory, the customs data show, a success that forestry analysts yesterday attributed to genuine political will from their recently elected premier, a relatively more disciplined bureaucracy and fewer familial ties between ruling elites and the timber trade.
After a prime ministerial decree banning the export of both logs and sawn wood was issued in May 2016, imports of Lao timber registered by Vietnam plummeted, according to the report, which also reveals some Lao wood transited through Cambodian border crossings to Vietnam, possibly to circumvent the tougher controls.
In 2016, just 36,060 cubic metres of Lao raw logs made their way east, compared to 321,718 cubic metres the year before. Sawn wood entering Vietnam from Laos, meanwhile, dropped from 383,149 cubic metres in 2015 to 95,572 cubic metres last year.
Further, the figures, broken down by month, show the trade dwindled for both categories in the second half of the year following the ban, which the report states: “appears to have had its intended effect”.
By comparison, exports of raw logs from Cambodia to Vietnam skyrocketed in November and December last year and sawn wood exports, though dropping by 45 percent in 2016 compared to 2015, remained substantial at 170,000 cubic metres, valued at almost $150 million.
This was despite the government’s widely touted export ban and the creation of an anti-logging committee in January 2016 led by military police chief Sao Sokha, who himself has been linked to the trade, and a proclamation by Environment Minister Say Sam Al that large-scale logging had stopped.
Sarah Milne, a lecturer at the Australian National University’s (ANU) College of Asia and the Pacific, said it was hard to draw a conclusion from customs data as to whether the crackdown in Laos was increasing logging pressure on Cambodia.
However, the academic, who has conducted extensive research into logging in Cambodia, said Cambodia’s “kleptocratic” elite were more adept at using crackdowns to monopolise logging profits rather than stamp out the practice.
“The government uses the logging ban to recentralise control over timber flow,” Milne said.
“They’ve done it in the past. If it was legalised they would have to have transparent extraction, quotas, revenue sharing and all that, which they’d rather not have.”
Keith Barney, also a lecturer at ANU, who has researched the Laotian forestry sector and has recently conducted field work in the country, said that new Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith appeared to have partially staked his legitimacy on controlling the trade as part of a broader corruption crackdown.
The “popular” export ban, he added, was also designed to try to boost the country’s economy by boosting the local wood production industry. “The sawmills that I’ve seen close to the border are not operating, you don’t see any of these trucks moving anymore so it seems there has been a pretty sharp reduction in the movement of unprocessed timber across the border,” Barney said, but added that local operators were still able to move valuable timber to Vietnam on a “small scale”.
“It seems that, compared to Cambodia, Laos has more of a disciplined party apparatus. In Cambodia, it seems like every actor is able to engage in rent seeking to the extent possible within that neo-patrimonial framework, where the proceeds of logging are funnelled up to the very top levels.”
Data in the report, titled Laos Log and Sawnwood Export Ban: Impacts on the Vietnam-Lao timber, also raise the possibility traders from Laos are using border crossings in Cambodia to deliver wood to Vietnam.
According to the report, in 2016, sawn wood with paperwork designating the timber was of Laotian origin showed up at four border checkpoints between Cambodia and Vietnam in Kandal, Svay Rieng and Tbong Khmum provinces.
Though the volume was small, only about 83 cubic metres, the wood commanded by far a higher price – an average of $4,323 per cubic metre – than wood crossing into Vietnam directly from Laos, which fetched between $219 and $1,183 per cubic metre.
The report stated the lack of additional information made it difficult to say whether traders were using Cambodia to avoid the ban, as a matter of convenience or whether it was wood sourced in Cambodia with Lao permits.
A researcher on the report, Xuan Phuc, said Forest Trends was conducting additional research into whether Laos’s blanket ban on exports was pushing traders to reroute through Cambodia.
“To be short, when law enforcement for the trade between Vietnam and Laos became more stringent, it makes sense particularly for the traders who have good connections with Cambodian authorities to bring Laos timber to Vietnam through Cambodia,” Phuc said, via email, adding the high prices paid for Laotian wood may support the theory.
“Given the complexity of the issue (and paperwork, arrangements needed for the trade), and distance of the trade route, it makes sense for the traders to focus on expensive species only.”
Phuc said he believed “political will” from the central government, along with control over local authorities, were the key differences between the countries.
“In Cambodia, we don’t have this. We have power fragmentation with the central government unable to tell local government to do the job, and illegal logging has been embedded in political economy across scales,” he said.
Reached yesterday, Environment Ministry spokesman Soy Sopheap said he could not remember if the export ban on timber to Vietnam had been formalised into a decree, but nevertheless insisted it had been strongly enforced.