Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith this week appointed an ad hoc committee to enforce a nationwide ban on illegal logging within 60 days and block and prevent timber from leaving the country after some provinces were found to have violated a logging ban.
The committee consists of high-ranking officials from government inspection agencies and anti-corruption organizations, along with the ministries of agriculture and forestry, natural resources and the environment, national defense, public security, industry and commerce, and finance, according to an announcement posted on social media.
“The committee will cooperate with relevant ministries, governors and mayors to implement the ban on timber exports issued on May 13,” the announcement said. “It also will support, inspect and monitor ministers, mayors and governors in implementing the ban on timber exports.”
The committee must report to the prime minister in all relevant sectors and local organizations refusing to implement the ban, it said.
“The committee must thoroughly inspect and identify areas of reserved and protected forests and production forests in each province,” the announcement said. “It will also monitor log smuggling in red zones along border areas.”
Thongloun said he issued the latest order based on public complaints on social media, especially Facebook, according to a Vientiane resident who has been following the issue online.
Thongloun, who assumed office on April 20, issued a moratorium on May 13 requiring all ministries, provincial governors and mayors to implement strict measures to control and inspect the felling of trees, log transportation, and logging businesses to reduce rampant and widespread illegal shipments to neighboring countries.
The moratorium forbids the export of logs, timber, processed wood, roots, branches and trees from natural forests as well as logs the previous government had recently approved for export.
It also specifies that all types of wood must be turned into finished products before they are exported, according to standards set by the country’s Ministry of Industry and Commerce.
Under cover of night
The formation of the committee came on the heels of the explosion on Thursday of a passenger bus loaded with lumber in the Boualapha district of central Laos’ Khammouane province. Nine Vietnamese nationals who were working in Laos died, and three others were injured, according to local officials.
“Eight workers were killed on the spot and one died in the hospital,” a witness who declined to be named told RFA’s Laos Service.
“The explosion took place around 5 a.m.,” he said. “I assume that the smugglers were taking advantage of the early morning hours to transport the timber, hoping to escape arrest by officials.”
Most timber smugglers load and transport trucks at night when there is less chance that police or other officials will detect their activities.
The day of the bus explosion, several vehicles transporting logs passed through Saybouathong district in Khammouane, according to the person who witnessed the accident.
Many trucks carrying huge logs traveled along Route 12 close to the Namphao border checkpoint in Boualapha district that leads into Vietnam, said another source who declined to be named.
Laos has long suffered from the rampant smuggling of logs and timber to neighbors such as China and Vietnam where they are used to make furniture.
The government previously issued moratoriums and notices of suspension of logging activities and bans on timber exports to deal with the problem, but to little avail.
A report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) leaked online last October revealed huge increases in illegal logging in Laos and suggested that government collusion had prompted some officials to take action to examine discrepancies in timber export and import figures with China and Vietnam.