The Vietnamese Army is named as a key player in illegally transporting raw timber from neighboring Laos according to the Washington and London based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) a non-profit organization which exposes international environmental crime. Their just-released report Crossroads: The Illicit Timber Trade Between Laos and Vietnam reveals the pivotal role played by the Vietnamese military in a multi-million dollar operation which is smuggling threatened timber over the border from the shrinking forests of neighboring Laos.
This video shot by EIA shows trucks hauling logs from Laos into Vietnam and features Lao and Vietnamese businessmen talking about bribing Lao government officials to allow the illegal exports:
Laos has some of the Mekong region’s last intact tropical forests, but the report uncovers that its export ban on raw timber is routinely flouted on a massive scale to feed the ravenous timber processing industries of Vietnam, China and Thailand.
During undercover operations in 2010 and 2011, EIA agents posing as timber buyers tracked a trail of corruption and inadequate enforcement back from the busy furniture factories and ports of Vietnam to its border with Laos and beyond.
Through investment in logging, plantations and hydropower projects, Vietnamese firms have appropriated large swathes of Lao forests, yet the only winners in Laos are corrupt government officials and well-connected businessmen. Meanwhile, Vietnamese logging companies and furniture factories are booming on the back of the illegal trade, exporting billions of dollars worth of finished wood products to the major markets of the United States and European Union.
EIA’s investigations revealed that one of the biggest loggers in Laos is a company owned by the Vietnamese military. Investigators first encountered the Vietnamese Company of Economic Cooperation (COECCO) in October 2010 during a visit to Qui Nhon port, documenting huge piles of logs bearing green paint marks and tagged with yellow labels bearing a Vietnamese name which translated into Company of Economic Cooperation – Ministry of Defence (or COECCO). A port worker said 95 per cent of the logs had come from Laos and most were owned by the Vietnamese military; specifically Military Zone 4.
Similarly marked logs were observed in a huge storage area between the two formal checkpoints at the Bo Y border crossing and EIA was eventually able to confirm that most of them had come from logging operations linked to the construction of a nearby hydropower dam.
To uncover more details of the company’s operations, EIA investigators travelled to COECCO’s headquarters in Vinh City, Vietnam, in May 2011 and learnt COECCO has been in the timber trade and logging business in Laos for more than 20 years, that it sources most of its logs from Lao dam clearance sites and that it is one of a handful of companies permitted to carry out logging in these areas.
“Vietnam is almost annexing areas of Laos to feed its own industries. The only winners in Laos are corrupt government officials and well-connected businessmen,” said EIA spokesman Julian Newman.
Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga denied the allegations. “There is no smuggling of timber from Laos by the Vietnamese military. Vietnam pays special attention to environmental protection, strictly forbids smuggling and illegal exploitation of timber,” she said.
EIA Head of Forest Campaign Faith Doherty said: “EIA first exposed the illicit log trade between Laos and Vietnam in 2008, and our latest investigations reveal that sadly nothing has changed. The governments of Vietnam and Laos urgently need to work together to stem the flow of logs and curb the over-exploitation of Laos’ precious forests before it’s too late, and the Vietnamese military must be excluded from logging operations in Laos.” The EIA also encourages companies and consumers to obtain proof that wood products sourced from Vietnam are not derived from logs imported from Laos before buying furniture products.