Vietnamese army named as major timber smuggler
TRACED: The green paint marked logs from Laos were found in a Vietnamese port, where a worker admitted that more than 90 per cent of the wood was from Laos
Military a key player in illegally transporting raw timber from Laos
August 2011: The pivotal role played by the Vietnamese military in a multi-million dollar timber smuggling operation has been exposed after a series of undercover operations.
The timber is being smuggled over the Vietnamese border from the shrinking forests of neighbouring Laos.
Laos has some of the Mekong region's last intact tropical forests, but the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) reveals 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.
Corrupt officials and well-connected businessmen the only beneficiaries
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 USA and European Union.
And 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.
Laos's legitimate wood processing trade is suffering
EIA investigators travelled to COECCO's headquarters in Vinh City, Vietnam, in May 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.
A well-connected Lao company is also making a fortune trading logs to Vietnam; the Phonesack Group, the boss of which is connected with the Lao Government, prefers to send logs across the border while its own wood processing struggles to get supplies of raw material.
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.
‘With a new Timber Regulation coming into force within European markets in 2013, both Vietnam and Laos have a lot at stake and urgently need to work with the European Union.'