Sunday, July 31, 2011

Logging in Laos

Traveling along the glassy Mekong River earlier this year I gazed up at the green, low-lying, thick and entangled jungle landscapes, with my hand glazing through the water over the side of our boat, I peered into the lives of the Lao people as we slowly chugged down stream.

They were kicking back with their fishing rods buried deep within the pebbled shores of the Mekong bank, their spawn splashing near by on a warm afternoon, you would never hope to hear that the mossy mountains perched high above and almost connecting, enveloping the river, were being logged probably at that very moment and would soon be non-existent.

I remember my local tour guide pointing out as a ‘fun-fact’ in his chirpy demeanor “Look up at sky! You see birds? No? No! Farmers shoot birds, no birds in Laos; they eat all the crops, so birds stay in others places… not here.”

At first I was confused by this statement. Why would they want to kill precious wild life? Why shoot tropical birds that inhabit this beautiful place, one of the last remaining tropical rainforests in the world?

The memories of that tour emerged when I read that environmental activists have accused the Vietnamese army of smuggling wood from the jungle of Laos, threatening the livelihoods of millions of rural and indigenous people.

A London based Environmental Investigation Agency says in a report exposed last week that they discovered that one of the biggest loggers in Laos was the Vietnamese Company of Economic Cooperation, controlled by the Vietnamese military.

Laos has some of the last intact tropical forests in the Mekong region, but EIA says a ban on the export of raw timber from the country is poorly enforced and widely flouted, monetary gain for the tiny country is more important then the protection of their rare environment.

According to the EIA, inadequate enforcement and corruption among Lao forestry officials has enabled at least 150 million dollars worth of timber smuggling across the Laos-Vietnam border each year.

It is also notably hypocritical that Vietnam pays special attention to environmental protection, strictly forbidding smuggling and illegal exploitation of timber within their own boarders (Vietnam closed its own forests to logging in 1997) but sneakily logs forest mere kilometers away on the down low and makes huge profits.

The forests in Laos, some of the Mekong region’s last intact forests, are dwindling fast. Forested area covered 70 percent of the land-locked country in the 1940s, but has now dropped below 41 percent.

So how can we help? Maybe one of the easiest ways is to be a conscious consumer, know where the timber for your furniture is coming from, boycott furniture coming from Laos or more importantly Vietnam to stop this cycle. If exporters of timber from these Asian countries are not selling this illegal timber to westerners they will soon stop as it won’t be profitable and we will be able to protect Lao forests from being destroyed any further even if the changes we actively make are small-scale.

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