You’ve just moved into your dream house on the outskirts of Liverpool, let’s say. You call Scottish Power to restore your connection to the grid. You hear ‘Right then, that will be £300,000’. Before you slam the phone down know that in least developed Lao a connection to the grid or the road will set a farmer back $600,000 and upwards. That is the estimated market value of rosewood and other hardwoods that rural Lao are being charged by the state utilities to be wired and tyred.
Most reports on deforestation in Lao concern well connected companies like Phonesack, owned by the reputed Vietnamese foster-son of the iron-fisted President Choumaly Sayasone. Others focus on the role of the Lao and Vietnamese armies or neighbouring agro-investors.
While nominally a socialist state – the hammer and sickle ubiquitous – Laos is in all practical sense a fiefdom run by elite families. Connections and money provide privileged access to land, enabling massive clearing of both people and forest. This has fostered corrosive corruption and duplicity in the Lao state, blatant rent seeking by Lao utilities and their well-connected officials, creating the forestry equivalent of death by a thousand cuts. Primary forests in peri-urban and rural Lao are disappearing while aid agencies parrot the myth of 40 per cent tree cover. The FAO recently put tree cover in Lao at 83 per cent. It all depends on how you frame a definition of ‘forest’.
Fruits of the Forest
‘Boun’ and ‘Sao’ (not their real names as Lao is a totalitarian state that brooks no criticism; most sources requested anonymity for the sake of safety) are discussing a nursery for rare and endangered trees. Sao is contemplative, shy and four months pregnant, Boun is bright, handsome, talkative. Both are university graduates and have dedicated their lives and energy to the land.
Sao sighs ‘It’s hard to know where to get seeds as the exchange trees are gone. Maybe in the south...’
‘Wait, exchange trees?’ I interject. The explanation that followed is fascinating.
Earlier this year the Lao Deputy Minister of Energy and Mines, Viraphonh Viravong, admitted Lao’s electricity charges were the highest in the region. He later withdrew that imprudent remark, insisting instead that the ‘Battery of Asia’ – driven by eco-destructive and socio-politically insensitive hydropower – was delivering electricity to Lao people at a reasonable cost. What he didn’t say was that consumers had paid twice.
Burgeoning rural poverty and disconnection from traditional lands result in prized hardwoods becoming a form of exchange. Bhonfai, a tree feller, said ‘If the government doesn’t give a shit, why should I? This is not my land. My ancestors’ spirits were lost under a dam. I can’t make a living, so I cut trees for EDL (Electricite Du Laos).’
‘In 1975, Public Works asked our elders if they needed a road,’ Boun and Sao tell me. ‘They arranged for payment in high value trees. Later EDL did the same. Each house had to pay five hardwood trees for a road and a household connection. Usually mai du (rosewoods – Dalbergia cochinchinensis – now CITES listed Appendix II: endangered in the wild).’
That made sense then as the nation had emerged from the US war in Vietnam deeply damaged and impoverished. Few had cash, and the tax base was insufficient to build public facilities.
A tree 1.5 metres in diameter might yield a minimum of 12m3 of timber. In 2013, the Chinese were paying $50,000 per cubic metre. A good night’s sleep in a rosewood bed would set you back $1million.
Boun continues the story: ‘Before, 90 per cent of local peoples’ food came from the forest. They looked for mushrooms, bamboo shoots, everything. Some they would sell to buy rice and salt. They had river fish and snails, crabs, eels and roots from the wetlands; now they are also all gone.’
‘The people needed roads to get to and from schools and markets. At first no-one really noticed the trees had gone – we had plenty more. But with development, the demand for trees increased. Now our local market has little food and it’s expensive, so people steal food from our forest every night or go to Nong Khai (a border town across the Mekong in Thailand) where food is cheaper,’ Sao recounts while giving a bitter smile.
‘We can still remember when the village had a community forest which we used for building materials, wood for our fires and traditional medicines. We also had a sacred forest – to bury people who had died suddenly. Now when people die suddenly, they are rushed to the temple and burned without ceremonies. Those who have no land are very poor. They live like city people. They have to buy everything,’ she adds.
‘EDL asked each family if they wanted electricity and then checked their gardens to find big trees,’ Boun says.
What counts as a big tree? A naive question. Boun and Sao laugh. ‘They want the ones where two people holding hands can hold the bottom of the tree (an estimated diameter of 1.8 to 2.3 metres). Without five trees, they charge you lots of money. When we got electricity, almost all our big trees suddenly disappeared.’
Laws are Meant to be Broken
Lao’s energy monopoly – EDL – is effectively breaking state laws. To the world, Prime Ministerial Order No-17/PM of 2008 explicitly prohibits all harvesting of domestic D. cochinchinensis species and Order No 010/PM of 2011 bans the exploitation, trading and export of its timber.
Lao is proud of EDL, the Vientiane Times writes:
‘Based on the realisation of... modernisation policy, in beneficial business management... important power to lift over six million Lao people out of poverty and to maintain the security and stability of the nation, EDL has performed its job and duties [sic]’
EDL was one of the two companies first listed on the Lao Stock Exchange. Listed companies have to be profitable for at least a year, demonstrate transparency, sound management, and have a coherent business plan. It’s clear EDL’s business plan is working well. Its ten-storey office in Vientiane is set in huge grounds with concrete elephants and twee fountains. Clouds dance across the mirrored outer walls.
A few weeks ago I had flown low over the north of Lao and was struck by the 100-metre wide paths cut through what had been primary or secondary forest to build and access transmission towers; the bare roadsides.
‘It’s normal,’ snorts David Dent, a Scottish watershed specialist based here. ‘We all know that rosewood is currency for the utilities. While it is illegal to cut rosewoods, Vietnamese and Chinese obtain concessions to build a dam or mine. Then they log the forest and say “Oh gosh, it didn’t work out” taking millions of dollars in trees with them. Under Lao government, poverty has increased along with the amount of fake data.’
‘Our access road is bad in the rainy season,’ Boun says. ‘It looks like we’ll have to sacrifice any remaining trees to get the road remade. The Village Committee likes projects that make them money. Decision making should be given to the Party Secretary by the village head (nai ban). The nai ban himself is a full Party member. His salary is LAK 60-80,000 per month ($10) and the Party secretary gets paid according to the demands of the job. Of course, the salary is low so they have to find projects.’
Ergo rent seeking.
‘When the District decides to connect a village to roads and electricity they check out the community forest and assess which trees to take,’ Boun goes on. ‘They make calculations which we know are purely for their benefit. Public Works took thousands of trees to build roads. But EDL took twice as many to build transmission lines and clear a path.’
‘We remember EDL filled the school yard (about two hectares) with piles of logs,’ Sao adds. ‘It took five to six months for the logs to be trucked away, they were so big and heavy. Then the Forest Department took what was left as payment for fire protection.’
‘Over the past five years, as the trees and forest have disappeared, theft on our land has also increased,’ says Boun. ‘People want to plant trees but they are impatient and don’t want to use seeds, so they steal our saplings.’
A new report from the World Resources Institute calculates Laos is losing an average of 116,844 ha of forest per year, an average rate of loss 0.61 per cent – the second highest in the Mekong. Attempts to verify these numbers or assess a timeframe were not responded to by the government. Disenchantment is widespread.
‘Dick’, a consultant to a German-funded REDD project, sighs. ‘We spend a fortune in taxpayer’s money to save a small area of forest. When the project is over, the trees will go. I don’t know why we bother. We can hear the chainsaws nearby. They pay the men $20 to work all night felling trees. They give them yaa baa (methamphetamines) so they can keep working. The Lao people don’t care, why should we?’
‘Roger’, a resident and agricultural consultant says ‘All new government offices are built by the Chinese in return for timber, as are roads and dams. It’s legal tender. Lao people even log the protected forests in Thailand – in May, a Lao was shot dead by Thai military. If you have lost your own forests people get desperate.’
There have been many reports on the rosewood trade in Lao, but as one cynic said ‘When all the wood is cut, and the market price rises enough to make plantations attractive, then the Chinese will start to plant trees. That is Lao economics 101.’ Increasingly Lao is a criminal state, but donors keep handing over the money and repeating the mythical manta of ‘40 per cent forest cover’, despite mounting evidence of plunder. It seems political and trade imperatives are more important than saving Lao’s forests.