Illegally logged Cambodian wood helped fill a substantial hole left in Vietnam’s lumber supply after that country’s government began implementing reforestation policies in the 1990s, according to a recent study by Belgian and American scientists.
The study, published last month in the American journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pointed to a shift in Vietnam from deforestation to recovery of its woodlands in the early 1990s, recovering about 39 percent of its naturally forested areas between 1987 and 2006.
“During this period, logging was severely restricted in natural forests by successive forestry policies, whereas recorded wood imports have increased substantially and large quantities of illegal logs entered the country, mostly from Cambodia and Laos,” according to the study’s authors, Patrick Meyfroidt and Eric Lambin.
In the last decade of the 20th century, Vietnam’s government slashed the quotas for timber harvesting in the country’s forests, shifting the timber industry toward plantations, the authors said. By 1998, logging was prohibited in 58 percent of Vietnam’s forested land.
While Vietnam was cracking down on logging within its own borders, imports of timber were necessary to feed a thriving industry processing wood and exporting furniture.
“The domestic supply of roundwood was insufficient to feed the growing industry, and as neighboring countries also implemented bans on raw wood exports, the raw material was increasingly supplied by illegal imports from other countries—Cambodia and Laos in the early 1990s,” the authors said.
The study estimated that approximately half of Vietnam’s wood imports between 1987 and 2006 were illegal.
The authors’ evidence of a bustling trade in illegal Cambodian wood largely stems from a 1999 report from international environmental watchdog Global Witness. That paper asserted that much of the wooden lawn furniture sold in Europe under the label “Made in Vietnam” was actually built using timber illegally logged in Cambodia.
“The Vietnamese garden furniture industry has played a key role in the facilitation of [Cambodia’s illegal timber] trade, illegally importing vast quantities of Cambodian logs,” the 1999 report read.
According to a more recent report released by Global Witness in February, “illegal logging has continued in a variety of forms and is still causing severe damage to Cambodia’s remaining forests.”
Seng Bunra, Cambodia country director for Conservation International, said yesterday by telephone that illegal logging—particularly of so-called “luxury” hardwood species—continues to be a problem in Cambodia.
“We’re not sure if they go to Vietnam,” he added. “Some people say they go to Vietnam, some people say they go to China.”
In one recent example of suspected timber smuggling, an RCAF soldier and a businessman were arrested in Preah Vihear province last week with 100 cubic meters of rare wood. Provincial officials said the two are suspected of illegally logging the wood for export to Vietnam.
Forestry Administration Director Ty Sokhun said yesterday that he was unaware of the study, and declined to estimate how much illegally logged wood is exported to Vietnam each year. However, he added, “There is no [legal] wood export to Vietnam. Recently, the Forestry Administration has begun to cooperate with Vietnam to prevent illegal logging.”
When asked about imports of illegally logged wood from Cambodia, spokesman for the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh Trinh Ba Cam said that he was unaware of a problem.
“I haven’t received any information about this yet. I haven’t received any information about this from the government of Cambodia or the local authorities,” he said by telephone yesterday.
(Additional reporting by Eang Mengleng)