The group says well-connected Laos and Vietnamese companies, as well as the Vietnamese military are involved in the trade despite an official ban and pledges last year from the Laos Government that it would address the problem.
With much of the timber going into Vietnam's outdoor furniture industry and then exported, the EIA says illegal logs could be ending up in the US, Europe and Australia.
Presenter: Liam Cochrane
Speaker: Jago Wadley, Environmental Investigation Agency; co-author of the report, Checkpoints: How Powerful Interest Groups Continue to Undermine Forest Governance in Laos
WADLEY: We revisited Laos and Vietnam, following some investigations that the EIA has done over the last five years just to see whether anything had changed since our last visit to the country last year. What we found was that the log trade from Laos to Vietnam was still going on. Large volumes of timber being transported across the land borders into Vietnam, but all of this is happening in the context of a clear ban on the export of logs and other unprocessed timber from Laos.
We found that many of the same companies who have been involved in this previously were still operating in the trade and that includes some very well connected companies in Laos, but also a company controlled by the commercial arm of the Vietnamese military. And just overall, we found that more timber was probably being exported to Vietnam as in raw unprocessed form than was available to the timber industry within Laos itself.
COCHRANE: And when the timber does go to Vietnam, what is happening to it and where does it go from there?
WADLEY: Vietnam has a very large wooden outdoor furniture sector that's providing products to the US in the main, also Europe and also Australia and other consumer countries. Vietnam has very few forest resources itself that are producing the types of material it need for its furniture, so it imports about 80 per cent of all the timber that's needed for its five billion dollar a year industry. So logs from Laos are being taken to distribution centres in Vietnam, mainly the ports of Vinh and Qui Nhon and also Da Nang and they're being offered for sale to the local furniture manufacturing companies that have contracts with clients all over the world, but also there are some companies are forward selling logs to international traders and basically shipping them out to Vietnam to places like Japan, China, India and other countries.
COCHRANE: The issue of outdoor furniture being made in Vietnam from timber of suspect sort of source. It has been an issue in countries like Australia for sometime and there have been campaigns to try to improve the situation and I think increasingly, there's consumer awareness that this is a problem and that consumers want to do the right thing. Can people be confident when they're told that furniture they buy from a store is sustainably logged? What sort of confidence should people have in this labelling system?
WADLEY: There are many labelling schemes out there relating to timber, either through legality or through sustainability. They all have similarities, they all have slightly different standards, interpretations. I think what is the biggest improvement that needs to happen in global trade governance is that these very complex choices that are presented to consumers are not actually choices that consumers want to have to engage in and that they want governments to take responsibility for ensuring that the products on the market are legal. And so within Europe, consumers have backed campaigns led by NGOs, but also supported by responsible industry to bring in legislation that prohibits the placements of illegal timber on the market. The same has happened in America and Australia is I believe in the final stages of bringing in similar legislation that will effectively protect entire consumer markets from investing in crime and illegal forestry around the world. So these are the types of levers that are very important. We're hoping that regulations that are coming in to effect in the EU in March, next year, will really help countries like Laos and Vietnam sit down with their trade partners and really establish for real what is legal, what is not legal, who has the right to do exemptions from legal norms in government and to bring some transparency to the international timber market. Until that happens, consumers really aren't protected and it's very difficult for even some certification schemes which are private and voluntary initiatives to provide the assurances that consumers need.