The forests of Lao PDR have shrunk steadily in recent decades, from 71% of its land area in 1940 to 41% in 2002, and an estimated 35% today. Clearing for rubber and cash crop plantations, uncontrolled logging and spill-over effects from hydropower and mining ventures are among the main drivers of this loss.
Illegal logging is one of the most serious threats to the country's forests, and one which is increasingly vexing legislators, officials and citizens. There are few reliable figures on the scale of this problem, which centres on the forests bordering Vietnam, Thailand and China, but reports put the volume of illegal logging in recent years at between 45% and 64% of total production.
At the core of the Lao government’s response to illegal logging is a series of policies aimed at restricting logging and exports of unprocessed timber. Log exports were banned in 1999, and only exports of finished wood exports have been allowed since 2007. The government has also asserted centralised control over the timber processing and export sectors. The Department of Forest Inspection (DoFI) was newly established in 2008 to lead the government’s drive against illegal logging, smuggling and corruption. Lao PDR is also cooperating with its neighbours to stop the flow of illegal timber across its borders.
The effects of these measures are hard to determine, though judging by perceptions and the data available the rate of illegal logging remains high. In mid-2009, members of the Lao National Assembly were reported as saying that illegal logging was the foremost concern of their constituents. Recent reports by environmental advocacy groups also suggest that large quantities of timber illegally harvested in Lao PDR are still finding their way into Vietnam and other neighbouring countries. Yet the frank acknowledgement of the problem by National Assembly members, and in 2009 the first successful prosecution of a case of forest corruption, point to a hardening of political will to fight illegality in the sector.