Deforestation in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia

3 Jan

Published in Vajpeyi, D.K. (ed.) (2001) Deforestation, Environment, and Sustainable Development: A Comparative Analysis. Praeger: Westport, Connecticut and London, pp. 111–137.

By Chris Lang.

Since the beginning of the colonial period in the mid-nineteenth century, the area of forest in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia has declined, at times rapidly, at other times more gradually. Establishing the causes of forest loss and the rate of deforestation, however, is a complex and politically charged area. Statistics indicating forest cover are manipulated by states, consultants, aid agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to suit their own agendas. In the process local communities’ needs and rights are often overlooked. Before investigating aspects of deforestation in the three countries, therefore, this chapter explores some of the problems associated with national forest statistics. Forest-cover statistics present a snapshot overview at a national level, but gloss over the complexity of local situations. The sections that follow on each country are an attempt to provide some of the issues behind and causes of deforestation in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Although the situation in each country today is different, there are certain similarities. The colonial period saw the beginning of industrial-scale exploitation of forests in the region. Forests were logged or cleared to make way for rubber, coffee and tea plantations. Roads were built to facilitate timber extraction and to increase colonial control over remote areas. The U.S.–Vietnam war had a devastating impact on the region’s forests, and since the war logging has played (and continues to play) a large role in forest destruction. More recently, a range of international aid agencies and international conservation organizations have played an increasing role in the way the region’s forests are managed.

During and since the colonial period states have played down their own roles in deforestation, whether through logging, plantations, large-scale infrastructure projects, or state-encouraged (or forced) migration to forest areas. Instead, governments have focused on shifting cultivators in an attempt to pass on the blame for deforestation to local communities. Meanwhile, local communities have seen their forests and livelihoods destroyed, with the benefits disappearing to a small, elite group of outsiders.


Perhaps the most commonly used tool in national-level discussions of forests and deforestation is forest-cover statistics. Thus, governments, forestry consultants, aid agencies, and NGOs can make apparently concrete statements such as: “Country A has X per cent forest cover and a deforestation rate of Y.” The introduction to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s State of the World’s Forests explains for whom the statistics are produced: “The purpose is to make current, reliable and policy-relevant information available to policy-makers, foresters and other national-resource managers, academics, the forest industry and civil society” (FAO 1999, iii).

In this context, “civil society” may include NGOs, urban-based elites, advocacy agents and rural development experts, but it excludes forest dwellers, indigenous peoples, farmers, hill-tribes, “squatters”, and encroachers—in other words, the people whose livelihoods, and often survival, depend on the forests. These people are often those most affected by state decisions taken based on national forest cover statistics. The statistics serve to remove the social and political context from forests.

For example, a recent study of Brou-Kavet indigenous people and their relationship to their forests, in northeast Cambodia, indicates that the Brou-Kavet recognize over 100 ecological classification categories (Baird 2000, Table 1). Brou-Kavet classifications include, to name only a few, semi-evergreen forest, open forest at bottom of cliff, long mountain range forest, steep sloped forest, wild banana forest, good soil for swidden forest, sandy soil forest, small hill forest, bluish crystal rock forest, and stream edge forest. Such knowledge and complexity is almost entirely overlooked in the interpretations of satellite imagery and aerial photographs on which forest-cover statistics are based.

Behind the statistics of forest cover are the millions of people in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia who depend on the forests. Distant discussions of forest cover suddenly become very real to villagers when they are evicted from their homes because they are living in a newly declared national park. Or when their fields, grazing lands and forests disappear under a monoculture eucalyptus plantation supposed to “regreen the barren hills” under a government program set up because the national forest cover is deemed to be “too low”. Or when upland villagers are “resettled” into “permanent” settlements built out of brick and tin (and are told that their solidly built timber homes in which they used to live consume too much wood), only to see their forest handed over to a timber company or cut down and burned to be planted up with coffee trees.

Statistics of national forest cover are thus not just simple, neutral, technical devices for indicating the percentage of forest cover at a given moment in a country. Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia have several sets of forest-cover statistics used deliberately to ensure a particular discourse that is all too often unrelated to the reality faced by villagers living in or near the forests.

In Vietnam, national-level figures for forest cover exist for different classifications, making comparisons between different sets difficult. Classifications include “natural forest,” “closed broadleaved forest,” “forest,” and “forestry.” Figures quoted for “forest cover” in Vietnam since 1980 range from 5.668 million hectares in 1982 (Collins, Sayer and Whitmore 1991, 233) to 10.935 million hectares in 1996 (General Department of Land Management, cited in Howard 1998, 249). The first example is from The Conservation Atlas of Tropical Forests, where the figures are quoted to indicate the rapid deforestation in Vietnam, and the second is from an article which quotes the figures in order to indicate the success of Vietnam’s reforestation program. It is not a question of whether the statistics are “correct,” which is almost impossible to prove anyway; the issue is the way the statistics are used to justify a course of action.

The accuracy of the statistics, however, is also open to question. In 1995, a World Bank report on the environment in Vietnam indicated that the total area of forest loss was greater than the land area of the country (Howard 1998, 249). In 1981 the FAO estimated the area in 1980 of “closed broadleaved forest” at 7.4 million hectares (FAO/UNEP 1981). Six years later the FAO decided the figure was too high, and reduced its 1980 estimate to 6.165 million hectares, adding that by 1985 the figure had fallen to 4.862 million hectares (FAO 1987). Today the FAO (perhaps realizing that the Vietnamese government is sensitive to criticism about rates of forest loss, and with an eye on future FAO–backed projects in Vietnam) has changed its classification to “total forest cover” and estimates the 1995 forest cover to be 9.117 million hectares (FAO 1999, 126).

The Lao government is very defensive about its forest-cover statistics: Forest is useful in attracting foreign aid, and less forest means less money from aid agencies and conservation NGOs. The government commonly quotes a figure of 47 per cent forest cover, based on a 1989 survey of the country. The Lao government’s sensitivity over discussions of forest cover statistics is indicated by its actions when a recent internationally–funded forest cover mapping project estimated that in 1997 less than 40 per cent of Laos was forested. The Lao government immediately blocked the distribution of reports and maps from the project (Anon 2000, 57). Meanwhile, the FAO’s estimates of forest cover are even more optimistic than those of the Lao government. The FAO figures based on data from 1995 indicate that forest covered 53.9 percent of the area of Laos (FAO 1999, 126).

The Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) also manipulates forest-cover statistics for the country. In 1994 and 1995 the RGC awarded a series of logging concessions, bringing the total area of concessions to 35.6 percent of the land area of the country. In calculating the total area to be allocated to concessionaires, the government used a figure of 56 percent forest cover for the country, based on UNDP/FAO estimates for the years 1985–1987. The same UNDP/FAO report that this figure came from also includes more up-to-date data for 1992–1993 indicating a smaller forest area. The RGC used the higher forest-cover figure to justify the huge area of concessions allocated (Global Witness 1996b, 7). Environmental pressure groups, such as the U.K.-based Global Witness, quote a figure of 30 to 35 percent forest cover, which suggests that the RGC allocated logging concessions on an area of land greater than the area of forested land in the country!

To add to the confusion, FAO’s State of the World’s Forests states that in 1995 Cambodia’s forest cover was 9.8 million hectares, or 55.7 percent (FAO 1999, 126); in March 1995 the Cambodian minister of agriculture told the Bangkok-based Nation newspaper that 40 percent of Cambodia was forested (Global Witness 1996b, 7); the Japan Forest Technical Association came up with a 1995 figure of 58 percent forest cover; the Mekong River Commission/Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (MRC/GTZ) Forest Cover Monitoring Project estimated that in 1997, 58.2 percent of the country was forested (Castren 1999a); and the Economist Intelligence Unit estimated that in 1998 forest covered only 30 per cent of Cambodia (Global Witness 1999a: 4).

Clearly, there are inconsistencies in the different approaches to estimating forest cover. The difficulties are not just between the different studies, however. Occasionally, problems appear within the logic of the assessments themselves. For example, the FAO/UNDP figures for Cambodia are published in the UNDP/FAO Land Cover Atlas 1985/87—1992/93, the data being based on interpretations of satellite images. The maps produced for 1992–1993 indicate some areas as “primary forest” that were indicated as “rice paddy” in the 1985–1987 maps. The interpretation of the satellite data is not as an exact a science as the precise figures (and maps) would suggest.

Rather than presenting a scientific view of a nation’s forests, forestry statistics give a distorted, often inaccurate view. This view is frequently used by states, aid agencies and conservationists to maintain and increase their control of forests. Since colonial times, control of the forests and land have gradually been wrested from local communities to be handed over to loggers, plantations developers, and the state, with its infrastructure projects, promotion of cash crops, and large-scale migration into forest areas. As government ministries and public and private companies have increased their influence over forest control, local patterns of resource management have been undermined and eroded. Accompanying this loss of management rights has been the undermining and erosion of the forests themselves.

The fate of a cemetery forest in Ban Nhom, a small village in Son La province in the north of Vietnam indicates the problems of top-down national-level forest planning. Up to 1980 villagers protected an area of forest near the village as their cemetery forest. The forest contained spirits that protected the village. In 1980 the government decided that the cemetery forest was in the wrong place and the village should move the location of the cemetery forest because that would free up space for more irrigated rice fields. According to the government, forest should be on steeply sloping land: The cemetery forest, and the village, were simply in the wrong place (Sikor and Apel 1998, 6).

Evidence of communities’ management of their forests is widespread in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. For example, a report by Nguyen Van Thanh (1995) of the Vietnamese Institute of Ethnology details the way Hmong and Dzao communities of northern Vietnam, “owned, managed, and assigned use rights to forest, forest land and protected forest by customary law. Use of land and forest resources was strictly controlled by customary law, and was closely linked to its protection” (p. 114). In Laos, from 1993, a community forest support unit (CFSU) within the Department of Forestry worked with villagers, aiming to support their management of the forests. Premrudee Daoroung (1997), who helped establish the CFSU, states, “Local, customary regimes of forest management exist in almost every village in Laos” (p. 40).

The following sections outline the impact of state control over forests in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and the way in which communities’ rights and management of the forests have been ignored.


France colonized Indochina from the middle of the nineteenth century: They constructed roads using corvee labor; established rubber, coffee and tea plantations; and started to log the forests. European companies established extensive coffee estates in the central highlands of Vietnam and in Pakse province in Laos (Crystal 1995, 170). Companies such as Michelin converted large areas of forest to monoculture rubber plantations, particularly in the central highlands of Vietnam. The companies forced or tricked laborers out of nearby villages to work on plantations, and subsequently prevented them from returning to their villages (Lewis 1951, 129). The French colonial administration in Vietnam believed that in order to “develop” the highlands large numbers of lowland Vietnamese would have to be encouraged to move to the highland areas. A 1952 French development plan for the central highlands, for example, recommended, “installing Vietnamese from certain overpopulated and poor districts of the north and of the centre. . . . Once they are implanted on the highlands, these people will form the nucleus of future Vietnamese populations” (Dournes 1980, 9).

After 1954, newly independent Vietnam was divided into the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the North and the South Vietnamese Republic. The forests in the north were nationalized, and managed for industrial timber production. Traditional community forest management was not recognized in the new forest laws of either the north or south (Poffenberger and Nguyen Huy Phon 1998, 10).

In the south all lands were declared “sovereign territories” and traditional village boundaries and ownership were disregarded. The French policy of encouraging lowland Vietnamese to move to the uplands continued, and in 1955 President Diem ordered thousands of refugees from the north, many of them Catholics, to settle in the central highlands. New and improved roads were built from the coast to facilitate movement of people and goods. A U.S.–Vietnam agreement was signed in 1954 to upgrade and improve roads in the region. One such road, the 150-kilometer section of Route 21 between Ninh Hoa and Ban Me Thuot, was completely rebuilt by a U.S. construction company. The Times of Vietnam magazine reported this development in 1960 under the headline, “New Highway turns Forests into Farms” (Hickey 1982, 63).

War and Ecocide

The second Indochina war (that Americans call the Vietnam War and Vietnamese call the American War) had a devastating impact on the region’s forests. The U.S. forces cleared large tracts of forest, farmland and villages with giant bulldozers. They dropped 13 million tons of bombs, sprayed 72 million liters of herbicides and burnt vast areas of melaleuca forests in the Mekong delta through napalm bombing (Vo Quy 1992, 14).

In the northwest of Vietnam, logging intensified during the war, to supply construction timber and to generate income for the war (Poffenberger and Nguyen Huy Phon 1998, 7). The North Vietnamese government also sent approximately 1 million people into the northern highlands (Evans 1992, 277) to farm land as replacement for land destroyed elsewhere by U.S. bombing.

Resettlement, Migration and Internal Colonization

When the war ended in 1975, the Hanoi government progressed massive resettlement schemes, echoing French development plans. The government aimed to resettle large numbers of people to upland “new economic zones” (NEZs), which were to be farmed by lowland Vietnamese from southern cities swollen by the war, from northern cities and from the Red River delta. Approximately 4 million people were forced to move to these zones primarily in the north and central highlands of the country. Many of the people who were moved had never farmed and the land they were sent to was often unsuitable for farming, or already in use (Evans 1992, 279).

The NEZs make little sense either from an economic or an environmental perspective. In 1988, for example, in Lam Dong province, a new economic zone was established adjacent to Tan Phu forest enterprise. The new settlers cleared the forest and sold the timber to the forest enterprise for firewood. The cleared land was then available for crops for one or two years, after which the forest enterprise planted teak trees and the area was reforested. The farmers then had to find more land to clear to grow their food crops. Meanwhile, once the teak trees reached 15 to 20 centimeters diameter the forest enterprise cut them to be sawn up for export to Thailand and Taiwan.

A 1990 government appraisal of the NEZ program concluded that it had failed in most of its aims and “the results obtained do not rationalize the amount of capital invested in building NEZs during the period 1981–88.” Also, the appraisal stated, the “need for self-sufficiency in food grain has resulted in the heavy destruction of forests in various new economic zones” (Evans 1992, 282).

In a presentation written in 1984, the vice director of the Institute of Ethnology, Dang Nghiem Van, explains the government’s thinking behind the NEZ policy: “Sending people to Tay Nguyen [the Vietnamese term for the central highlands] to build this region is not only aimed at re-distributing the workforce on a national scale, but also at contributing to filling in the time gap for Tay Nguyen to advance to socialism” (Evans 1992, 291). In other words, the presence of “more advanced” lowland Vietnamese farming in their midst will bring the “backward” ethnic groups of the central highlands into the modern civilization of Vietnam.

In addition to the “planned migration” of the NEZ policy, the government has also encouraged “unplanned migration” to the central highlands, in particular to Dac Lac province to plant coffee. As a result, the expansion of coffee growing areas during the 1990s has been spectacular. In 1993 Vietnam produced 125,000 tons of coffee, and 150,000 tons in 1994. The country benefited from the high world coffee prices, which reached a ten-year record in August 1994 (Crystal 1995, 176). By 1995 coffee was Vietnam’s second highest export earner, and the government called for a doubling of the area of coffee plantations (Cooke 1995, 3). Since 1996 more than 400,000 people have poured into Dac Lac province, encouraged by Vietnamese media reports of coffee growers’ successes. In 1999 Vietnam became the world’s third-largest coffee exporter (“Out on a Limb” 1999), earning almost $600 million (Agence France Presse, 22 February 2000, 9). According to the Vietnam Coffee Association, more than 500,000 hectares are now under coffee cultivation (“Coffee” 1999).

In addition to creating a “boom town” feel in Ban Ma Thuot and massively increasing local incomes, coffee growing has created problems. More than 74,000 hectares of forest have been cleared in Dac Lac province to make way for coffee growing (Watkin 1999). The water extracted from rivers for coffee growing has created water shortages for other users, and some rivers have dried up for part of the year. Soil erosion has become a significant problem in many areas, as the soil is completely exposed for the first few years until the coffee bushes grow. Meanwhile, the dependence on a single crop has led to problems with the falling price of coffee on the world market. In November 1999 the government agreed to subsidize coffee exports (“Out on a Limb” 1999), and in February 2000 suspended the export of 150,000 tons of coffee, stating that the world price was too low (Agence France Presse 22 February 2000, 9).

Passing the Blame: Shifting Cultivation and the State

The Vietnamese government rarely links its promotion of coffee production with deforestation, but instead blames the upland ethnic groups for practicing shifting cultivation and destroying Vietnam’s remaining forests.

In 1968, at the height of the war, the Vietnamese government introduced the Fixed Cultivation and Sedentarisation Project (FCSP). The FCSP is targeted specifically at upland ethnic groups, and aims to “build a stable production basis, to enable ethnic minorities to get work and participate in economic development” (McElwee 1999, 34). The FSCP includes “arresting forest destruction” among its objectives. The strategic importance to the government of controlling ethnic groups and their forests is indicated in the guidelines to the project: “Sedentarisation is also part of the national defence policy” (McElwee 1999: 34). Under the FSCP, which still exists, shifting cultivators are encouraged or forced (in the case of forest reserves or national parks) to move to new state-built houses and to farm permanent fields in place of their swidden farming systems. The project has its roots in French colonial policies, as indicated by a 1952 French development plan for upland ethnic groups that aimed “to get these populations to leave their semi-nomadic state and to become sedentary agriculturalists” (Dournes 1980: 12). Since 1968 the FCSP project has targeted over 3 million people, who “have been asked to settle into sedentary lives,” yet the project has not been a success even on its own terms: “Only 660,000 of them have done so,” according to the state-run news service (McElwee 1999, 36).

State Logging in Vietnam

The government’s focus on shifting cultivation as the cause of deforestation serves to deflect attention from other more destructive uses of the forest, such as logging. In 1975 the Vietnamese government established state forest enterprises (SFEs) in order to log the country’s forests, and by 1991, 412 SFEs existed (Sikor 1998, 19). Initially, very high logging volumes were set by the Ministry of Forestry, leading to widespread destruction of the forests. The Vietnamese government has been unable to control logging, one reason being that logging provides both employment and money to provincial authorities (CRES 1999, 3). Although annual logging quotas were allocated at the central government level through the Ministry of Forestry, in practice the state forestry enterprises and local authorities had total control over the logging rates and the management of the forests (Sikor 1998, 25).

Logging rates peaked in 1992, when 1.2 million cubic meters of timber was logged in Vietnam’s forests. Since then the amount has been drastically reduced, largely because only 107 SFEs have any forest remaining to log (Castren 1999b). The Vietnamese government has imposed a series of logging and export bans, the first in 1990, banning the export of raw logs (Financial Times, 20 August 1990). In 1992 the government banned the export of raw cut and sawn wood, and reduced logging quotas by 88 percent. Although this is often described as a measure to conserve the forests, it was reported in the U.K. Timber Trade Journal (2 May 1992) as a means “to conserve the rapidly dwindling resources for a wood-working industry it hopes to develop with the help of Singapore, Malaysia and other neighbours.”

The following year, Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet imposed a total ban on the export of forest products. Almost all the forests in the north of the country were closed to logging (Sikor 1998, 32). The Federation of Labour newspaper, Lao Dong, reported that the “real culprits” — the corrupt officials who issued logging and export permits — have not been affected by the export ban. The ban did force three army-owned sawmills in Qui Nhon to close (Hill n.d.). The export ban was temporarily eased in September 1993 when the Ministry of Commerce issued a decree allowing the export of processed wood, thus allowing 13,000 cubic meters of sawn timber stranded at Qui Nhon port (worth around $3 million) to be exported (Bangkok Post 31 August 1993).

The ban was rewritten in October 1995 in an attempt to close loopholes, and in October 1997 a total ban on using Vietnamese timber was imposed. This was relaxed the following year, and replaced with a quota of 80,000 cubic meters (NorWatch 1998a). In March 1998 exports were once again banned, apart from “fine art” finished products (Global Witness 1999a, 12).

Despite these attempts at central-government level, illegal logging still occurs in Vietnam. The Vietnamese News Agency (18 February 2000, 3) reported that in January this year over 3,700 violations of forest laws were detected. Logging in the Ca River basin has increased with improved road access. In Xa Luong village, about 50 kilometers from the border with Laos, a new road built in 1993 has meant that forest once out of reach of loggers’ trucks is now being intensively logged. Every day trucks arrive at the village to buy wood from villagers (CRES 1999, 3).

In June 1999 the Vietnam Economic Times reported Vietnam’s biggest-ever illegal logging case. Illegal loggers had cut down nearly 54,000 cubic meters of timber (worth around $1.6 million) in protected forest in Tanh Linh district, Binh Thuan province. The logging was carried out with the support of government officials, under the pretext that it was needed for the construction of the Ham Thuan and Da Mi hydropower dams. The case eventually reached the courts and the loggers and officials were prosecuted, but only after a three-year campaign by a local farmer, Nguyen Tang Thang. Thang wrote a total of seventy-four letters protesting the illegal logging, and visited Hanoi three times to present his petitions in person to the National Inspectorate.

He pointed out the injustice of the implementation of the forest laws, “Farmers are jailed for gathering a bit of firewood, while the officials just help themselves” (“Out on a Limb” 1999, 31).

As part of a World Bank–backed process of privatization, the government of Vietnam is reducing its control of its SFEs. SFEs have seen state funds cut, and are supposed to become self-financing. The Asian Development Bank is funding a forestry-sector project, which includes a program to reform the SFEs (Castren 1999b).

Land Allocation

A land allocation program introduced in the 1980s is associated with the privatization of the state forestry enterprises. The National Assembly approved the most recent version of the Land Law in 1993. The law allows for land allocation to households, local communities, private companies, and state enterprises. In what amounts effectively to a privatization process, land can be sold, exchanged, leased, and/or mortgaged (Pettenella 1998, 12). An important element of the Land Law is to increase state control of land use (Smith and Tran Thanh Binh 1994, 4–5). Under the Land Law, villagers are not granted the right to change the land use, as defined by the government. Land classified as forestland, for example, is not to be used for agriculture.

In the lowland irrigated rice-growing areas of the country, the land allocation process has proceeded quickly and is widely praised for leading to a rapid increase in food production. However, in the upland areas, where most of the forests are, land allocation has been slower and has faced several problems. Villagers managing all or part of their land on a communal basis have often had difficulties in establishing claims to their land. The local authorities have only allowed the allocation of land currently in use, thus eliminating community claims to their fallow land (McElwee 1999, 34).

Where villagers have used forestland for subsistence agriculture, they have to decide between their livelihoods and secure land tenure—based on agreeing to manage their fields as “forest.” In such areas the announcement of the land allocation program has actually increased land insecurity and led to more exploitation of forest and forestland (Sikor 1998, 31).

Where forestland has been allocated, some villagers have been excluded from the process. A 1998 FAO–sponsored report describes how, in one case in Quang Ninh province, land allocation actually encouraged land grabbing. Villagers of Dong Dinh village explained how their traditional community forest was allocated to villagers from nearby Phat Tha hamlet. In order to attempt to reclaim their land, Dong Dinh villagers cleared the forest and planted cinnamon. “We had no voice in the whole process, we didn’t take part in discussions,” the head of Dong Dinh village complained (Pettenella 1998, 96). Land allocation in this case, was a form of enclosure. Having lost their common lands, villagers destroyed the community forest, planting cinnamon trees to establish individual (not common) rights to the land (Pettenella 1998, 97).

Six years after the introduction of the land allocation scheme, SFEs continue to play the leading role in forest management. Forests can only be allocated to households if the SFE agrees to give up the forestland. If the forest is managed commercially by the households, they have to pay compensation to the SFEs for the value of the forest and sell forest products to the SFE (Brunner et al. 1999, 11).

Dams and Deforestation

The land allocation process fails to address the problems faced by communities confronted by large-scale development projects on their lands. The development of large-scale dams for hydropower and irrigation in Vietnam has flooded forests and forced people out of their fields, lands and homes.

The largest dam in Vietnam, the 1920 megawatt (MW) Hoa Binh dam on the Da River in the north of the country, was completed in 1994. To make way for the 200-square-kilometer reservoir behind the dam, 58,000 people were forced to move. They had no alternative but to clear the steep hillsides along most of the reservoir edge, leading to further deforestation and soil erosion (Hirsch et al. 1992, 11). The reservoir reached its maximum level in late 1991, but four years later Hoa Binh provincial officials reported that only 16,000 of the people forced out of their lands had “settled down comfortably” (Vietnam News, 1 March 1995, 9).

Upstream of the Hoa Binh reservoir dam the government is proposing another dam, the 3,600 MW Son La dam. If built as currently proposed, the project would flood the homes of 130,000 people and destroy almost all the irrigated paddy land in Son La and Lai Chau provinces. Some estimates indicate that up to 1 million people could be affected by the dam. The dam is designed so that the reservoir would just reach the Chinese border, over 200 kilometers away from the dam site. The government proposes that at least 20,000 of the people evicted should be moved to the central highlands, thus adding to the problems of land use and land allocation there.

In the central highlands meanwhile, a series of dams is proposed on the Se San River. The 720 MW Yali Falls dam is now almost complete, having flooded 65 square kilometers and evicted 4,000 people from their homes. Some of the villages now living on the edge of the reservoir were forced to move to their current location from their forest villages around fifteen years ago, as part of the FCSP. Although areas of their irrigated rice lands will be flooded, they will receive no compensation from the state.

Other dams are proposed, and three Norwegian and Swedish consulting companies (Norplan, Sweco and Statkraft) are currently producing a National Hydropower Plan Study, funded by Sida (Sweden) and NORAD (Norway). The idea from the study came from the World Bank, hoping it would uncover “bankable” hydro projects in Vietnam (Haag 2000).


In Laos the government is pursuing basically the same approach as the Vietnamese government to the “problem” of shifting cultivation. Most officials in the government share the belief that shifting cultivation is the main cause of forest loss in Laos. The government has established a series of “focal sites” aiming to attract villagers practicing “unsuitable” farming practices, and thus reduce shifting cultivation by settling the farmers in “stable” communities. The focal sites receive agricultural extension services, cash crops are encouraged, paddy land is cleared for irrigated rice production, and irrigation systems are built (Badenoch 1999, 5). This focus on upland farmers, as in Vietnam deflects attention from other causes of deforestation; in particular, the state’s role in logging.

During the second Indochina war, U.S. forces dropped more bombs on Laos than were dropped in the whole of Europe during World War II. Even today, unexploded ordnance remains in some areas of Laos. Logging also increased during the war. The Pathet Lao government received equipment support from China, and in return allowed China virtually unlimited access to remove logs from northern Laos, leading to widespread destruction of the forests (Anon 2000, 58). Similar deals were reached with Vietnam, and Lao forestry officials state (off the record) that each year the prime minister’s office allocates large amounts of timber for repayment of war debts. The debts are apparently still not repaid. In August 1999 the state-run Vientiane Times reported that 90,000 cubic meters of timber went to cover “debt repayment,” 12.5 percent of the total national timber quota for 1998/99 (Anon 2000, 63).

State Logging in Laos

After 1975, logging by the Lao state was limited by poor infrastructure and lack of processing facilities, although timber provided important income at provincial level. The forests were divided into nine state forest enterprises covering in total approximately 2.5 million hectares. The state forest enterprises functioned as logging companies (with the exception of No. 9, which established the Lao Plywood company), and were supported by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the USSR and Vietnam (Daoroung 1997, 38; Anon 1992, 3).

In 1986 the Lao government introduced the New Economic Mechanism, thus opening up the economy to foreign investors. One result was a rapid increase in logging and timber exports, with 120 new joint ventures signed with foreign companies in the timber industry in 1987 and 1988 (Sluiter 1992, 18). After the Thai logging ban in 1989, Thai businesses raced for a share in the profits gained from Lao logs, and by 1991, 56 percent of official exports came from wood products (Daoroung 1997, 39).

At the 1991 party congress, the Politburo, apparently worried that its forests were disappearing across the border to Thailand, sacked Sisavat Keodounphan, the army’s chief of staff and the mayor of Vientiane. Sisavat was involved in some of the more lucrative deals with Thai logging companies, and his dismissal, according to The Economist magazine, was intended to send a signal that “though capitalism is now officially encouraged, dodgy deals with Thais are not” (“The Lost World” 1991).

In August 1991 the government declared a nationwide moratorium on all logging concessions (Decree No. 67) until an audit of all logging operations was completed. The decree also limited the rights of provinces to allocate concessions (Daoroung 1997, 39). The logging ban was not implemented, and the rate of logging and timber exports continued to grow. A conflict in a village in central Laos in the early 1990s illustrates some of the problems. The village was surrounded by 110 hectares of community forest, managed by a village committee, which decided when and where trees may be cut for building or other needs. When outsiders turned up with chainsaws and trucks and began cutting the trees down, the villagers asked them to stop, and eventually drove them out of the forest with hunting rifles. Instead of supporting the villagers for upholding the logging ban, a state logging company, accompanied by soldiers, moved into the village and the surrounding forest in March 1992. The police threatened to arrest the only forestry official who dared to protest (Sluiter 1992, 19).

The Lao Army and Logging

In 1992 the Lao government abolished all logging concessions and handed over all logging rights to three regional military-owned companies: the Agriculture and Forestry Development Company (AFD) in the north; the Mountain Region Development Company (BPKP) in the center; and the Development-Agriculture-Forestry-Industry Company (DAFI) in the south.

Foreign companies are allowed to form joint ventures with these three military logging companies (Daoroung 1997, 39). BPKP, for example, runs a joint-venture plywood mill in Khammouane Province with Luen Fat Hong, a Taiwanese corporation. The joint venture began logging the Dong Kaphat-Nakating production forest in the 1997–1998 dry season. No forest management plans existed when the logging commenced, and no logging coupes were identified. Consultants for the IUCN stated that the company was logging way above the “sustainable annual harvest” previously estimated by consultants associated with the proposed Nam Theun 2 hydropower dam (IUCN 1997).

In April 1994, Malaysian Prime Minister Mohammad Mahathir led a business delegation to Cambodia and Laos. Malaysian media reports at the time stated that timber was one of the main attractions. A series of deals followed. A Malaysian company, Best World Land, was reported in 1994 to be interested in a 250,000-hectare logging concession in southern Laos (World Rainforest Movement and Forests Monitor 1998, 42). Idris Hydraulic, a Malaysian logging company, is involved in the logging concession associated with the Xekaman 1 hydropower dam. In April 1997 the Vientiane Times reported that Hipa Forest Industries Malaysia) had been given the go-ahead for a fifty-year, 600,000-hectare concession in Sayaboury province, as a joint venture with the Lao military AFD. Hipa and AFD are also behind a proposed $80-million timber processing plant, which will export goods to Japan, Thailand, Malaysia (“Se Kong-Se San” 1997, 48). In 1997 the Malaysian Syuen Corporation started to develop Laos’s largest resort on more than 18,000 hectares of national park land and on islands in the reservoir behind the Nam Ngum dam. One of the company’s first acts was to set up a sawmill to process the timber logged from the development area (World Rainforest Movement and Forests Monitor 1998, 53).

Many of these companies operate on a secretive basis. The list of Malaysian investors in Laos provided by the embassy of Malaysia in Vientiane includes only one logging company: United Plymill and Sawmills, which has the contract for the underwater logging in the reservoir behind the Nam Ngum dam (World Rainforest Movement and Forests Monitor 1998, 16).

No Transparency in the State

Within the Lao government, the number of institutions involved with forest policy means that any decision made is complex and often untransparent. For example, logging quotas specify the amount of timber to be cut each year. The province initially submits a figure to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF). From there the figures are sent to the Ministry of Trade and Tourism, then to the Ministry of Finance and finally the prime minister’s office sets the actual quota. The decision is made without any consultation with officials from the Division of Inventory and Planning in the Department of Forestry (Southavilay and Castren 1999).

The MAF then shares the quota between the provinces. Most provinces get a quota far below the timber processing capacity in that province. In the period from 1997 to 1999 quotas in Champassak, Salavan, Sekong and Attapeu provinces were less than 20 per cent of installed capacity (Southavilay and Castren 1999). Additional quotas are granted within provinces, primarily to finance infrastructure projects. Contractors carry out construction work in return for a logging quota rather than a cash payment. In August 1999 the prime minister issued Order No.11/PMO which prohibits such “infrastructure quotas” (Anon 2000: 60).

Sawmill operators and logging companies run several other schemes aimed at expanding the amount they are allowed to log. In one such scam a sawmill operator persuades villagers to cut certain trees. Once the trees are cut the sawmill operator reports the trees as “illegally felled” to the District Forestry Office. Eventually the authorities dispose of the timber by selling it to the sawmill that arranged the logging in the first place (Anon 2000, 61). In Champassak province, a consultant for the World Conservation Society reported as follows in 1998: “Overall, the evidence points to widespread organized logging being carried out by collusion between influential outsiders, possibly with official connections, and local Dong Khanthung residents” (Round 1998).

Villagers in Bolikhamxay province who had been dependent on their old-growth forest resent the intrusion of loggers, and told one researcher that logging has led to the killing or scaring away of all forest animals, has killed fish, and has destroyed other forest foods. Logging roads have filled stream beds. Loggers harvested fish in streams and ponds with grenades, and left cut trees lying around making forest paths inaccessible (Ireson 1995, 166–167).

Deforestation and Aid

International aid agencies are heavily involved in the forestry sector in Laos. The Department of Forests is creaking under the weight of around fifty forestry projects, funded by a range of donors including the World Bank, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida) (Sweden), the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) (Germany) and Department for International Development Cooperation (DIDC) (Finland) (Daoroung 1997: 39). In July 1991, a month before the government imposed the logging ban, consultants ISO/Swedforest won the contract for the Lao–Swedish Forestry Cooperation Programme 1991–1995. More than half of the budget was devoted to logging and management of logging. Another 20 per cent of the budget was for imported equipment.

However, donor involvement outside the forest sector is playing an even more destructive role in removing control of forests and land from local communities. The ADB is currently funding a series of roads in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, which will improve access to forests, and expedite transport of logs. For example, the ADB is funding the upgrading of Route 9, which runs from Dong Ha on the Vietnamese coast to Savannakhet on the border with Thailand, part of the ADB–backed proposed “East–West Corridor” running all the way to Burma (ADB 1999, ii). More than 6,000 people will be forced to move from their homes along the road, to make way for the wider road. The road will pass close to two National Biodiversity Conservation Areas (NBCAs) in Laos, and the ADB admits the project may “exacerbate illegal trade of wildlife and log export” (ADB 1999, 17).

Route 9 is used by Vietnamese logging companies (subcontracted by DAFI) to extract timber from Savannakhet province for export to Vietnam. In 1997–1998 the companies exported $1 million worth of timber (Southavilay and Castren 1999). The Lao military logging company BPKP maintains a merchant fleet stationed in Vietnamese ports, to export the volumes of timber from Laos (Castren 1999b).

The development of hydropower in Laos is providing the logging industry with a lucrative means of avoiding forest laws. Half of the official log harvest in Laos comes from reservoir areas of proposed hydropower dams. In many cases the logging started before even a feasibility study was carried out for the dam (IRN 1999, 64). In the case of the Xekaman 1 dam the entire project was dreamed up in order for the developers, Austro Lao Power (ALP) and Idris Hydraulic (a Malaysian logging firm) to get the logging concession. If the dam was ever built the reservoir would take seven years to fill (Halcrow 1998, 3-12), and longer if any electricity was to be generated during this period. The proposed 19,000-hectare reservoir includes part of the adjacent Dong Ampham National Biodiversity Conservation Area (“Xekaman 1″ 1997, 49). When confronted with estimates indicating that less timber was available to be logged than the developers originally estimated, an ALP employee is reported to have said, “In that case we’ll just keep logging until we reach the Vietnamese border.”

In the case of the proposed Nam Theun 2 hydropower project, the military-run BPKP was logging well above the maximum level of the proposed reservoir until NGOs brought this fact to the government’s attention. BPKP has logged more than 1 million cubic meters of timber from the Nakai Plateau, even though the project may well never be built (IRN 1999, 64). The developers, a consortium called the Nam Theun 2 Electricity Consortium (NTEC), are looking to the World Bank to provide a $94-million “partial risk” guarantee, without which the project is unlikely to get commercial funding. In February 2000 the Bank announced it would not give the guarantee until “the government commits itself to significant political and economic reforms” (World Bank 2000).

In addition to “anticipatory” logging, villagers are being evicted from their villages, not only from proposed reservoirs, but from upland areas above proposed dam projects, as part of the drive to eradicate shifting cultivation (“Se Kong-Se San” 1997, 44).


After independence from France in 1953, Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s government implemented a series of programs similar to the French development plans for the central highlands of Vietnam: Rubber plantations were established, roads were built and lowland Khmer moved into Ratanakiri province. The government also began to force highland villages near the borders with Vietnam and Laos, into more “orderly” settlements along roads or the Se San River. The government’s aims were to ensure the villages were under Cambodian government rule; to limit contacts with Lao, Vietnamese and Khmer insurgents; and to “modernise” the indigenous people at the same time (Colm 1997, 30-31).

The encroaching war and the rise of the Khmer Rouge meant that the 1970s were to be a decade of destruction for the people and forests of Cambodia. The U.S. “secret war” in Cambodia caused massive hardship for villagers and to some extent aided the rise of the Khmer Rouge. U.S. bombing forced villagers out of their villages and into the forests, where many of them swelled the ranks of the Khmer Rouge. When U.S. bombing ended in 1973, the Khmer Rouge began to implement severe cooperatization schemes and forced-labor programs in Ratanakiri, leading to thousands of highlanders fleeing to Vietnam and Laos in 1974 and 1975 (Colm 1997, 31).

Due to the U.S. bombings and Khmer Rouge insurrection, over 3 million people fled the countryside to Phnom Penh. After 1975 the Khmer Rouge seized control of the country and forced the entire population into rural labor camps. Three million people were murdered or starved to death during the four-year Khmer Rouge nightmare. Village patterns of land and forest ownership and management were destroyed, irrigation systems wrecked, leading Meas Nee (1995) to describe village life as “like a basket that has been broken and the pieces scattered.”

During the 1990s the people and forests in Cambodia were under massive pressure through large-scale industrial logging. Often described as “anarchic” by the Royal Cambodian government, in fact the government itself is largely responsible for the current situation, having handed over 7 million hectares of forest as logging concessions. For years the revenue from the logging funded both the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian military (Global Witness 1996b, 4).

Concurrently with issuing logging concessions, the RGC imposed a series of logging and timber export bans. On January 1, 1995, the RGC implemented a logging ban, followed by a total log-export ban on December 31, 1996, which is still (at least in theory) in place. On April 29, 1997, the RGC defined legal timber exports as “processed wood products . . . deriving from legal concessions granted by the Royal Government of Cambodia” (Global Witness 1999a, 6). However, even with the export bans in place, the RGC made high-level deals with the governments of Thailand and Vietnam to continue exporting timber to these countries (Global Witness 1999a, 6).

Clearcut Concessions

The logging companies fail to comply even with the terms of their concessions. On August 17, 1994, RGC ministers and the Malaysian logging company Samling signed an investment agreement granting Samling two sixty-year forest concessions covering in total almost 800,000 hectares. The four-page agreement gave Samling an eight-year tax holiday, no requirement to carry out an environmental impact assessment, and no requirement to reforest, and was signed without being debated by the Cambodian National Assembly, in contravention of Cambodia’s constitution (Global Witness 1995: 8). In April 1997 RGC Minister of Agriculture, Tao Seng Huor wrote to Han Chen Kong, SL International’s director accusing Samling of starting to cut without a permit, cutting in areas not permitted by forestry department officials, cutting undersized logs, and continuing to log despite the logging ban of December 31, 1996. Despite this, later in 1997 the RGC allowed Samling to acquire a further 50,000-hectare concession (Global Witness 1997, 19–20).

Before logging commences, all logging companies have to produce management plans. In 1997 only six out of thirty-two concessions had produced management plans, and five more companies were allowed to collect illegally felled logs “found” in the concession area. If a company reports finding cut logs to the authorities, the company pays royalties and is issued a permit for the logs (Global Witness 1999b, 6). The illegal logs therefore become legal, and, conveniently for the logging companies, the RGC makes no attempt to find out where the logs came from or who cut them (Castren 1999a).

Despite the limited number of logging permissions actually issued, consultants for the World Bank–funded Log Monitoring and Logging Control project in 1997 found logging in almost all the concession areas, although they could not determine whether it was the concession holder logging, or the military, or another concession holder (Castren 1999a). Logging companies, in addition to destructive large-scale logging within their concessions, have logged outside their permitted logging areas (including logging other companies’ concessions); filled rivers to construct logging tracks, thus blocking villagers’ water supplies; bought timber from the military; bought timber logged in national parks; illegally exported timber to Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam; and taken forestlands from villagers (Global Witness 1999b, 6-17). The concessions are granted on land that is the common property of villagers, to which communities had access to gather forest products. The logging companies have excluded all villagers’ rights to access the forests (World Rainforest Movement and Forests Monitor 1998, 24).

As part of the concession agreements the concessionaires agree to invest in wood processing in Cambodia. The aim was to stimulate production, create employment and generate more income within Cambodia. As a result, Cambodia now has a timber processing capacity of 2.5 million cubic meters per year, way above any estimates of sustainable yield (Global Witness 1999b, 3).

The implications for the people of Cambodia of large-scale industrial logging are formidable. Increased soil erosion is just one of the problems. The fisheries of the Tonle Sap are Cambodia’s most important source of protein, but catches have been affected by, among other things, increasing levels of silt which have reduced the depth of the lake by one meter since 1979 (Global Witness 1996b, 15). Last year’s catch was severely reduced and fishers report that the bigger fish have all but disappeared (“Fish Migrate” 1999, 40).

In Ratanakiri province, Sal Yuch, a Jarai elder, describes how his village has lost its forest to loggers:

    In the past there used to be big trees, now there are only small trees. The government cut the trees—they have authority and they have guns—all the power they need to cut our trees. . . . According to the Jarai people’s custom, we didn’t “preserve” forest although cutting the thick forest on top of the mountains was taboo. There were spirits there to prevent us cutting the trees. Some people still believe this. But the people with the chainsaws don’t have the same values as we Jarai people. Not all of that spirit forest has been cut, but they’ve taken all the big trees. And they have cut roads into that forest. Our main goal is to protect the forest. We have seen people come and cut the trees and we don’t want all the forest to be gone. (“Our Main Goal” 1998, 46).

Donors, Conditionality and the Forest Sector

Since 1996, mainly as a result of pressure from Global Witness, international aid organizations have made their continued funding conditional on improvements in the Cambodian forestry sector. In May 1996 the International Monetary Fund suspended Cambodia’s Enhanced Structural Adjustment Fund payments because of the Cambodian government’s “failure to observe safeguards with respect to illegal logging and other forms of corruption” (IBRD 1999, 48).

Every eighteen months or so the donors hold a Consultative Group meeting chaired by the World Bank. The tone of these meetings is indicated by the U.K. delegate’s presentation in 1996: “The Royal Cambodian Government must be seen to be making proper use of its own resources in order to justify continued support by the international donors allocating funds for which there is intense competition from other well-deserving sources” (Global Witness 1996a, 11).

The conditional linking of the fate of Cambodia’s forests with continued international aid has produced some absurd situations. At the 1999 Consultative Group meeting in Tokyo, Canada’s delegation was headed by Bob Johnston, an official at the Canadian International Development Agency. In his presentation, having stressed the “urgency of redressing Cambodia’s unsustainable forest sector management,” and having agreed that “immediate forest sector reform is essential,” Johnston offered Canadian expertise to Cambodia: “Canada’s extensive experience in sustainable forest management . . . may be strategically accessed to help Cambodia address its forest management needs” (IBRD 1999, 64-65).

If taken up by the RGC, Johnston’s offer, apart from keeping Canadian forestry consultants in work, is likely to lead to the acceleration of the exploitation of Cambodia’s forests, based on the record of the logging industry in Canada. More than half of British Columbia’s lowland coastal rainforests have been felled, largely for export. Reid Carter, a forest products analyst, described the situation in 1998: “We’re now trying to get the ‘guts and feathers’ of what’s left. Particularly in the coastal areas we’re logging in the back end of valleys and off the top of mountains” (Greenpeace 1999, 7). This is hardly a description of “sustainable forest management.”

In 1996, the RCG agreed to a World Bank–funded Forest Policy Assessment, followed by a Forest Policy Reform Project (FPRP). In 1997 four forestry consulting firms won the contracts for the FPRP:

  • DAI (USA): Illegal Logging Control and Log Verification.
  • Fortech (Australia): Forest Concession Management.
  • Associates in Rural Development (ARD) (USA): Forest Policy Reform Process.
  • White and Case (Indonesia/USA): Legal Counsel Assignment.

The consultants published their reports in April 1998. The World Bank is funding the project, and the UNDP and the FAO are providing assistance, thus bringing together three of the four initiators of the Tropical Forestry Action Plan (TFAP). The TFAP originated in the mid-1980s and advocated increased “sustained yield” forestry to promote national development and an expansion of plantations to meet the global demand for wood products. The TFAP was opposed by a wide range of NGOs, environmentalists and local communities, on the grounds that it ignored the needs and rights of local communities and indigenous peoples and led to increased commercial forest exploitation. It was eventually revamped to include more participation, at which point most of the donors lost interest (Hildyard and Hegde 1998).

There are broad similarities between the TFAP and Cambodia’s FPRP, apart from the involvement of the same actors. The FPRP recommends that 4 million hectares should be maintained as industrial concessions, managed “according to internationally acceptable forestry standards” (World Bank 1999, i). The World Bank states: “A sustainably managed industrial concession system can be the center piece for the Cambodian forestry sector” (World Bank 1999, 7). The project will also aim to encourage a timber processing industry in Cambodia, allowing log and processed wood exports. Far from clamping down on an out-of-control logging industry, the World Bank hopes to promote the private sector: “Government should continue to look to private sector for partnerships in forestry development” (IBRD 1999, 113).

Consulting company Fraser Thomas is currently carrying out a review of logging concessions, part of an ADB–funded Sustainable Forest Management Project. The review has been plagued by delays, lack of funding, and poor planning. As a result, the site inspections took place in October, during the rainy season, when log movements, and timber cutting are minimal. The site inspection spent only one day in each concession, clearly not adequate to inspect even the smallest concession (60,000 hectares). The review does not intend to take into account the past record of the concessionaires, in Cambodia or elsewhere, and will only inspect year 1999 and 2000 logging areas (Global Witness 1999a, 2).

The FPRP includes a community forestry component, which is intended to make “a significant contribution to rural incomes and to national needs for firewood, building materials, commodity grade timber, and non-wood forest products” (World Bank 1999, ii). The World Bank proposes that some of the recently cancelled logging concessions could “have considerable potential for development of community oriented management,” arguing that these forests have “relatively low commercial potential.” In other words, logged-over forest will be allocated to villagers because it is of little value to the market. Forest with “high commercial potential” on the other hand “may merit retendering as new concessions” (IBRD 1999, 112). Villagers may therefore see their community forests or their spirit forests handed over as concessions to logging companies. They will then become stakeholders in a process managed by outsiders who will decide whether or not the loggers are managing the forest “sustainably.” If they are deemed to be doing so, the donors can keep the aid taps on and the Cambodian state can continue to receive money.

On January 25, 1999, the RGC issued a declaration on the “Measures to Manage and Eliminate the Anarchy in the Forestry Sector.” The seventeen-point statement included abolishing the issuing of “collection permits,” issuing no more concession, and canceling all concessions not conforming with the terms of their concession agreement (Castren 1999a).

By October 1999 the RGC claimed the “complete elimination of large-scale illegal felling” (RGC 1999, 2). Although the RGC cancelled twelve concession contracts from nine companies (a total area of over 2 million hectares) the government’s list of measures taken indicates that most of the crackdown has so far focused on small-scale logging operators, rather than the large concession holders. Over 800 saw mills have been destroyed; chainsaws, trucks, tractors and ox carts have been destroyed; and almost 300 cases of “forest offences” have been filed against individuals (RGC 1999, 3). The clampdown on local sawmill operators has resulted in a dramatic hike in the price of construction timber within Cambodia.

Made in Vietnam, Cut in Cambodia

Since the early 1990s sporadic reports have appeared in region’s media of Cambodian timber exported to Vietnam. For example, in 1992, the Bangkok Post (15 November 1992) reported that half of Vietnam’s 1991 exports (a total of 200,000 cubic meters) originated in Cambodia. The route most used to transport logs from Cambodia, was built by the United States as a strategic route linking Ratanakiri with Gia Lai province in Vietnam. From Gia Lai much of the timber is transported to the port city of Qui Nhon, where furniture production provides the main source of employment. Export bans imposed on Vietnamese timber led to an increased demand for imports of Cambodian timber. Such imports are in theory illegal, and from time to time timber is confiscated by customs officials. For example, in 1994 customs authorities in Song Be province confiscated 50,000 cubic meters of Cambodian timber illegally imported to Vietnam (Bangkok Post 10 May 1994).

From Qui Nhon and other Vietnamese ports, exports of garden furniture to Japan and Europe have rapidly grown in the last five years. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development states that exports of wooden products earn $100 million per year (Vietnam News Agency, 22 June 1999). Global Witness’s 1999 report Made in Vietnam, Cut in Cambodia encouraged a Europe-wide association of environmental NGOs to launch a consumer boycott of Vietnamese-manufactured garden furniture. European NGOs have targeted several European furniture companies with operations in Vietnam.

A Danish company, Scancom, is the biggest producer of exported furniture from Vietnam, using timber from Vietnam and Cambodia as well as importing timber from Malaysia and Indonesia (NorWatch 1998a). Scancom does not own processing factories in Vietnam, and relies on subcontractors to supply the timber. Despite the large amounts of timber used, in 1999 Scancom staff were unable to say where their timber came from (Global Witness 1999a: 12). Criticism and pressure from environmental groups in Europe led to the company employing an “international environmental manager,” and it is changing its policy on buying timber. Scancom has set up a “tropical forest trust,” consisting of European timber companies, which will fund forest managers to achieve sustainable forest management as defined by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) (Tropical Forest Trust [TFT] n.d.).

The Tropical Forest Trust is currently establishing a $1.5-million project with World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the World Bank in the Kon Plong forest, in Kontum province. The Mang Canh II state forest enterprise currently controls over 18,000 hectares of this forest. The project aims to divide the forest into areas for commercial timber production and areas for forest protection. The forests are the traditional home to various ethnic groups, including the M’Nam, Xe Dang and K’Roon peoples. In the last ten years the government has moved the people of Kon Plong to “sedentary villages” as part of its FCSP, aimed at stopping shifting cultivation (WWF 1999, 2).


Development agencies frequently argue that developing a country’s forestry sector is a way of meeting the country’s development goals. The World Bank’s recent involvement in Cambodia provides a good example: “Forestry must become an integral part of the overall development of Cambodia. It should contribute in significant and observable ways to resolving the critical development challenges facing the country: reducing poverty, military demobilization, reducing corruption, improving governance, and protecting the environment” (World Bank 1999: 3).

Yet vast quantities of timber have been, and still are being, exported from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Only a small number of people have benefited from this “development”: timber companies, forestry consultants, machinery suppliers, importers and exporters. Meanwhile, some underpaid forestry officials have added to their incomes, and workers have found employment in furniture factories and offices. The reality for most villagers dependent on the forests has been increasing immiseration as their forests have been cleared, their streams filled with soil, and their spirit forests and community forests destroyed.

The argument that the forestry sector provides employment does not stand up to serious scrutiny. At the height of the SFE’s logging in Vietnam, approximately 1 million people were employed in the forestry sector. At the same time, the Ministry of Forestry estimated that at least 22 million people lived in or near Vietnam’s forests (Sikor 1998, 23). Through the commercial extraction of timber, or conversion of forests to plantations providing a single commodity such as rubber, coffee or wood fibre for pulp mills, the range of functions that forests fulfill for local communities is lost. Local communities are viewed as merely a source of cheap, seasonal labour, mainly during planting or harvesting. The resources in the forest available to local communities, such as food, firewood, medicine, grazing land, are simply removed or placed off-limits to the people who live there.

Debates on aid to the forestry sector and development are not new. In 1962, Jack Westoby (then head of forestry at the FAO) wrote a seminal paper, “The Role of Forest Industries in the Attack on Economic Development,” in which he argued that “industrialization based on the forest can both contribute to and promote the general economic development process” (Westoby 1987, 69). In 1977, after more than twenty years of observing the role forestry had played in development, Westoby (by then retired from the FAO), wrote, “The fact has to be faced, if we are to be honest with ourselves, that two decades of international effort in the forestry sector of the underdeveloped world has made but little contribution to the overall development process, and its contribution to improving the quality of urban life and raising the welfare of the rural masses has been negligible” (Westoby 1987, 291).

In Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia the state has wrested control of forests from rural communities with the resulting impoverishment of both forests and communities. International aid agencies have exacerbated the situation by supporting this process, either deliberately or inadvertently. Increasing deforestation in the region indicates that these agencies are failing to address the root causes of deforestation. By supporting the worst of the Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodian governments’ development dreams – large-scale hydropower, commercial logging, large roads, widespread relocation of ethnic groups – international aid agencies are accelerating logging in the region.

Unquestioned in all the attempts to reform the forest sectors of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia is the assumption that industrial forestry, in some form, is a necessary part of development. Whether Europe needs cheap garden furniture more than Vietnam needs timber for its own use is not even considered. “Community forestry” becomes something to be tacked on to programs designed to ensure a continued flow of industrial wood products from the South to the North.

Only once the forest has lost all its commercial value are states and their advisors (from the World Bank, the ADB, and other international aid agencies) prepared to hand forest back to rural communities. Yet traditions of forest preservation and management still exist in communities throughout Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Only when communities are allowed to take control of their own resources and to make their own decisions about their future will the benefits of the forests reach the majority of the people living in or near the forests.


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