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From Laos to China, the tropical wood trade is fast destroying SE Asia’s forests. Sustainable wood labels could help reverse the trend.
The road to Vietnam carries a constant stream of wood: bamboo carried on bicycles, trunks pulled along on bull-carts, giant logs loaded onto trucks battling their way up the Lao hills. In fact, wood seems to be the principal load of vehicles going in the Laos-Vietnam direction. You don’t have to look far to see the results of this traffic: Highway 13 and Highway 7 are surrounded by bald hills, with some forest only visible further from the road or on inaccessible steep slopes.
Despite the impression a country stripped bare, the fact is that a lot of Laos is still covered in forest - it is just far from the country’s few roads. Forests still take up 70% of land surface (latest figures from the UN FAO), one of the highest forest-to-land area ratios in SE Asia. But Laos forests are shrinking - forest cover has gone down from 17.3 million hectares in 1990 to 16.1 million in 2005. The main culprits are commercial logging, new hydroelectric dams and roads, and forest land used for cash crops, explains Sebastian Schrader from the Greater Mekong branch of the WWF. The forest cover figures are confusing and controversial, he says, also because of plantations being counted as wooded land: although the forest area may be increasing, natural forest area is shrinking. With 149 dam-building projects (read Laos, future battery of Asia... but at what cost?), several international logging companies moving in and a mega-highway soon to cut Laos in two (see Le Laos cherche sa voie), there are reasons to worry about the country’s forests.
Commercial logging and the clearance of healthy forest to make way for plantations are two major causes of deforestation we have witnessed on our way through Laos. Wood being transported on trucks comes in two types: hardwood from logged natural forests, and wood grown in plantations. The hardwood is easily spotted - enormous, heavy logs weighing down the trucks carrying them. This is the expensive tropical hardwood fetching high prices on the global market. Plantations are the source of wood for paper, furniture and other products - we have seen these thinner, younger logs carried on trucks, and often found ourselves cycling through trees planted in rows, usually teak.
Although they are (theoretically) regularly re-planted, and so should be sustainable, there are problems with plantations. Healthy, thick forest growing on rich soil, home to an enormous variety of species, is sometimes cleared to make space for them. Worse still, many plantations don’t survive very long. Some companies clear natural forest, sell off the expensive hardwood, plant trees for a few years and then move out, leaving behind bald hills.
There is a big difference between tree plantations and forests, especially for the Lao people, most of whom live in close symbiosis with the forest surrounding their villages. Natural forest is a source of firewood, food, medicine and construction materials for their houses (see Building a new Laos). With decreasing access to natural forests, the traditional lifestyles we witnessed in Laos - bamboo hut villages surrounded by banana and papaya trees, locals cutting bamboo with machetes, roadside stalls selling traditional medicine - could disappear just like the forests that once covered the hills. Despite the losses they incur, local people complain that they are practically excluded from the profits when plantations are established on land they previously used.
Lao forest land is increasingly being turned into plantations with encouragement from the government and international institutions. The Asia Development Bank, for example, is running a project in Laos with the aim of promoting a "sufficiently large area of industrial plantations to attract a pulpmill and/or one or more MDF [medium density fibreboard] plants to Lao PDR in the not too distant future." Several international paper pulp companies including global giants like Stora Enso are already establishing plantations in central Laos. The teak plantations we have cycled through in the North are just a small part of the picture. Chinese and Vietnamese companies are setting up rubber plantations all over the country, and international paper pulp giants are establishing pulpwood plantations in central Laos.
Crossing the border into Vietnam we find ourselves cycling through the same steep hills as in Laos, suddenly covered in lush forest. Beautifully crafted wooden houses line the road. As we descend into the plains and head towards the sea the forest fades fast, however, and is replaced by never-ending rice paddies, industrial areas, and plantations. Less than 40% of Vietnam’s land area is still covered in forest, with another 7% taken up by plantations (latest UN FAO data). This is where the Lao wood we have shared Highway 7 with is heading - it joins a flow of raw wood coming from around the globe to be turned into beams, panels, furniture and sculpted decorations in Vietnamese factories and workshops.
Whether from natural forest or plantations, wood is often grown unsustainably. Efforts to encourage sustainable wood sources for the furniture market have somewhat affected Vietnam, but only on the export side, Sebastian Schrader explains. Most of the furniture that Vietnam exports to the West is now certified by the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), in part thanks to a report from the Global Witness watchdog. The FSC label signifies wood coming from forests and plantations grown in a sustainable way, and should guarantee that no forests were destroyed to produce it. Around half of all garden furniture sold in Europe is made in Vietnam, so the impact of such an action can be huge. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the local market. Furniture producers supplying the Vietnamese and other Asian markets still use any wood they can get hold of.
Still further down the road, in southern China, wood seems to be everywhere, from small workshops to giant factories. The scale of wood processing here is like nothing we have seen before. One city we pass through, Lipu, is one giant wood-processing plant - a row of big factories making ply-board, wooden hangers, and all sorts of wooden articles. The river of wood we have been following is partly feeding these factories, but at this stage it is very difficult to say where each log originates - the hills of Laos, the rainforests of Brazil, or the Russian taiga (which we should reach in July). One way to make sure you are not contributing to the destruction of forests in countries like Laos is to look for the FSC label on all furniture you buy.