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Illegal logging and dams as Laos grapples with its own green monsters

Vientiane (UCAN): Attapeu, a province in the southeast of Laos, is not a place that draws much attention. But a recent illegal logging incident in which a convoy of 27 trucks tried to cross into Vietnam, shone a light on the problem.
Illegal logging has been a major problem in the country for years so the scheme itself was far from unexpected. But the consequences were. 
First, the governor of Attapeu, Nam Viyaketh, was removed from office. Then in late November, the new governor assured the public that the people involved would be prosecuted, a possible game-changer in a country where illegal logging often goes unpunished.
The logging problem highlights the significant environmental threats Laos is facing. 
In a recent interview, Louis-Marie Ling Cardinal Mangkhanekhoun from Vientiane, called it one of the major issues facing his country.
The cardinal said that what is happening to the environment is disturbing for everyone. “The environment is not only there to be gained from. If you do that, you value money higher than your own life. You will lose all human values and become less than animals. Animals are at least taking care of their children,” he said.
Once densely forested, Laos has lost much over the past two decades. Statistics from Global Forest Watch show that over 2.3 million hectares of tree cover has disappeared over the past 16 years. 
In 2016, an unfortunate record was set when 387,997 hectares of forest was cut down.
Statistics for 2017 have not yet been published, but things seem to be improving.
In 2016, the Lao government prohibited the export of all logs and sawn wood. According to Forest Trends, a non-government organisation, export numbers have decreased significantly since the ban. Although illegal logging still happens on a regular basis, the removal of the governor of Attapeu could be seen as a sign that the government is finally serious about stopping it.
Jago Wadley, a senior forest campaigner with the Environmental Investigation Agency, said the policy situation in Laos had dramatically improved.
“We have seen massive reductions in timber exports and logging on the ground in Laos, and feel that the new policies do appear to be holding,” Wadley wrote in an email. 
“The removal of the Attapeu governor and the pledge to investigate in detail are entirely new developments in Laos. We feel Laos is heading in the right direction on policy,” he concluded.
But logging isn’t the only threat. Of perhaps much greater concern is the plan to build a series of hydroelectric power dams along the Mekong river and its tributaries.
As part of the plan to become “the battery of Southeast Asia,” Laos wants to construct nine of these structures in the lower Mekong mainstream and dozens more in the tributaries of Southeast Asia’s longest river. A large amount of the generated electricity is intended for export to other Asian countries.
Scientists and advocates have been warning of the disastrous impact of the dams will have. The Mekong is one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems in the world, with thousands of fish, bird, plant and animal species. In 2016 alone, 115 new species were discovered. Hydroelectric dams could drive a large number of species into extinction, experts warned.
The Mekong is also one of the most productive rivers in the world when it comes to fishing, with 60 million people depending on it for their livelihoods. Dams would not only cause irreparable damage to Laos, but also to communities in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Laos has already started construction of two dams, the Xayaburi Dam in the north of the country and the Don Sahong close to the border with Cambodia. The construction of the Pak Beng dam was announced earlier this year but has been delayed.
Ian Baird, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States of America, has been studying Laos hydroelectric dam development. He said the dams will have a “very large environmental impact” and block fish migration. 
“The Mekong river supports the largest freshwater fisheries in the world. It’s a very important source for a lot of people. If you block fish migration, it’s going to have a huge impact,” he said.
Maureen Harris, Southeast Asia Programme Director for International Rivers, expressed similar concerns. The non-government organistion pointed out that a complete change in the river’s ecosystem will happen if the dams go ahead. 
“It will be converted to stagnant reservoirs. A study showed that fisheries will be reduced by up to 42 per cent, Harris said, adding, “Many current species would become extinct. The Mekong Giant Catfish (one of the largest freshwater fish in the world) would not be able to pass the dams.”
The dams would also have a huge impact on sediment deposits, which give rivers their natural structure and stability. Blocking the water flow will make the riverbeds unstable. Experts say this could lead to a number of challenges, from more destructive floods to more erosion and the need to stabilise the riverbanks with dikes.
Marc Goichot, a water expert with the World Wildlife Fund, said that the problems are not well understood and the impacts are underestimated. “It’s easy to measure the benefits, but it’s more difficult to understand the complexities of the balance between water and sediment.”
Baird believes the government is well aware of the impact. But hydroelectric power is extremely tempting because selling electricity can bring great profits, he explains, saying, “There seems to be a willingness to sacrifice the rural people and the environment for that benefit.”
Baird points out that more affordable and environmentally friendly alternatives are already available for electricity generation. 
He pointed out, “With the price of solar energy going down so much in the past years, there’s really no reason to build these huge dams anymore. Before these dams were cheaper, but not anymore. Solar now has made hydroelectricity much less viable.”
Reason enough for Cardinal Mangkhanekhoun to call for a new mindset. One in which human values and the environment are placed above making money and material gain. 
“We have to realise that we have to take care of our home,” the cardinal said. “Who will do so if we don’t do it? We have to build our own world, we should not destroy it. Because then we destroy ourselves.”

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