Dam project threat to rare cypress forest

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 May, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 May, 1996, 12:00am

ONE of Asia's last remaining cypress forests is being destroyed at an alarming rate by military logging companies to make way for a huge hydro-power dam.

The 615 megawatt Nam Thamn II dam is planned for the Nakai Plateau in central Laos.

The US$1 billion (HK$7.73 billion) project has been touted as a potential commercial saviour, which will drag Laos out of poverty through the sale of electricity to Thailand.

The international consortium backing the dam, comprising five companies and the Government, which has a 25 per cent stake in the project, was originally scheduled to start construction at the beginning of this year.

Building work has been put back because of the controversy over the dam's impact on the rare cypress forest covering one-third of the plateau.

There has also been argument over its impact on rare wildlife in the area, one of 18 officially protected 'bio-diversity' regions, and the relocation of 4,000 people.

Vietnam has allowed the forest to be cleared by a military company, the Mountainous Areas Development Corporation, in anticipation of the dam's construction.

The end of the former Soviet Union's support in the late 1980s meant that for the first time in its history, the army in Laos received no outside aid.

To balance its budget, it has like its counterparts in Cambodia and Vietnam, concentrated on making money.

The military's business interests include operations from road building to tourism, and it has a monopoly over the nation's biggest resource, timber.

Since the 1940s, the country's total forest coverage has dropped from about 70 per cent to about 40 per cent.

According to one forestry expert, the rapid development of hydro-power has unleashed an unprecedented wave of logging as timber companies, in co-operation with the military, clear trees from areas scheduled to be flooded.

Vietnam has signed 24 agreements to build dams. 'A lot of these are no more than an excuse to log,' said the expert.

No one knows how many trees have so far been removed from the plateau, as the corporation has published no figures and allows no civilian supervision of its activities.

Sources in Vietnam claim the company cut about 400,000 cubic metres of timber last year, roughly 10 times its previous limit, and a similar quota has been set this year.

In addition, environmentalists say logging is having a devastating impact on rare animal species known to inhabit the plateau, including tigers, clouded leopards and bears.

Visitors to the area have reported a growing traffic in animals across the nearby Vietnamese border, with locals exchanging rare specimens for plastic household goods.

With the 100-year-old cypress trees fetching as much as US$2,400 each, the corporation's profits are estimated to be enormous.