By Marianne Alfsen and Harald Eraker
The deforestation in Vietnam is more comprehensive than in other countries in the region. According to Worldwide Fund for Nature's program office for Indochina in Hanoi, Vietnam is among the hardest hit countries in the world in terms of deforestation. Whereas 70 percent of the country was forested in 1950, the present figure is a mere 20 percent.
This has made the authorities implement drastic measures. Timber export was banned as early as 1992, according to the newspaper the Vietnam Courier, while the authorities in April 1997 stopped completely exploitation of all forests and banned all export of wood products.
The Norwegian Arve Varleite has four furniture factories in Vietnam, one of which (Scanviwood) is manufacturing wooden furniture. He has now been forced to reorganize his production at Scanviwood in Saigon.
Up to April 1997 Scanviwood manufactured furniture exclusively made of tropical wood from Vietnam. Today the company utilizes pine from New Zealand and Norway, rubber plants from plantations, and tropical wood from Malaysia and Indonesia.
Had to close
In an interview with the Vietnam Courier in October 1997, Scanviwood's marketing manager Lam Ngoc Diep claims that the company had to lay off 400 of its 600 employees, and had a stock of over 35,000 units that it had not been able to export. Varleite says this is not correct.
- We had to close the factory for six weeks when the ban came into force in April last year. Those who could prove that they had obtained the materials in a lawful manner, were allowed to export their stocks of raw materials and products in the course of a three month period. It is thus not correct that we still have a large stock. But as of October last year there was a total ban. And then Vietnamese wood could not be utilized. However, this is no problem for us, because we have the resources to import the raw materials we need. All our employees are now back to work, Varleite tells NorWatch.
"It's not the furniture industry that destroys the rain forest, on the contrary we help save it."
Arve Varleite, owner of Scanviwood in Vietnam
Varleite underlines that the new, strict rules do not represent a problem for Scanviwood.
- In fact, this has worked to our advantage, seen from a cynical point of view. Half of our competitors have been closed down because they utilized unlawfully purchased timber. They bought cheaper raw materials, and were able to produce cheaper products, Varleite points out.
Varleite agrees that drastic measures were necessary in order to save the scant forest resources in Vietnam, but claims that the authorities are going about it the wrong way.
- The problem in Vietnam is that the authorities have lost control. We have always bought timber in a lawful manner, but there was anarchy here. Even the national parks were logged. But the problem has not been solved with the export ban. The locals still use the forest, and theft and smuggling flourish. The authorities started in the wrong end. If they are to control the exploitation of the forest they have to close the sawmills and the roads leading to the forest - not the last stage, the manufacturing stage. That's what they did in Thailand, says Varleite.
Protecting the forest
Varleite does not see the furniture industry as a threat to the rain forest in spite of Vietnamese authorities' drastic steps to protect the forest.
- I still think that furniture is good for the rain forest. In Vietnam the furniture industry represented only 1-2% of the exploited timber. In 20 years people will write books about what I'm saying now, says Varleite, and continues:
- I think that what the environmental organizations in Norway are doing is scary. They attack an industry that can contribute to the protection of the forest. It's not the furniture industry that destroys the rain forest, on the contrary we help save it. Furniture manufacturing is very labor intensive and utilizes small amounts of raw materials, but the products have great value. Somebody has to show people that the forest is valuable, or else it will be burned or cut down in order to clear land for plantations. I said this a month before the events in Indonesia last year, Varleite points out.
The Norwegian furniture manufacturer is convinced that Vietnamese authorities eventually will allow the utilization of Vietnamese timber for furniture manufacture.
According to Varleite the authorities have already eased a little on the restrictions. This year the timber industry has been allowed to apply for a quota of 80,000 cubic meters of Vietnamese timber. Scanviwood, however, will not apply for a part of the quota, as its needs for raw materials are covered by import.
Scansia in Vietnam
Scanviwood, located in Saigon, manufactures wood furniture. The company is a joint venture owned 60% by Scansia Sdn Bhd in Malaysia and 40% by a Vietnamese partner. Scansia Sdn Bhd is owned 70% by the Norwegian Arve Varleite, and has, in addition to Scanviwood, three other furniture factories in Vietnam.
Norwatch Newsletter 1/98