Larry Jagan, Foreign Correspondent
One of the sassafras oil distilling factories in the jungles of Cambodia. Courtesy of Fauna & Flora International
PHNOM PENH // The illegal drugs trade is causing significant environmental damage to parts of Cambodia, according to an international aid agency.
In south-west Cambodia the production of sassafras oil, which is used when making the recreational drug ecstasy, is destroying trees, the local inhabitants’ livelihoods and wreaking untold ecological damage, according to David Bradfield, an adviser to the Wildlife Sanctuaries Project of Fauna and Flora International, who is based in the area.
The sassafras oil comes from the Cardamom Mountain area, one of the last forest wildernesses in mainland South East Asia.
“The illicit distilling of sassafras oil in these mountains is slowly but surely killing the forests and wildlife,” Mr Bradfield said. “The production of sassafras oil is a huge operation, which affects not only the area where the distilleries are actually located, but ripples outward, leaving devastation and destruction in its wake.”
The livelihoods of more than 15,000 people who depend on hunting and gathering to survive in the wildlife sanctuary are at risk from the sassafras production operations, which pollute water and kill wildlife.
Cambodian sassafras oil is highly sought as it is of the highest quality – more than 90 per cent pure, according to the head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Cambodia, Lars Pedersen. It is a major precursor drug used in the production of ecstasy.
“Massive amounts of sassafras oil are smuggled every year into Vietnam and Thailand from Cambodia,” he said.
Sassafras Oil is made from the roots of the rare Mreah Prew Phnom tree – also known as Cinnamomum parathenoxylon. The roots are first chopped into small blocks of wood and shredded into fibre consistency. This is then put into large metal vats two metres high and about three metres wide. It is distilled over a wood-driven fire for at least five days before the gas is cooled and the oil created.
Apart from depleting the Mreah Prew Phnom, large numbers of surrounding trees are felled to maintain the fires, undermining the area’s biodiversity. At the current rate, Mr Bradfield said, the Mreah Prew Phnom and other species would become extinct in the near future.
Animal life is also threatened. Deep in the jungle, the factories, which have two or three distilling pots each, are heavily guarded and require dozens workers to maintain the stills. These workers live on the surrounding wildlife in the area, with many involved in the commercial poaching of such rare animals as tigers, pangolins, peacocks, pythons, wild cats and wild fowls.
Streams and rivers are being polluted too by the effluent from the oil production. “There are frequently dead fish and frogs floating in the streams near these distilleries,” Mr Bradfield said.
The contaminated water from this area flows down into the rest of Cambodia through the Mekong and Ton Le Sap rivers and, said Mr Bradfield, poses a threat to populations downstream who rely on the rivers for drinking water. “Water tests in the area need to be carried out as a matter of urgency,” he said.
Four years ago the Cambodian government made the production of sassafras oil illegal in an effort to protect the Mreah Prew Phnom tree. Since then the authorities have tried to eliminate the illicit production factories in the Cardamom Mountains with the help of international organisations.
“Law enforcement is the key to suppressing the illegal trade in sassafras oil,” said Mr Pedersen, the Cambodia UNODC chief. “It’s a very lucrative trade, worth millions and millions of dollars.”
About 50 rangers from the forestry ministry, with the support of independent conservation groups and the UN, are currently policing the area; Mr Bradfield refers to them as “the foot soldiers protecting the forests”.
The rangers spend half the month patrolling the dense, leech-infested jungle of the Cardamom Mountains for a meagre salary, Mr Bradfield said, and face the threat of the machine-gun-carrying mercenaries who guard the factories. Many of the factories are also surrounded by anti-personnel mines.
Flora and Fauna International has supported the rangers for years, providing them with uniforms, equipment and training. They assist in building ranger stations and provide technical advice. The UN Development Fund also supported the project between 2004 and 2006.
The rangers’ task is made all the more difficult because of the potential profits smugglers can make from the trade and the lengths they will go to protect their product.
A year ago the Thai authorities seized more than 50 tonnes of sassafras oil near the Cambodian border on its way to China and the US, according to western anti-narcotics agents who declined to be identified, reported to be worth US$150,000 (Dh550,000).
Had it found its destination, where it would have been used to make ecstasy – it would have produced 7.5 million tablets worth more than $150 million, a western anti-narcotics agent said.