The production of sassafras oil, which is used to make the recreational drug ecstasy, in southwest Cambodia, is destroying trees, the livelihoods of local inhabitants and wreaking untold ecological damage, according to David Bradfield, adviser to the Wildlife Sanctuaries Project of Fauna and Flora International (FFI).
The sassafras oil comes from the Cardamom Mountain area, one of the last forest wildernesses in mainland southeast Asia, and where the FFI project is based.
"The illicit distilling of sassafras oil in these mountains is slowly but surely killing the forests and wildlife," Bradfield told IRIN. "The production of sassafras oil is a huge operation, which affects not only the area where the distilleries are actually located, but ripples outwards, leaving devastation and destruction in its wake."
The livelihoods of 12,000-15,000 people who depend on hunting and gathering to survive in the wildlife sanctuary are at risk from the sassafras production operations.
Cambodian sassafras oil is highly sought after as it is of the highest quality - over 90 percent pure, according to the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Cambodia, Lars Pedersen. "Massive amounts of sassafras oil are smuggled every year into Vietnam and Thailand from Cambodia," he said.
What is sassafras oil?
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 a fibrous consistency. This is then typically put into large metal vats and distilled over hot wood fires for at least five days in the oil distillation process.
"[The Mreah Prew Phnom] is a very rare tree that is now beginning to disappear because of the illegal distilleries in the Cardamom Mountains," Bradfield said.
Photo: Fauna and Flora International
A seized distillery at Mreah Prew. The wood used to make sassafras is extremely rare and becoming extinct
"The production of sassafras oil over the last 10 years has severely depleted these trees and if the illicit production isn't stamped out soon, they could become extinct in the near future," he warned. The large vats also need substantial wood to maintain the fires, so other species of trees surrounding the distilling factory are being depleted.
Deep in the jungle, the factories are heavily guarded and the workers who distill the oil live on wildlife in the area; many are involved in poaching for commercial gain. Rare animals, including tigers, pangolins, peacocks, pythons and wild cats are consumed by the distillers or sold in illegal wildlife markets, according to FFI.
"Sassafras oil processing plants are usually located besides streams to provide water for boiling and cooling the distilled oil," Bradfield said. The oil leaks into the streams, wreaking yet more environmental damage. "There are frequently dead fish and frogs floating in the streams near these distilleries," Bradfield said. The water from this area flows down into the rest of Cambodia through the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers.
"Water tests in the area need to be carried out as a matter of urgency," he suggested. So far no tests have been carried out on the affect this water has had on villagers living downstream from the distilleries. "But it's certainly killing the fauna and flora in the vicinity of the factories," he said, having seen the damage himself.
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 in the Cardamom Mountains with the help of international organisations, including FFI, the UN Development Programme, Wildlife Alliance and Conservation International.
"Law enforcement is the key to suppressing the illegal trade in sassafras oil," according to the officer in charge of UNODC in Cambodia, Lars Pedersen. "It's a very lucrative trade," he added, "worth millions and millions of dollars."
These rangers are the foot soldiers protecting the forests. They operate in thick, leech-infested jungle, risking their lives every day for a paltry salary.
Some 50 rangers from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry are currently policing the area with the support of independent conservation groups and the UNDP. "These rangers are the foot soldiers protecting the forests," said FFI's David Bradfield. "They are the heroes of the protection effort... They operate in thick, leech-infested jungle, risking their lives every day for a paltry salary," he said.
FFI has supported the operations of these rangers since 2003. They provide their uniforms, equipment and training. They help build their ranger stations and continue to give technical advice. The UNDP also supported the project between 2004 and 2006.
The rangers face stiff challenges in putting an end to the illegal trade given the large profits smugglers can make, and the relatively small number of rangers assigned to the task.
Last November the Thai authorities seized more than 50 tonnes of sassafras oil near the Cambodian border on its way to China and the USA, according to Western anti-narcotics agents who declined to be identified. They said the single seizure was reported to be worth US$500,000, a significant amount of money in rural Cambodia.
Once in China and the USA, where it could be used to make the synthetic drug, it could have produced 7.5 million tablets worth around US$150 million, according to Western anti-narcotics agents.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions