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Harvested to make Ecstasy, Cambodia's trees are felled one by one

International drug trade drives illicit safrole-oil factories deep in the Cardamom mountains.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The pulse of dance-club music plays like a jungle beat, as thumping bass notes flirt with flashing lights, liquor and ecstasy of the pharmaceutical kind.

Miles and miles away, a little-known multi-billion dollar battle is playing out in the remote wilderness of Cambodia, linking the club scene to the jungle in a more nefarious way.

Clandestine factories deep in the Cardamom Mountains of western Cambodia are producing safrole oil — also known as sassafras oil — the main ingredient in the party drug Ecstasy.

The recreational drug produces a euphoria its users say is so good even yawning is unparalleled while under its influence. But this euphoria is not without its downside — and not just the toll it takes on the brain, which at least one animal study shows can still be detected seven years from the time of use.

There is a growing, and perhaps just as deadly, price being paid by the local environment. Trees containing the viscous, fragrant, safrole oil are felled during the manufacturing process. Their oil-rich roots are mechanically shredded and boiled in large cauldrons. The resulting mixture is then distilled over fires that require enormous quantities of firewood to fuel them. Safrole oil manufacturing is a big business, and as a result, severe deforestation and erosion scar the mountainous areas around the factories. The ramshackle, jury-rigged distilleries are perilous at best, and explosions are not unknown. Nearby streams that provide water for processing are soon fouled by factory waste, their delicate ecosystems poisoned. Even the oil itself is carcinogenic.

Though small-scale production of safrole oil for traditional remedies has been going on for centuries in Cambodia, the industrial production of oil destined for the narcotics trade has been ebbing and flowing since the late 1990s. In recent years, authorities have taken action against the safrole industry with some recent high-profile raids highlighting the issue.

A June 12, 2009 raid, led jointly by conservation NGO Fauna and Flora International and the Cambodian authorities, netted 142 barrels containing 5.7 tons of sassafras oil. Seized from a secluded house in the isolated village of O’ Kambou in the western Cardamom mountains, the haul could have produced 44 million tablets of Ecstasy with a total street value of $1.2 billion.

Most safrole oil distilleries are found in the Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary, which is located in the Cardamoms and is where the majority of oil-bearing trees remain, according to FFI.