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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.

FFI and the Cambodian authorities have an ongoing cooperation. They began putting pressure on the industry in 2004, although a December 2008 investigation showed that production had again surged. Aerial flyovers around that time revealed 16 factories in operation. Subsequent raids have now reduced that number to four, said FFI Wildlife Sanctuary Technical Advisor Tim Wood. At the height of the industry in 2006, he added, there were at least 75 distilleries in the area.

In June 2008, 1,278 barrels of sassafras oil were destroyed in Pursat province by Australian police, environmental NGOs and Cambodian authorities. Tim Morris, Australian federal police assistant commissioner, said the haul would have produced an estimated 245 million Ecstasy tablets with a street value of $7.6 billion.

The western Cardamoms are part of southeast Asia’s largest mainland contiguous rainforest and serve as the last refuge for more than 80 of the world's most threatened species, including Asian elephant, Indochinese tiger and Siamese crocodile, according to FFI. Safrole oil, which is also used in the production of cosmetics and in the traditional Khmer remedies, is produced from the aromatic oil of a tree known in Khmer as Mreah prew phnom, which experts think is Cinnamomum parthenoxylon. The species is generally considered rare, and in Vietnam, it is classified as critically endangered. It has no common name in English and no one knows how many of the trees are left in the world.

Four Mreah prew phnom trees are needed to produce a single, 40-gallon barrel of safrole oil. An additional six trees of lesser value are felled to use as firewood in the processing of a single Mreah prew phnom tree.

Secrecy and geography conspire to keep the illicit safrole-oil trade under wraps. Oil is lugged out by human mules, often over many miles of punishing jungle terrain, to roads where it is smuggled through to Thailand or Vietnam. One factory worker, who requested anonymity, called the back-breaking work “so hard we wanted to die.”

Poverty-stricken recruits are paid $25 per month plus cigarettes, the worker said, and often have no idea of the oil’s true value or purpose. Once out of Cambodia, high-tech laboratories purify the sassafras oil and produce tablets of Ecstasy.

FFI’s Tim Wood says the business is run by highly organized trans-national crime syndicates. The same shadowy syndicates are thought to be involved in human and wildlife trafficking, drug smuggling and the illegal weapons trade.