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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.

Experts say Vietnamese criminals moved their operations to Cambodia over the past decade after ravaging Vietnam’s forests, essentially clearing them of Mreah prew phnom trees. Cambodian authorities have identified a well-connected ethnic Vietnamese kingpin at work in Cambodia, but so far he has eluded arrest, according to FFI.

Teams of local rangers have closed dozens of safrole oil factories. Chap Siet is one such ranger, who has worked in the Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary for the last 10 years. He says he thinks about future generations and feels compelled to protect Cambodia's natural resources.

"Currently these natural resources are threatened by people who have power. These powerful people collude with offenders to destroy natural resources through wildlife poaching, illegal logging, land grabbing, and Mreah prew phnom oil production within the protected areas," he said.

Chap Siet said he faces many difficulties patroling the forests.

"We often patrol in heavy rain and we suffer from many diseases such as malaria and typhoid. There is a shortage of patrol equipment and we need more rangers," he said.

In a post-conflict country showing the scars of war, taking on the safrole mafia is certainly not for the faint of heart.

“Sassafras processing plants are frequently guarded by armed men and even booby-trapped with antipersonnel mines,” said David Bradfield, manager of the Cardamom Mountains Wildlife Sanctuary Project, which is overseen by FFI.

In March, a wildlife sanctuary ranger was killed. At that time, Environment Minister Mok Mareth pledged the government's dedication to preserving natural resources, though the high demand for the illicit substance continues to drive the market. According to the 2009 U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime World Drug Report, somewhere between 72 and 137 metric tons of Ecstasy were produced globally in 2007, the most recent year from which they have compiled data. It's hard to say how much of that was produced in Southeast Asia, let alone Cambodia, but the UNODC does say that the stabilization of production in developed countries, like the U.S., has led to a spike in production in developing countries, many of which can be found in Southeast Asia. Some of the world's largest clandestine factories were found and dismantled in that region, they reported.

"This development is of concern as it relates to the potential for future growth, given that many of these countries are emerging economies with growing middle-classes that may represent lucrative new markets for ‘ecstasy,’" a UNODC report said.

UNODC also estimates that between 11 and 23.5 million people worldwide used Ecstasy at least once in 2007.  Of that number, between 2.3 and 6 million were in East and Southeast Asia.