Ecstasy: No Party for Cambodia’s Forests (Part 1 of 2)

A patch of forest destroyed by distillers producing safrole oil for the illegal drug Ecstasy.

Earlier this month, David Emmett — regional director of CI’s Greater Mekong program —was joined by a film crew in the Cardamom Mountains to shoot an episode for the National Geographic series “Drugs, Inc.”, looking at the devastating environmental impacts of the illegal production of the drug Ecstasy. The episode won’t air until later this year, but in the meantime here’s an inside look at what they found. This is the first half of a two-part blog series; read the conclusion here.

Our helicopter flew low over the jungle, the noise stirring up clouds of hornbills that swirled across the valley before settling back into the canopy. For mile after mile across the Central Cardamom Mountains, the forest stretched unbroken in all directions. Suddenly up ahead, we saw the place we had come to find: the spot where illegal Ecstasy laboratories (“jungle labs”) were hidden deep in the forest. In this area, far from civilization, the forest lay flattened.

We landed in a field a few kilometers away, in an area crisscrossed with tracks from buffalo-drawn wooden carts that had been used to transport containers full of safrole oil — the base ingredient of Ecstasy — from the forest. Amid the roar of the engine, the camera team, my government counterpart and I gathered in the shade of the nearby forest and took stock of the situation. Out here, our wallets and mobile phones — our most valued possessions when in town — were useless, no more than dead weight in our pockets. Instead, our most treasured supplies were water, a GPS, a two-way radio, sun cream and leech repellent. We were ready.

A few days earlier, rangers from the Cambodian Forestry Administration (FA) had found evidence of illegal stills deep within the forest — large metal pots used to distil safrole oil from the wood of a rare tree species found in the hilly areas of southwest Cambodia. The oil is then smuggled out of the forest and sent overseas, typically via Thailand or Vietnam.

The helicopter pilot climbed into the back seat and put his feet up. I asked Manak, the FA manager for the Central Cardamoms Protected Forest, if the rangers would meet us here. “They will be here soon,” he said. “First, they had to go to the site to make sure it’s safe.”

We sat in the shade, flicking away ants and sweat bees crawling across our faces. Being the dry season, there was precious little water for many animals other than that which they could glean from us; fortunately, it also meant there were few leeches. When the monsoon winds arrive in April, they will drench the forests with over four meters [13 feet] of rain, and the ground will come alive with small leeches that wreak havoc on exposed skin.

Soon the rangers arrived, accompanied by military police packing old but functional AK-47s. There followed a quick interchange in Khmer. Manak explained, “It’s okay to proceed — they knew we were coming and ran away.” We climbed to our feet and followed the buffalo-cart trail as it wound into the forest. Under the dense canopy the air was cool and damp, alive with butterflies and birds. Tiny frogs hopped away from under our feet and squirrels leapt from tree to tree. To our left, a rare pileated gibbon (Hylobates pileatus) called to his mate.

We admired the beauty of the forest, walking in respectful silence as one would in a cathedral. It reminded me once again why we are working so hard to protect these incredible forests.

In addition to their spectacular scenery, the Central Cardamoms have tremendous economic value. They form the largest montane watershed in Cambodia, providing fresh water for people in three provinces. The forests contain vast carbon stocks that must be protected from deforestation to help reduce the impacts of climate change. Conservation of the watershed also supports Cambodia’s economy by ensuring a year-round flow of water to drive downstream hydroelectric dams. Deforestation on these steep slopes would lead to sediment-laden rivers that would shrink the dam reservoirs and reduce the profitability of the dams within a few decades.

With all of this knowledge in the back of my mind, it was something of a shock to emerge from the cool shade of pristine rainforest into a massive, humid jungle clearing where ancient trees lay hacked and strewn across the ground. We picked our way through vines and orchids that had once hung in the shade below the forest canopy but which now lay in a tangled mess on the ground, shriveling in the sun.

Up ahead, we saw a strange sight; lined up along the stream were several three meter-high [10-foot] metal pots standing over vast fireplaces. Enormous piles of shredded sassafras wood lay nearby, ready to be heated to extract its precious, harmful and illegal oil. Under a nearby hammock were stacks of snares, ready to be set in the forest to capture animals for food and the illegal wildlife trade.

We stood in silence; I realized that I could no longer hear the sounds of birds or gibbons. All this destruction just to produce a party drug that induces fleeting feelings of euphoria and contentment. In the moment, I felt neither.

“What now?” I asked Manak.

“Now we break the pots”, he said.

David Emmett is the regional director of CI’s Greater Mekong program. This is the first half of a two-part blog series; read the conclusion here.

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