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

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 illegal safrole oil production — the main ingredient in 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 conclusion of a two-part blog series; read Part 1 here.

The team enters the "jungle lab" camp.

As we wound our way through the fallen trees, something suddenly struck me as odd. The jungle lab workers had cut down all these trees, yet taken only a small amount of wood from each. Manak — the Forestry Administration manager for the Central Cardamoms Protected Forest — explained that the safrole oil is most concentrated in the tree’s roots and lower trunk. The rest of the wood is left to rot.

Manak climbed onto the trunk of a massive tree that had been cut down. We counted the rings and determined that the tree was close to a century old. Its trunk stretched for more than 150 feet across the ground, discarded as a by-product. It seemed so bizarre, so wasteful and so terribly harmful to the forest.

Safrole oil — a primary ingredient in the drug Ecstasy — is most concentrated in the tree’s roots and lower trunk. The rest of the wood is often left to rot.

We approached the giant metal pots that were used to distil the oil from the wood, counting six of them in a line. As we got closer, one of the rangers pulled out a homemade metal detector and began to sweep the ground along the paths. One of the rangers explained that sometimes the workers bury their equipment so that they can recover it later, once the rangers have gone. A few minutes later, the metal detector let out a beep. A small group of the rangers started to dig, using shovels left behind by the illegal drug team.

The smell of safrole oil was pungent — a heady, woody scent that became overwhelming when we reached the nearest pot. It was vast, weighing well over a ton. I asked how people had gotten it there, and was told that they took the metal into the forest one piece at a time. They actually welded the pot together on site, an incredibly laborious job.

Manak explained that those mainly behind this sort of operation rarely get involved in the field, other than to have one or two armed people on the team to ensure the jungle labs are properly set up and protected. Instead, they hire local villagers to do the hard work — cutting down the trees, shredding the wood, packing it into the pots, cutting and burning the firewood, squeezing out the safrole oil, and then storing it in large barrels. Villagers are paid just a few dollars a day to do this work, running the daily risk of being caught and arrested. Meanwhile, the people running the show behind the scenes generally enjoy large profits and low risks.

These local villagers know that the work is illegal, but they usually don’t know what the oil is used for. Nor do they know that the oil is highly carcinogenic and that prolonged exposure will significantly increase their risk of health problems later in life.

Clearly, this illegal activity is not only harmful to the environment, but also equally damaging to local communities. It undermines traditional or indigenous beliefs in forest protection, it sets up conflict between the local villagers and government rangers, and it exposes them to health risks.

Destroying one of the safrole oil stills.

Manak went on to explain that most of the workers are young men from the local villages who do the work to earn money, even though their families disapprove as they know it damages the forest that provides them livelihoods, fresh water and other benefits. It’s a bitter irony that this drug causes family rifts at both ends of the supply chain — both here at the production end and between drug users and their families in the United States and Europe.

While we were talking, the rangers had set up a chain-and-pulley system that they hoisted above the first pot. They then used a blow-torch to cut a hole into the side of the first pot, hooked a chain onto the hole and used the pulley to heave the pot over onto its side, letting the contents spill out onto the ground. A deluge of oil poured from the pot, soaking into the dry earth. Over the next four hours, they proceeded to cut the pot into about a dozen large hunks of metal.

The other ranger team called to us; we went to see what they had dug up. They had found chainsaws, chains and a wood shredder that the people running the jungle lab had hidden. I was amazed that the workers had been stealthy enough to bury the equipment, and extremely impressed that the rangers had found it!

As we stood chatting, we heard a chorus of cicadas starting up in the forest. As these insects start to call towards dusk, we were reminded that we needed to get back to the helicopter soon — it’s not safe to fly in the mountains after dark. The rangers would remain in the area for another week at least, to cut the remaining pots into manageable pieces and carry them out of the forest along with the equipment they had dug up.

We walked back to the helicopter just as it started to rain — the first rains of the year. We took off and circled the site one last time before flying back over the mountains to Phnom Penh. That evening after returning home, my melancholy thoughts turned to horror when I noticed a large patch of blood on my trousers. A leech had apparently made the most of my brief visit to the forest.

It had been a very intense day, one that had highlighted very clearly for me just how vulnerable these forests and villages are to exploitation. It reinforced the need for us to support these communities as they develop alternative forms of income that allow them to protect the natural heritage upon which their culture — and their future — relies.

David Emmett is the regional director of CI’s Greater Mekong program. This is the conclusion of a two-part blog series; read Part 1 here.


  1. Agustin Antunez says

    In 3rd world countries, as the producers side, an absence of good job oportunities and money are the trigger of this activities, the challenge is to find alternate ways to give good and healthy living for the people that get inolved in such ways of working, and by the consumer countries side is to take advise about the ecology damage and to stop buying that products. Nothing easy I think.

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