Ecstasy Production in Cambodia’s Tropical Forests

Deep in the Cardamom Mountains and Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary in western Cambodia clandestine factories are distilling safrole oil to be used for the production of ecstasy. As a result there is a growing price being paid by the local environment. Trees containing the viscous, fragrant, safrole oil are cut down 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, ad-hoc 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 Flora and Fauna International and the Cambodian authorities, captured 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 [3].

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