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Drugs and devastation: The environmental impact of Cambodia's drug trade

By: Bronwyn Sloan Posted: January-01-2006 in
Bronwyn Sloan

Users may think ecstasy is a drug of peace and love, but every tablet they take plays a part in destroying Cambodia's pristine Cardamom mountains and puts the lives of those fighting for the environment at risk, reports Bronwyn Sloan..

It's a very real war - a group of around 50 armed soldiers, military police and forestry officials have trekked nearly 70 kilometers into the jungle of the Cardamom Mountains on foot, and they know they are close to their target. There's a sweet scent in the air, mingled with the acrid smell of smoke. Police General Han Vuthear signals for his group of men to take one flank, and the group begins to encircle the illegal factory manufacturing oil that would have been used to make hundreds of thousands of tablets of the drug ecstasy.

They have done their homework, and aerial surveillance has already indicated this is a big operation - one of around 75 that once dotted the wilderness before the government began a concerted crackdown a few years ago.

" It is hard work, and dangerous. The rainforest is too thick to get through any other way except by walking, and these camps are set very far into the jungle and well protected. It is big business," General Han says.

There's a sudden rapid exchange of gunfire, the government troops pounce and it is all over. The smugglers and distillers are taken away in handcuffs, and a quick search reveals 30,000 kilos of oil from the rare Mreah Prew Phnom tree. Also known as Cinnamomum parthenoxylon it is a tree for which there is no English name and it is rated as 'Data Deficient' by the International Union for Conservation of Nature on its Red List of Threatened Species.

But the ecological damage done by this one factory does not stop with the dozens of Mreah Prew Phnom that have been destroyed to make sassafras oil - a key ingredient in ecstasy. The scene around the camp is exactly like that found in a war zone.

" Sassafras oil processing plants are typically located beside streams to provide water for boiling," environmental group Flora and Fauna International (FFI) reported recently.

" These streams become highly polluted by factory waste. Mreah Prew Phnom trees are cut down and the roots are then mechanically shredded and boiled in a cauldron over a wood-fire oven."

" Many more trees in the area are felled to provide fuel for the fire. The distillation process takes about five days for every tree."

The result is an environmental disaster that threatens one of the most beautiful and precious wilderness areas remaining not only in Cambodia but also in the region.

" It isn't only the fact that the ingredients for an illegal substance are being produced in our country that makes us so concerned," says National Authority on Drugs and Crime secretary-general Lou Ramin.

" The manufacture of this particular ingredient is incredibly destructive to the environment. They not only cut the tree to make the drug, but all the trees around, and then they dump the chemicals in the water which kills everything further downstream too."

The US Drug Enforcement Agency agrees. " One of the most often overlooked and ignored aspect of the illegal drug trade is the cost of drug production on the environment," it said in a 2006 report.

" Rain forests cover only six percent of the earth's surface, yet they account for more than 50 percent of the earth's plant species. Burning of rain forests for illegal drug farmland releases greenhouse gases. The increase in these emissions is being studied as a possible contributor to global climate change," the report concludes.

Not only that, but as the smugglers trek their way out of the forest, they open up new routes which are often then used, either in tandem or by new groups, to traffic wildlife out of once untouched areas, often the last refuges for rare species, the report said. It is unusual that a year goes by without at least one discovery of a new plant or animal species, or one that was previously thought extinct in the ecologically vital Cardamom Mountains.

" Who cut down the forest, wiped out the fragile wildlife, depleted the soil and left behind a chemically poisoned scar that had once been rainforest? It's a tragic story of greed and dependency. But the culprit here isn't a rapacious corporation. It's our demand for illegal drugs," wrote John P. Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, in an angry article for the Seattle-Post Intelligencer in 2002.

" We know that illegal drugs do a great deal of harm - to our bodies, our minds and our communities. But there's another harm associated with illegal drugs that more and more (of us) are beginning to understand: The billions of dollars (spent) on drugs each year are taking a horrific toll on some of the most fragile and diverse ecosystems on the planet," Walters states.

" It is time we look at the real, far-reaching consequences of our drug use and the damage we are doing to ourselves and to our world." FFI, which funds 49 rangers to help tackle the problem in the Cardamoms and is represented in the government raids, has studied the people involved in the illegal trade. They have found that the traders may find potential extra earnings from wildlife trafficking very attractive, given their extremely poor circumstances.

" (Sassafras) oil is carried out by hand, often over many kilometers of jungle terrain, to roads from which it is smuggled out of Cambodia to Thailand or Vietnam. The workers are paid around US$25 per month plus cigarettes," FFI said in a press release.

The press release was put out shortly after the highly publicized burning of 33 tonnes of sassafras oil netted in Cardamom mountain raids.

Tim Morris, Australian Federal Police Assistant Commissioner for Border and International, said that the oil " would have produced, by our calculations, 245 million ecstasy tablets," with an estimated street value of $7 billion. The costs of environmental destruction for humanity could be devastating. The United Nations Chronicle noted as early as 1998 that rainforests had still not been fully tapped as a potential source of future medicines.

At that point, it was the Amazonian rainforest which was being decimated for coca cultivation to feed America's growing hunger for cocaine - Cambodia's sassafras oil production didn't begin in earnest until 2004, according to FFI, and reached a peak in 2006.

" The destruction of the Amazonian rainforest contributes to the loss of rare plant species from which future pharmaceutical drugs and other beneficial substances may be developed," the UN noted. " One in six prescription drugs has a tropical plant source as an active chemical."

But there are more dire and immediate consequences. " The Cardamom Mountains cover over 2 million hectares of forest, one of the largest remaining blocks of evergreen forest in Southeast Asia. Destruction of the Cardamom Mountains forests would release 1.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide," FFI estimated. That would be a terrible blow in the global fight against climate change.

" The Cardamom Mountains are a global biodiversity hotspot, supporting a large number of endemic animals and plants and well over 60 globally threatened species ... 30,000 people live in and around the mountains, including several indigenous ethnic minorities," it added.

Sassafras oil is high in safole, which is extracted to make ecstasy. Safole is not rare - the popular aromatic ylang ylang and even black pepper contain traces of the chemical. But distilling it is difficult, and the Cinnamomum parthenoxylon of the Cardamoms contain levels of around 80% when boiled for a long period.

The toll on the plant can be seen from lessons learned in neighbouring Vietnam, where the plant was once common but is now listed as critically endangered by the government, according to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.

Police General Han is proud of his job and his men - he doesn't know exactly how many people have been jailed after his raids, but he does know the crackdown has made a very real difference. FFI believes all active distilleries have been shut down - for now.

" What they are doing is against the law, and by cracking down we have shown them that we will not tolerate it, so they are thinking twice," he says. " It's very hard out in the jungle, but we must protect people from drugs and our country's environment at the same time. Many tourists come here - we want them to see the forest as it should be."

FFI manager of the Cardamom Mountains Wildlife Sanctuary Project, David Bradfield, says the rangers deserve the greatest respect. The dangers they face are immeasurable,he says.

" The rangers and their trainers in Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary have shown great courage in tackling this crime," he said in a press release. " Sassafras processing plants are frequently guarded by armed men, and they are even booby-trapped with antipersonnel mines."

He is also proud of FFI's role in supporting the cash strapped Cambodian police and military in their mission, which will not only save lives by curbing drug use, but also potentially help save the planet.

" FFI's primary aim is to protect threatened species and habitats in a way that also supports the needs of local communities, and we will continue to strive for this in the future," he says.

For Police General Han, it's all in a day's work. He knows the trade is too lucrative for smugglers and distillers to give up on easily. His men will always be on call to raid the next furtive operation that will scar the rainforest and to capture the smugglers who risk their freedom for the elusive golden safrole oil that illegal drug manufacturers are willing pay anything to get their hands on.

" They will only stop while we are watching. As soon as we turn, they will be back," he says.


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