Thursday, March 12, 2009

Are Ravers Killing An Incredibly Rare Tree In Cambodia?

Photo: Monogrammed ecstasy pills seized from a lab in Indonesia (Microgram Bulletin)

Ecstasy has been called the “love drug”. While you are high you are possessed of euphoria unlike any other drug. Fear and anxiety are lessened; while feelings of intimacy are increased. As one anonymous raver said, “When you’re on X, you love the whole world.”

Meanwhile, in the Cambodian rainforest the increasingly rare Mreah Prew Phnom tree (Cinnamomum parathenoxylon) is being cut down by poachers for the type of oil it produces. This rare tree is found in Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary. This is one of the last wilderness reserves left on mainland Southeast Asia.

The Cambodian Ministry of Environment and conservationists have shut down several distilleries producing an oil found in cosmetics and MDMA (ecstasy) – most of which is exported to North and South America.

"The factories had been set up to distill 'sassafras oil'; produced by boiling the roots and the trunk of the exceptionally rare Mreah Prew Phnom trees and exported to neighbouring countries," such as Thailand, Vietnam, USA and China, reports Fauna & Flora International (FFI), the conservation group involved in the recent raids.

Most people are unaware the toll the life cycle of sassafras oil production is taking on the environment.

How does this rare tree become the ‘love drug’?

- the chopped up roots are shredded to a fibrous consistency
- this is cooked in a large metal vat over a wood fire for at least five days (this requires firewood from surrounding trees)
- Safrole, a colourless to slightly yellow oil, is the result and is the beginning of the manufacture of ecstasy (MDMA - methylenedioxymethamphetamine)

David Bradfield, advisor to the Wildlife Sanctuaries Project of FFI says, “Sassafras oil processing plants are usually located besides streams to provide water for boiling and cooling the distilled oil

These fly-by-night operations often leak oil into the streams harming local animal and plant life. "There are frequently dead fish and frogs floating in the streams near these distilleries," Bradfield adds.

The contaminated water from this area ultimately flows through the rest of Cambodia contaminating the drinking water of millions through the Mekong and Tonle Sap river systems.

The workers in these fly-by-night operations have to eat; so, they rely on poaching – often taking rare animals such as tigers, pangolins, peacocks, pythons and wild cats. What they don’t eat, they sell for extra income on the illegal wildlife black markets. All this poaching endangers the livelihood of the estimated 12,000 – 15,000 hunter-gatherers who legitimately live and hunt in the wildlife sanctuary.

The purity of the Cambodian sassafras oil makes it highly sought after even though the production of it was made illegal in 2004 in an attempt to preserve the Mreah Prew Phnom tree. Since this highly lucrative trade is worth millions of dollars, it will be difficult to eradicate.

Bradfield warns: "The production of sassafras oil over the last 10 years has severely depleted these trees and if the illicit production isn't stamped out soon, they could become extinct in the near future.”

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