Posted by: ecodestination | December 15, 2009

Devouring rainforests for the love drug

If you think popping ecstasy has no influence on the environment, let me prove you wrong.


The Cardamom Mountains of Cambodia are the largest pristine area of rainforest in Southeast Asia. They host about 100 endangered species of animals.

Poachers and illegal logging have recently been expanding in the region. As the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime used to roam it, people stayed away. But once the fighting stopped, new criminals moved in. New roads have also made the area more accessible.

“Ecstasy oil”

The prized ingredient is sassafras oil, which is extracted from the extremely rare Mreah Prew Phnom trees – which are several hundred years old – through a distillation process. The raw, pungent, golden oil is most profitable as the necessary, key ingredient used to manufacture the illegal recreational drug ecstasy, a.k.a. MDMA.

The sale of sassafras oil is illegal in Cambodia, so criminal networks set up secret factories and then smuggle the oil out of the country, usually to Thailand or Vietnam, so it can be turned into a chemical used to make ecstasy.

Additional problems for the ecosystem

The ecosystem must also deal with the logging of trees other than the Mreah Prew Phnom, as the distillation process requires huge quantities of fuel wood.

Tim Wood of Fauna and Flora International (FFI) and Cambodian rangers fly by helicopter to look for smoke and clearings – signs of secret factories– and later visit the sites by foot for days at a time.

The sites are built near streams because the distillation process requires water – and the toxic, carcinogenic by-products end up in the water. After the oil is extracted, the sites are abandoned.

Conservationists are worried that “empty forest syndrome” is taking over the Cardamom Mountains as poachers kill its wildlife for food during their “ecstasy oil” raids.

Set it on fire

Ironically, when sites are found, rangers destroy all equipment and set fire to it. This is considered a necessary evil to prevent the criminals from coming back to the site and reestablishing it once they return, if the site is found to be in use rather than abandoned.

What a mess.

“These factories are located close to streams and by-products from the distillation process causes significant pollution of the environment. In addition, the distillation process itself uses enormous quantities of fuel wood from other rainforest trees. Finally, the factory workers typically engage in poaching wildlife from the surrounding forests to supplement their basic diets,” according to FFI.

Watch a video about the phenomenon here.

Something to think about the next time you consider buying ecstasy, kids. Tell your friends.



  1. This weblog is being featured in Five Star Friday’s 84th edition –

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