Logging baron Try Pheap’s MDS Import Export Co, Ltd has been granted a licence to collect and process the controversial plant known as yellow vine around the Stung Atay hydropower dam in the Cardamom Mountains, according to documents received by the Post yesterday.
The vine has been tenuously linked in the past to a tree found in the Cardamoms and known locally as mreas prov, which, when processed into what is known as safrol oil, can be used as a precursor in the production of illicit drugs such as ecstasy and MDMA.
Yellow vine oil is used traditionally as a medicine for digestive ailments, and although its link to illegal drug production is unproven, its harvesting can lead to the contamination of local water sources thanks to the use of strong acid during processing.
A March 1 letter, signed by Lo Rasmey, secretary-general of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and addressed to the Forestry Administration chief, approves MDS Import Export’s request to collect and process yellow vine.
It includes the caveat that the process “not affect the forest and the surrounding environment” and that the company pay tax and dividends to the government. A provincial representative at the company, who asked not to be named, said yesterday that he did not know how much MDS Import Export was paying for the yellow vine, although it did not matter because it was not buying trees from which safrol oil could be produced.
“We do not produce drug substances. And if we were illegal, the government would not issue the licence to us,” he said.
Rasmey declined to comment yesterday, saying he was in a meeting, while Forestry Administration chief Chheng Kim Sun could not be reached.
Por Try, a secretary of state at the Agriculture Ministry, declined to comment, citing a health problem.
The 2002 Forestry Law prohibits the establishment of “yellow vine or other forest by-products’ processing facilities that may cause significant pollution or destruction to the forest ecosystem.”
A five- to 10-year prison sentence and the revocation of “applicable agreements, licences or permits” are listed as the punishment for an offence.
An October 2005 letter from the agriculture ministry also requested for “all levels” of the forestry administration to take action on “stopping yellow vine production and especially Mreas Prov trees that provide Safrol substances for drug production”.
Marcus Hardtke, program coordinator for German conservation group ARA, said he knew of at least five yellow vine operations in the Cardamom Mountains.
He said that although the forestry law for a time stifled both safrol and yellow vine oil production, the issuing of permits for companies to harvest around hydro-projects has brought it back.
“Everything went downhill around 2008-09, because of these reservoir-clearing permits which provide a loophole for everything … Now it appears even for yellow vine facilities it is used as a loophole,” he said.
Hardtke added that he has sent samples of yellow vine to European labs to conclusively determine whether it can be used in illicit drug production – though he claims the answer might already be an “open secret”.
“What are the two most likely scenarios? It’s either ecstasy or methamphetamine. Nobody goes through these efforts without making a decent amount of money out of it.
“The export regulations also mention [Mreas Prov Phnom and yellow vine] in one sentence – it’s very much considered the same stuff.”
However, a 2006 diplomatic cable leaked by anti-secrecy organisation WikiLeaks that was sent from the US embassy in Phnom Penh to the State Department in Washington, cites the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in claiming that yellow vine cannot be used in drug production.
“According to UNODC, yellow vine contains berberine, an isoquinoline alkaloid used as a traditional medicine in east and southeast Asia for the treatment of stomach ailments. While its chemical structure is related to that of MDMA, experts say it is not feasible to synthesize MDMA from the substance,” the cable said, warning however, that its harvesting was “very environmentally damaging”.
Harvesting and processing yellow vine was clearly against the forestry law, Chhim Savuth, a senior investigator at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said, adding the company pays a mere 300-500 riel ($0.08 to $0.13) for a kilo of yellow vine that it buys from workers.
MDS Import Export has been harvesting yellow vine in Pursat province’s Veal Veng and Thma Bang districts since 1993, and already owns two yellow vine processing plants in Veal Veng, he said.
“The tycoon’s business is to plant rubber and pepper, but his main activity is buying luxury wood everywhere for export, and now he produces yellow oil as well.
“The licence totally violates the forest law and makes an illegal business become a legal one,” he said.
Try Pheap, who has extensive land concession holdings across a number of provinces, was also granted in February the right to purchase timber for export from every economic land concession in Ratanakkiri.
Outspoken environmental activist Chut Wutty, the late director of the Natural Resource Protection Group, was gunned down in the Cardamom Mountains on April 26 last year after he photographed stockpiles of yellow vine with two journalists.