Although the tropical rainforest covers only seven percent of the earth's land mass, it is believed to be the home for over half of earth's life forms. This vast biological diversity is amazingly reliant on one another. It's physical importance are intertwined with, but not limited to such vital ecological services as flood amelioration and soil conservation. Recent excessive flooding in areas of Central America and other surrounding rainforested areas help support this fact. Additionally, the rainforest plays a key role in our climate around the globe, carefully maintaining a balance between the oxygen and carbon dioxide cycle. Many scientists believe that we are only beginning to see some of the physical ramifications of deforestation, and almost all agree action must be taken quickly before it is too late.
Culturally, the rainforest is home to many thousands of native, indigenous tribes. Or at least it had been. Many of these tribes have had to either leave their lands and consolidate themselves with other tribes, or have been forced to live with the changes imposed by governments or large companies. It typically begins with gas lines and electricity being introduced to the area. At worst, entire lands are being logged and cleared or deforested, leaving the area a barren wasteland. These indigenous peoples having lived off the land and having experimented with many local plants hold clues to possible treatments and cures for a variety of ailments and diseases. Unfortunately, the poverty/illiteracy of these people play a key role in their inability to control their destinies. These people in an effort to clothe and feed their families are forced to hand over their lands. One major result of this loss is that indigenous knowledge about tropical plants is declining. The oral tradition of tribes are being broken down so that only a few, if any, in a tribe know the medicinal values of various plant species.
If you were to randomly choose any pharmaceutical drug in the Western World, there would be a twenty-five percent chance that the active ingrediant in that drug would have the chemical properties of some tropical plant. The majority of our knowledge of the usefulness of these plants for medicinal purposes comes from many years of crude experiments performed by indigenous peoples. However, this knowledge, along with the plants themselves are in great jeopardy. Recent evidence suggests that less than one percent of all plant species have been studied to indicate their biomedical potential. This potential might prove promising were it not for the rapid plant species loss due to deforestation of the rainforest, the decline of indigenous knowledge, and the reluctance on the part of pharmaceutical companies to conduct ethnobotanical research, rather than chemical synthesis of current drugs.
Ethnobotany as a formal science, has relatively new roots. However, indigenous peoples have always relied on the properties of plants for food, clothing, traditional medicine and even as "recreation" as in the case of opium.
It is only recently (the last forty years or so), that scientists are actively seeking to gain the knowledge of these tropical plants in an effort to find new chemical compounds which may treat or cure illnesses. One leading ethnobotanist, Michael J. Balick wrote "Who knows, maybe the cure for HIV lies in some remote plant". Many ethnobotanists agree that the most productive period of medicinal plant research lies ahead. They all agree that the methods and materials are for the most part still currently available to us, but for how much longer the materials will be available will depend on actions we take now.
It was only forty years ago that the first tropical plant became extinct (to our knowledge, of course). Since that time, scientists now speculate that upwards of twenty-thousand species are now extinct. The most common cause of species loss is due to deforestation. Currently, 1.2 percent of the tropical rainforest is either cleared or logged annually. There are many factors which have led to the rapid destruction of the rainforest. Weak governmental policies, an increase in trade liberalization, industrial logging and human population pressures name a few of the leading causes.
Historically, pharmaceutical companies are not oriented towards natural plant research. Rather, they most commonly place their efforts in their labs, conducting chemical synthesis research. Most of the research is conducted by chemists who have very little background knowledge of plants. One of the primary reasons chemists do not conduct natural plant research is in the difficulty attached to obtaining funding for such research. Secondly, even if funding can be secured, the financial term requirements set forth by the Federal Drug Administration are so great that most companies project losing money.
There is a recent "push" for ethnobotanical research. There are a sprinkling of pharmaceutical companies (Shaman Pharmaceutical, Merck, to name a few), that are beginning to realize the biomedical potential of tropical plants and are willing to conduct research which allows for the preservation of these plants. They are working collaboratively with academic institutions to screen these plants for their potential. One of the major difficulties in natural plant screening of the rainforest is that scientists from many fields need to work together. Chemists, along with ecologists, botanists, and taxonomists must all work together with native shamans "medicine men" in order to obtain the knowledge of these plants. Along these same lines, pharmaceutical companies must be willing to work with governments, biotechnology companies and academic institutions in order to work efficiently at obtaining and incorporating knowledge learned to pharmaceuticals. Additionally, the local tribes must economically benefit from this collaboration.
In summary, one ethnobotanist wrote, "In our determination to prove that we can reduce our reliance on nature by developing artificial replacements for natural substances, we have subsequently reduced the economic value of the forest". As I mentioned earlier, the methods and materials are still available to us. Given appropriate research, there are ways in which we can utilize these plants, while in turn respecting indigenous knowledge and providing a steady income to forest inhabitants over a long period of time and without any damage to this vital ecosystem.
Plotkin, Mark J., Tales of A Shaman's Apprentice. Penguin Publishing Co.: New York, USA, 1993.
Davis, Wade, One River. Simon and Schuster Publishing Co.: New York, USA, 1996.
Balick, Michael J., Medicinal Resources of the Tropical Rainforest: Biodiversity and It's Importance to Human Health. Columbia University Press: New York, USA, 1996.
Balick, Michael J., and Cox, Paul Alan, Plants, People, and Culture: The Science of Ethnobotany. Scientific American Library: New York, USA, 1997.
The Value of Biodiversity: Where Ecology and Economy Blend, Peter J. Edwards and Cyrus Abivardi, Biological Conservation Vol. 83 (1998)239-246.
Reflections of the Tropical Deforestation Crisis, William F. Lawrence, Biological Conservation Vol. 91 (1999) 109-117
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