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2002-2003 Essay Contest Standard Economics Second Place Essay

Rainforest Medicine, Hope for the Future

Amanda Brown
Tartan High School
Oakdale, Minnesota

What would the world be like without medicine? What would you do if there were no birth control pills, no way to rid one of motion sickness, no caffeine in your morning coffee, no morphine for intense pain, no antibiotics? This frightening thought, which many merely block out of their minds as something highly improbable, is exactly what the world would be like if there were no rainforests. The rainforests of the world are luscious areas rich in natural resources and medicinal properties. However, each year the size of the rainforests is decreased at a rate fast enough that it is possible there could be none left by the time the class of 2003 reaches retirement (3). The fact of the matter is that scientists have not even begun to discover all of the wonders of the rainforest, and may never realize them due to the destruction caused by large corporations, governments, squatters and settlers. Furthermore, the possible cures for the incurable diseases of our time could very well be found in the verdant depths of the tropical jungles, if we are able to reach them before their extinction.

When considering the issue of the rainforest and conservation, it is a much broader topic than simply halting the cutting down of trees. The truth that, when rainforest trees are cut down for loggers or for cattle ranches, there is less oxygen circulating in the world is merely one factor that affects all oxygen-breathing life on this planet. For example, the Amazonian Rainforest alone provides twenty percent of the earth's oxygen (3). Preservation of already existing knowledge is another very important point (6). The shamans and medicinal elders of native rainforest tribes have, for centuries, passed down secrets of the tropical plants modern civilization is just beginning to uncover. If these people are driven out of their habitat, centuries of knowledge is immediately lost, "as if a library has burned down" (3). Hope for future cures to fatal, incurable diseases, such as cancer or AIDS could be in the hands of these incredible medicine men, whom the 'white men' have been pushing from their homes, aiding in the extinction of their culture for years (1 and 2b). To bring the issue more into perspective consider this scenario. Your spouse has cancer, he/she may die, and there is nothing for treatment. As you sit at your mahogany desk fretting over the situation, ponder the idea that that very desk, at which you are sitting, comes from wood found only in the rainforest. Vegetative life from the cleared rainforest from which your desk came could have contained a possible cure for the very reason you find yourself now grieving. In reality, this situation affects more people than the 'tree huggers', is far more complex, and may be responsible for immense negative ramifications to the world if not properly dealt with.

The rainforest, however, is a beneficial thing in itself, and has shown widespread benefits, both private (to those indigenous peoples whom depend upon the forest for their very existence), and more broad "spillover" benefits to everyday people. First, it provides the planet with clean oxygen while 'eating up' carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas responsible in part for global warming, a problem our planet currently faces (2). Secondly, the medical aspect of the rainforest has positive externalities as well. Since the 1950s drugs derived from the rapidly diminishing rainforests of Madagascar, the rosy periwinkle plant in particular, have increased the chances of survival in children suffering from leukemia by 80% (3a). These drugs, Vinblastine and Vincristine, are used as antitumor and antileukemic agents, with the ability to help fight Hodgkin's Disease and Leukemia, mostly in children (4 and 3a). With this new technology in medicine, there has been a complete reversal. Now, eight out of ten children have been saved rather than eight out of ten that would have died before discovery of this plant's curative power (3). How many more could be saved with the immense medicinal powers of rainforest plants? Well, not only has this new technology in medicine saved lives, but it has provided an incentive to businesses by proving quite profitable, too. In fact, the dollar amount in sales in 1990 in the U.S. of drugs based on plants from the rainforest was approximately 15.5 billion dollars (4). Thirdly, economically speaking, it has come to be believed by experts that the rainforest in its natural state, harvested for the nuts, fruits, medicinal plants, oils, and other products produced there, achieves more economic value than if it had been stripped for timber (3 and 7). By leaving the rainforest to be harvested naturally, and allowing nature to regenerate on its own, governments or corporations have been able to make quite a profit, while still bringing goods into the laps of consumers. This incentive for perpetual profits has led some to support and participate in conservation. Also, with continued harvests, items will be available for future consumers rather than the now tangible assets such as wood, paper, and cheaper meat that do not replenish naturally. Food too is vital, and with "80% of the developed world's diet originally from the rainforest" one can see how beneficial this natural wonder is (3). A fairly unknown fact is that many of the everyday foods and staples that people have come to rely on actually originated in the rainforests of the world (8). Some of these foods are as follows: coffee, tea, bananas, pineapples, corn, cocoa, rice, lemons, oranges, beans, sugar, spices, potatoes, yams, and nuts (3 and 8). With oxygen, medicine, and food, corporations could profit while providing the public with sustenance. Therefore, one must ask 'why demolish such a necessity, something so vital?' While there are negative and positive externalities in any situation, there are also reasons that go along with them.

Now for the question on everybody's lips: "Why clear the rainforests?" There are actually many reasons. The stereotype that CEOs are sitting up in their offices giving the approval to destroy is not entirely correct. Just like there are many reasons for the destruction, there are various kinds of destructors. For example, there are companies that legally utilize the rainforest for "big business, big profits" (3), but there are also those that do so illegally. Poachers and illegal loggers or miners are a serious threat to the rainforest, despite governmental regulations. And, governments themselves often take advantage of their natural resources including, of course, the rainforests. A less know destructor, however, are the native peoples of the forests themselves (8). Reasons vary in each situation, and range from logging, ranching, and mining for large profits by companies, to governmentally imposed road building, to natives collecting firewood (8). Threats are presented also by squatters and settlers, and tie in with politics, as governments have encouraged spreading out of the overcrowded cities to "shifted cultivation" in the forests (which extracts all nutrients from the soil, then changes locations, and repeats) (8). Other reasons for the destruction are dams for hydroelectricity, and mining for rich minerals (both legally and illegally) (8). To conclude, though there are many reasons for the threats to the rainforests, the prominent issue is the appeal of turning big profits, no matter what the future costs may be.

If the rainforests are gone forever, though, what will become of medicinal plants? And just how many drugs actually come from the rainforest? Consider that as of now, there are seven anticancer drugs from rainforest plants that have been approved by the FDA, Taxol and Vinblastine being the first drug of choice in treating tumorous cancers and leukemia respectively (3a). Private benefits of these drugs can be seen with success stories of patients who have been cured or are in remission of cancer or other diseases that previously were unable to cure. Not only are there amazing anticancer drugs found in the rainforest, but there are also medicines with plant basis of well-known everyday drugs. Some of these drugs are as follows: Renzyl benzoate (scabicide), Caffeine (stimulant), Codeine (analgesic, antihistamine), Ephedrine (sympathomimetric, antihistamine), Menthol (rubefacient), Morphine (analgesic), Quinine (antimalarial, antipyretic), Scopolamine (motion sickness), and Taxol (antitumor agent) (4 and 3a).

So, what would the world be like without the rainforests? Well, you can forget that spice in your food, watch out for the increased birthrate without birth control pills, and good luck to you if you get sick because many drugs cannot be made synthetically as of yet. With conservation, there is great hope for the future, however, and scientists learning from the native shamans of the forests have been able to uncover and better understand over 120 plant-based drugs used everyday (4). Finally, the truth that this is a very real issue, affecting more than just the consumers, is something that needs to be kept in one's consciousness. Moreover, someday you might even find that the medicine you need has not yet been created, and very well may not ever be created unless scientists have access to those tropical, resourceful jungles we know as the rainforest.


1) Excerpts from the book Jungle Medicine by Constance Grauds, RPh.

2) BBC News World Edition, BBC Science.
2a) "Rainforest Tree Eats Up Pollution" by Julian Siddle
2b) "Brazil's Awa Struggling to Survive"

3) With excerpts from: Herbal Secrets of the Rainforest (Prima Publishing, Rocklin, CA) By Leslie Taylor.
3a) "Plant Based Drugs and Medicine" by Leslie Taylor (founder of Raintree Nutrition). Raintree Nutrition, Inc. October 13, 2000. ©1996-2002 Austin, Texas.

4) "A Short List of Plant-Based Medicinal Drugs" ©1982-2002 World Resources Institute Washington, D.C.

5) "Rainforest Medicine and Food" YPTENC Sponsored by Barclaycard Living Land Information supplied by the Young Peoples Trust for the Environment.

6) Rainforest Medical Foundation (RMF) Est. 1991.

7) "Rain Forest," Contributed by Michael Goulding, Microsoft® Encarta® 98 Encyclopedia. ©1993-1997 Microsoft Corporation.

8) Closer Look At the Rainforest by Selina Wood. Copper Beech Book. Brookfield, Connecticut ©1997. Pages 14-17, 20.