Rainforest Medicine, Hope for the Future
Tartan High School
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
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
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
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,
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.