Saving the Rainforest
A Complex Problem and a Simple Solution
By Leslie Taylor
The Raintree Group, Inc.
The beauty, majesty and timelessness of a primary Rainforest is indescribable. It is impossible to capture on film, to describe in words or to explain to those who have never had the awe-inspiring experience of standing in the heart of a primary rainforest. Rainforests have evolved over millions of years to turn into the incredibly complex environments they are today. A rainforest represents a store of living and breathing renewable natural resources, which have for eons, by virtue of their richness in both animal and plant species, contributed a wealth of resources for the survival and well-being of man. These have included basic food supplies, clothing, shelter, fuel, spices, industrial raw materials and medicine for all those that have lived sustainably for eons in the majesty of the forest. However, the inner dynamics of a tropical rainforest are an intricate and fragile system where everything is so interdependent that upsetting one part can lead to unknown damage or even destruction of the whole. Removing one single large tree in the middle of the forest leaves the soil bare and the rest of the forest vulnerable. Without the tree's sheltering leaves, the following rains erode the very shallow top soil, taking with it trees growing lower down hill. Before long this small hole in the rainforest has become a large area of bare hillside. Sadly, it has taken only a century of man's intervention to destroy what nature has so intricately designed to last forever.
In 1950, 15% of the earth's land surface was covered by rainforest. Today, more than half have already gone up in smoke. Eight out of ten trees in Ghana have been cut down. Three quarters of the trees of the Ivory Coast are gone. Almost twenty percent of the Amazon is already gone and much more is severely threatened as destruction continues to escalate. A century ago, half of India and a third of Ethiopia was covered by forest, now only fourteen percent in India remains and two-thirds of Ethiopia is already gone. In less than 50 years, more than half of the world's tropical rainforests have fallen victim to fire and the chain saw and the rate of destruction is still accelerating. Unbelievably, over 200,000 acres of rainforest are burned every day. That is over 150 acres lost every minute of every day, and 78 million acres are lost every year! The latest statistics in the Brazilian Amazon show a 34 percent increase in deforestation since 1992.
Massive deforestation brings with it many ugly consequences - air and water pollution, soil erosion, malaria epidemics, the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the eviction and decimation of indigenous Indian tribes, and the loss of bio-diversity through extinction of plants and animals. Less Rainforests means less rain, less oxygen for us to breathe, and an even greater threat from global warming. But who is really to blame?
Consider what we industrialized Americans have done to our own homeland... we converted ninety percent of North America's virgin forests into firewood, shingles, furniture, railroad ties and paper. Not to mention what we did to our own Indigenous Tribes, the North American Indians. Other industrialized countries have done no better.
Malaysia, Indonesia and Brazil, among other tropical countries, are often branded as "environmental villains" of the world, mainly due to their reported levels of destruction of their rainforests. But despite the levels of deforestation, they are still covered by up to 60% of their territory by natural tropical forests. In fact, much of the pressure today on the remaining rainforests come from servicing the needs and markets for wood products in industrialized countries who have already depleted their own natural resources. Industrial countries would not be buying rainforest hardwood had we not cut down our own trees long ago nor would poachers in the Amazon jungle be slaughtering jaguar, ocelot, caiman and otter if we did not provide lucrative markets for their skins in Berlin, Paris and Tokyo. So why should the loss of tropical forests be of any more concern to us in light of our own poor management of natural resources?
The loss of tropical rainforests has a profound and devastating world impact because rainforests are so much more biologically diverse. It is estimated that tropical rainforests are home to almost 6 million species of plants, animals and insects.
Consider these facts:
- A single pond in Brazil can sustain a greater variety of fish than are found in all of Europe's rivers;
- A twenty five acre plot of rainforest in Borneo may contain over seven hundred species of trees - a number equal to the total tree diversity of North America;
- A single rainforest reserve in Peru is home to more species of birds than the entire United States;
- One single tree in Peru was found to harbor forty-three different species of ants - a total that approximates the entire ant species in the entire British Isles.
The biodiversity of the tropical rainforest is so immense that less than one percent of its millions of species have been studied by scientists for active constituents and their possible uses for man. When an acre of topical rainforest is lost, the impact to the number of plant, animal and insect species lost and their possible uses is staggering. Scientific experts estimate that we are losing over 137 species of plants, animals and insects every single day because of rainforest deforestation.
Today, Rainforests occupy only 2% of the entire earth's surface and 6% of the world's land surface, yet these remaining lush forest support over half of our plants wild plants and trees, half of the world's wildlife, sources providing one-fourth of today's medicines, and 70% of the plants found to have anti-cancer properties are found only in the Rainforest. The Rainforest and it's immense undiscovered biodiversity holds the key to unlocking tomorrow's cures for devastating diseases and yet still the destruction continues. A drug obtained from a rainforest plant known as the Madagascar periwinkle, now extinct in the wild due to deforestation of the Madagascar rainforest, has increased the chances of survival for children with leukemia from 20 percent to 80 percent. Think about it - 8 out of 10 children are saved rather than 8 of 10 children dying from leukemia. How many children have been spared and how many more will continue to be spared because of this single rainforest plant? What if we failed to discover this one important plant among millions before it was extinct due to man's destruction? When our remaining Rainforests are gone, the rare plants, animals and indigenous cultures will be lost forever. Hundreds and thousands of these species are being extinguished before they have even been identified, much less cataloged and studied. How many cures have we already lost? The magnitude of this loss to the world was most poignantly described by Harvard entomologist, Edward O. Wilson, over 10 years ago...
"The worst thing that can happen during the 1980's is not energy depletion, economic collapses, limited nuclear war, or conquest by a totalitarian government. As terrible as these catastrophes would be for us, they can be repaired within a few generations. The one process ongoing in the 1980's that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly that our descendants are least likely to forgive us for."
Yet still the destruction continues. If deforestation continues at current rates, scientists estimate nearly 80 to 90 percent of tropical rainforest ecosystems will be destroyed by the year 2020.
If Amazonia were a country, it would be the ninth largest in the world. The Amazon Rainforest, the world's greatest remaining natural resource, is the most powerful and bio-actively diverse natural phenomenon on the planet. It has as been described as the "Lungs of our Planet" because it provides the essential environmental world service of continuously recycling carbon dioxide into oxygen. It is estimated that over twenty percent of earth's oxygen is produced in this area.
THE AMAZON RAINFOREST...
The Last Frontier on Earth
The Amazon rainforest covers over 1.2 billion acres in nine South American countries (Brazil, Columbia, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and the three Guyanas) representing two-fifths of the enormous South American continent. With 2.5 million square miles of Rainforest, the Amazon Rainforest represents 54 percent of the total rainforests left on the planet.
The life force of the Amazon Rainforest is the mighty Amazon River. It starts as a trickle high in the snow-capped Andes mountains and flows over 4,000 miles across the South American continent until it enters the Atlantic ocean at Belem, Brazil where it is 200 to 300 miles across, depending on the season. Even 1,000 miles inland, it is still 7 miles in width and the river is so deep that ocean liners can travel 2,300 miles inland, up its length. The Amazon River flows through the center of the Rainforest and is fed by 1,100 tributaries, seventeen of which are over 1,000 miles long. The Amazon is by far the largest river system in the world and over two-thirds of all the fresh water found on earth is in the Amazon basin's rivers, streams and tributaries. With so much water its not unusual that that the main mode of transportation throughout the area is by boat. The smallest and most common boats used today are still made out of hollowed tree trunks, whether they are powered by outboard motors or more often by man-powered paddles. Almost 14,000 miles of Amazon waterway are navigable and several million miles through swamps and forests are penetrable by canoe. The enormous Amazon river carries massive amounts of silt from run-off from the rainforest floor. Silt deposited at the mouth of the Amazon river has created the largest river island in the world, Marajo Island, which is roughly the size of Switzerland. With this massive fresh water system, it not unusual that the life beneath the water is as abundant and diverse as the surrounding rainforest's plant and animal species. Over 2,000 species of fish have been identified in the Amazon basin - more species than the entire Atlantic Ocean.
The Amazon Basin was formed in the Paleozoic period, somewhere between 500 and 200 million years ago. The extreme age of the region in geologic terms has much to do with the relative infertility of the rainforest soil and the richness and unique diversity of the plant and animal life. There are more fertile areas in the Amazon River's flood plain, where the river deposits richer soil brought from the Andes, which only formed 20 million years ago. The rich diversity of plant species in the Amazon Rainforest is the highest on earth. Experts show that one hectare (2.47 acres) may contain over 750 types of trees and 1500 species of higher plants and it is estimated that one hectare of Amazon rainforest contains about 900 tons of living plants. Altogether it contains the largest collection of living plants and animal species in the world. One in five of all the birds in the world live in the rainforests of the Amazon. The Andean mountain range and the Amazon jungle are home to more than half of the world's species of flora and fauna. To date, some 438,000 species of plants of economic and social interest have been registered in the region and many more have yet been cataloged or even discovered.
Once a vast sea of tropical forest, the Amazon rainforest today is scarred by roads, farms, ranches and dams. Brazil is gifted with a full third of the world's remaining rainforests and unfortunately, it is also one of the world's great rainforest destroyers, burning or felling over 2.7 million acres each year. Today at least 18.8 percent of rainforest in the Amazon has been razed and is gone forever. In 1975, five percent of the Amazon had been cleared. More rainforest was cleared in 1987 than in any previous year. In fact, so much rainforest went up in smoke in 1987 that the region's major cities were choked with smoke and airports in the states of Rondnia, Acre, Par, Mato Grosso, and Amazonas were forced to close, sometimes for months at a time. This ocean of green nearly as large as Australia, is the last great rainforest in the known universe and it is being decimated like the others before it.
Why? Like other rainforest already lost forever, the land is being cleared for logging timber, large scale cattle ranching, mining operations, government road building and hydroelectric schemes, military operations, and the subsistence agriculture of peasants and landless settlers. Sadder still, in many places the rainforests are burnt simply to provide charcoal to power industrial plants in the area. Only rarely do companies that plunder the rainforests replant any trees.
Commercial logging is the single largest cause of rainforest destruction. The simple fact is that they are destroying the Amazon Rainforest because they can't see the forest for the trees. Logging tropical hardwoods like teak, mahogany, rosewood and other timber for furniture, building materials like concrete frames and even building materials for boats is big business and big profits. Several species of tropical hardwoods are imported by developed counties, including America, just to build coffins which are then buried or burned. Some traditional exporters of tropical hardwoods are now importing them because they have already exhausted their supply by destroying their native rainforests in slash and burn operations. It is anticipated that The Phillippines, Malaysia, The Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Thailand will soon follow as all these countries will run out of rainforest hardwood timber for export in less than five years. Japan is the largest importer of tropical woods. Despite recent reductions, Japan's 1995 tropical timber import total of 11,695,000 cubic meters is still gluttonous; damaging to the ecological, biological and social fabric of tropical lands, and clearly unsustainable for any length of time.
The Driving Forces of Destruction
Behind the hardwood logger come others. The cardboard packing and the wood chipboard industries use 15 ton machines that gobble up the rainforest with 8 foot cutting discs that have eight blades revolving 320 times a minute which cut trees into chips half the size of a matchbox. More than 200 species of trees can be gobbled up by these machines which are currently clearing 320 square miles of rainforest in Papua New Guinea to provide a fraction of the demand of these two industries. These same land devouring machines are meeting the remaining world demand in the Amazon and Australian rainforests.
Logging Rainforest timber is a large source, and in many cases, the main source of revenues for servicing the national debt of developing countries. Logging profits are real to these countries who must service their debts, but are they are fleeting. Governments are selling their assets too cheaply, and once the rainforest is gone, their source of income is gone. Sadly most of the real profits of the timber trade are made not by the developing countries, but by multi-national companies and industrialists of the northern hemisphere. These huge profit driven companies pay governments a fraction of the timber's worth for large logging concessions on immense tracts of rainforest land and reap huge profits by harvesting the timber in the most economical manner feasible with little regard to the destruction left in their wake. Governments are selling their natural resources, hawking for pennies, resources that soon will be worth billions of dollars. Some of these government concessions and land deals made with industrialists make the sale of Manhattan for twenty-four dollars worth of trinkets look shrewd. In 1986, a huge industrial timber corporation bought thousands of acres in the Borneo rainforest by giving 2,000 Malaysian dollars to 12 longhouses of local tribes. This sum amounted to the price of two bottles of beer for each member of the community. Since then this company and others have managed to extract about a third of the Borneo rainforest - about 6.9 million acres and the local tribes have been evicted from the area or forced to work for the logging companies at slave wages.
In addition to logging for exportation, Rainforest logged wood stays in developing countries for fuel wood and charcoal. One single steel plant in Brazil making steel for Japanese cars needs millions of tons of wood each year to produce charcoal that can be used in the manufacture of steel. A pulpwood project in the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest consists of a Japanese power plant and pulp mill. To set up this single plant operation, 5,600 square miles of Amazon Rainforest was burned to the ground and replanted with pulpwood trees. This single manufacturing plant consumes 2,000 tons of surrounding rainforest wood every day to produce 55 megawatts of electricity to run the plant. The plant, which has been in operation since 1978, produces over 750 tons of pulp for paper every 24 hours, worth approximately $500,000 and has built 2,800 miles of roads through the Amazon rainforest to be used by its 700 vehicles. In addition to this pulp mill, the world's biggest pulp mill is the Aracruz mill in Brazil; its two units produce one million tons of pulp a year and displaces thousands of indigenous tribes harvesting the rainforest to keep the plant in business. Where does all this pulp go? Aracruz's biggest customers are the United States, Belgium, Great Britain, and Japan. More and more Rainforest logged hardwoods and softwoods go to the developed world's paper industry which requires a staggering 200 million tons of wood each year simply to make paper. If the world continues at the present rate, 4 billion tons of wood is estimated to be consumed annually by the year 2020 in the paper industry alone.
Timber accounts for only 10 percent of renewable resources when a rainforest is cleared, although many companies see the only economic potential of a forest as being it's trees. But at what cost? The Panama Canal is severely threatened because logging large tracts of land on the banks of the Panama Canal has had the inevitable results that rain has eroded the banks which have now started to accumulate in the bottom of the canal for miles. Experts say that before long, the whole thing will no longer be navigable and the cost of solving the problem will be prohibitive. It is estimated that the Panama canal will cease operation in 3-5 years due to unsound logging practices causing rainforest deforestation and the resulting soil erosion.
Once an area of Rainforest has been logged, even if given the rare change to re-grow, it can never became what it once was. The intricate ecosystem nature devised is lost forever. Only 1-2 percent of light at the top of a rainforest canopy manages to reach the forest floor below. Most times when timber is harvested, the plants and animals of the original forest becomes extinct, and trees and other plants that have evolved over centuries to grow in this dark, humid environment below the canopy simply cannot live out in the open. Even if only sections of land throughout an area are destroyed, these remnants change drastically. Birds and other animals cannot cross from one to another in the canopy, so plants are not pollinated, seeds are not dispersed by the animals and the plants around the edges are not surrounded by the high jungle humidity which they need to grow properly. As a result, the remnants slowly become degraded and die. Rains come and wash away the thin topsoil that was previously protected by the canopy and barren, unfertile land results in erosion. Sometimes after timber is harvested the land is replanted in grass for cattle operations and other times, more virgin rainforest is destroyed for cattle operations because planting grass on recently burned land has a better change to grow.
As the demand in the Western world for cheap meat increases, more and more rainforest is destroyed to provide grazing land for animals. In South America alone, there are 220 million head of cattle, 20 million goats, 60 million pigs and 700 million chickens. Worldwide production of meat uses 7.5 billion acres of land, twice what is used to produce crops, to produce an estimated annual consumption of 140 million tons of meat. Most of Central American's tropical and temperate rainforests have been lost to cattle operations to meet this world demand, and still the cattle operations continue to move southward into the heart of the South American Rainforests in the Amazon basin. To graze one steer in Amazonia, it takes two full acres. Most of the ranchers on cleared rainforest land operate at a loss, yielding only paper profits purely as tax shelters. Rancher's actual fortunes are virtually non-existent, except when ranching is supported by government giveaways. A banker or rich land owner in Brazil can slash and burn a huge tract of land in the Amazon rainforest, seed it with grass for cattle and realize millions of dollars worth of government-subsidized loans, tax-credits and write offs in return for developing the land. These government development schemes rarely make a profit actually selling cheap beef to industrialized nations. One single cattle operation in Brazil that was co-owned by British Barclays Bank and one of Brazil's wealthiest families was responsible for the destruction of almost 500,000 acres of virgin rainforest. The cattle operation never made a profit but government write-offs sheltered huge logging profits earned off of logging other land in the Brazilian rainforest owned by the same investors.
This type of destruction of rainforest land is promoted by a common attitude among governments in rainforest regions that the forest is an economic resource to be harnessed to aid in the development of their countries. The same attitudes that accompanied the colonization of our own frontier are found today in Brazil and other countries with wild unharnessed Rainforest wilderness. These beliefs are exemplified in a Brazilian official's public statement that "not until all Amazonas is colonized by real Brazilians, not Indians, can we truly say we own it." Were we Americans any different with our own colonization decimating the North American Indian tribes? Like Brazil, we sent out a call to all the world that America had land for the landless in an effort to increase colonization of our land at the expense of our indigenous Indian tribes. And like the first America colonists, colonization in the rainforest really means subsistence farming.
Subsistence farming has for centuries been a driving force in the loss of rainforest land and as populations explode in third world countries in South American and the Far East, the impact has been profound. The lesson of conservation proven in Latin America is that habitats cannot be saved by government declarations. By tradition, wild lands and unsettled lands in the rainforest are free to those who clear the forest and till the soil. "Squatter's Rights" still prevail and poor, hungry people show little enthusiasm for arguments about the value of biodiversity or the plight of endangered species. The present approach to rainforest cultivation produces wealth for a few, for a short time. Farming burned-off tracts of Amazon rainforest seldom works for long. Less than ten percent of Amazonian soils are suitable for sustained conventional agriculture. Most are exhausted by the time they have produced three or four crops. Many of the thousands of homesteaders who migrated from Brazil's cities to the wilds of the rainforest, responding to the government's call of "land without men for men without land," have already had to abandon their depleted farms and move on, leaving behind fields of baked clay dotted with stagnant pools of polluted water. Because of the infertility of the soil, and the lack of knowledge of sustainable cultivation practices, this type of agriculture strips the soil of nutrients within a few harvests and the farmers continue to move farther into the rainforest in search of new land. They too must be helped and educated to break free of the need to continually clear rainforest in search of fresh, fertile land if the rainforest is to be saved. Experts agree that the path to conservation begins with helping local residents meet their own daily needs.
Indirectly, the leading threats to rainforest ecosystems are unbridled, unplanned and uncoordinated development of natural resources, funded by international aid-lending institutions such as the World Bank, and the voracious consumer appetites of industrialized nations for unsustainable products at any cost. Rainforest timber exports and large scale development projects go a long way in servicing national debt in many developing countries which is why organizations such as the World Bank supports them. Tropical counties are among the poorest countries on Earth. Brazil alone spends 40 percent of its annual income simply servicing its loans and the per capita income of Brazil's people is less than $2,000 annually. Sadly, these numbers don't even represent an accurate picture in the Amazon because Brazil is one of the richer countries in South America. These struggling Amazonian countries must also manage the most complex, delicate and valuable forests remaining in the planet. The economic and technological resources available to them are limited. They must also endure a dramatic social and economic situation, plus deeply adverse terms of trade and financial relationships with industrial countries. Under such conditions, the possibility of reaching sustainable models of development are nearly impossible. There is a clear need f or industrial countries to sincerely and effectively assist the tropics in a quest for sustainable forest management and development if the remaining rainforest are to be saved. The governments these developing countries need help in learning how to ma nage and protect their natural resources while still managing to service their debts and they must be given the incentives to do so.
First-world capital must seek out opportunities to partner with organizations that have the technical expertise to guide economic development. Programs teaching techniques for sustainable harvesting practices and identifying profitable yet sustainable forest products can enable developing countries to improve the standard of living for its people, service national debt, and contribute meaningfully to the country's land use planning and conservation of natural resources.
The rainforest has long been a symbol of mystery and power, a sacred link between humans and nature. It is also the richest biological incubator on the planet, supporting millions of plant, animal and insect species - a virtual library of chemical invention. In these archives, the likes like quinine, curare, steroids and cancer drugs are found. More importantly, are the new drugs still awaiting discovery - drugs for AIDS, cancer, diabetes, arthritis and Alzheimer's. But with deforestation and daily extinction of species, this unexplored potential is rapidly being extinguished.
Pharmacy to the World
It is estimated that nearly half of the world's 30 million species of plants, animals and micro-organisms will be destroyed or severely threatened over the next quarter century due to Rainforest deforestation. Harvard's Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist, Edward O. Wilson, estimates that we are losing 137 plant, animal and insect species every single day. That's 50,000 species a year! Again, why should we in the United States be concerned about the destruction of distant tropical rain forests? Because rain forest plants are complex chemical storehouses that contain many undiscovered biodynamic compounds with unrealized potential for use in modern medicine. We can gain access to these materials only it we study and conserve the species that contain them.
In 1983, there were no U.S. pharmaceutical manufacturers involved in research programs to discover new drugs or cures from plants. Today, over 100 pharmaceutical companies and several branches of the US government, including giants like Merck and The National Cancer Institute, are engaged in plant research projects for possible drugs and cures for viruses, infections, cancer and even AIDS. Most of this research is currently taking place in the Rainforest in an industry that is now called "chemical bio-prospecting". This new pharmacological industry has sprung up, drawing together an unlikely confederacy: plant-collectors and anthropologists; ecologists and conservationists; natural product companies and nutritional supplement manufacturers, AIDS and cancer researchers; executives in the world's largest drug companies, and native indigenous shamans. They are part of a radical experiment - to preserve the world's rainforest by showing how much more valuable they are standing than cut down. It is a race against a clock whose every tick means another acre of charred forest. Yet it is also a race that pits one explorer against another, for those who score the first big hit in chemical prospecting will secure wealth and a piece of scientific immortality.
Its a noble idea, the ethnobotanist who works with the Indians seeking a cure for cancer or even AIDS, like Sean Connery in the movie, Medicine Man. Yet, behind this lurks a system that, at its worst, steals the Indian knowledge to benefit CEOs, stockholders and academic careers and reputations. The names are familiar - Monsanto, Bristol Myers, Glaxo, Merck... The real goal of these powerful bio-prospectors is to target novel and active phytochemicals with medical applications, synthesize them in a laboratory and have them patented for subsequent drug manufacture and resulting profits. In this process, many active and beneficial plants have been found in the Shaman's medicine chest, but have been discarded when it was found that the active ingredients of the plant numbered too many to be synthesized into a patentable drug cost effectively. It doesn't matter how active or beneficial the plant was or how long the FDA process might take to patent and approve the new drug - if the bio-prospector can't capitalize on the it - the public will rarely hear about a newly discovered plant's benefits until or IF it suits the bio-prospectors plans and profit margins. The fact is, there is a lot of money at stake. In an article published in Economic Botany, Dr. Robert Mendelsohn, an economist at Yale University, and Dr. Michael J. Balick, director of the Institute of Economic Botany at the New York Botanical Gardens, estimate the minimum number of pharmaceutical drugs potentially remaining to be extracted from the rainforests. It is staggering! They estimate that there are at least 328 new drugs that still await discovery in the Rainforest with a potential value of $3-4 Billion to a private pharmaceutical company and as much as $147 Billion to society as a whole.
Currently 121 prescription drugs sold worldwide come from plant derived sources from only 90 species of plants and 25% of all Western pharmaceuticals are derived from Rainforest ingredients. The U.S. National Cancer Institute has identified over 3,000 plants that are active against cancer cells, and 70% of these plants are found only in the Rainforest. Today, over 25% of the active ingredients in today's cancer-fighting drugs come from organisms found only in the Rainforest, and remember, less than 1 percent of the estimated 300,000 species of cataloged Rainforest plants have been tested for active ingredients by scientists. Among the thousands of species of Rainforest plants that have not been analyzed, are many more thousands of unknown plant chemicals (phytochemicals), many of which have evolved to protect the plants from pathogens. These chemicals may help us in our constant struggle with our own constantly evolving pathogens such as evolving bacteria-resistant pathogens in tuberculosis, measles, and even HIV.
No one can challenge the fact that man is still largely dependant on plants for treating his aliments. Besides the important 121 plant-derived prescription drugs currently sold, The World Health Organization has estimated that 88 percent of the people in developing counties rely chiefly on traditional medicines, mostly plant extracts, for their primary health care needs. The majority of our current plant-derived drugs were discovered through these traditional uses of plants by the indigenous people where they grew and flourished. History has shown that the Rainforest is no different, and researchers now are working side by side with the Rainforest tribal shamans and herbal healers to learn the wealth of their plant knowledge and many uses of indigenous plants where drugs and pharmacies are virtually unknown. One researcher, working with a native 92-year-old Mayan herbal healer has produced so much new information on indigenous uses of Rainforest plants with medicinal properties that the National Cancer Institute recently awarded them a 5-year research grant.
After the Ameri-Indians discovered America, perhaps 12 to 50 millennia before Columbus, all their clothing, food, medicine and shelter were derived from the forests. Those millennia gave the Indians time to discover and learn empirically the virtues and vices of the thousands of edible and medicinal species in the Rainforests. More than 80% of the developed world's diet originated from the Rainforest and this empirical indigenous knowledge of the wealth of edible fruits, vegetables and nuts. Of the estimated 3,000 edible fruits found in the Rainforests, only 200 are cultivated for use today despite the fact that the Indians use more than 1,500. Of the 121 pharmaceutical drugs that are plant-derived, 74% were discovered through follow up research to verify the authenticity of information concerning the ethnic medical uses of the plant.
Unlocking the Secrets of the Rainforest
Tribal people of the Rainforest represent the key to finding new and useful tropical forest plants. The degree to which they understand and are able sustainably to use this diversity is astounding. The Barasan Indians of Amazonian Columbia can identify all of the tree species in their territory without having to refer to the fruit or flowers, a feat that no university-trained botanist is able to accomplish! A single Amazonian tribe of Indians may use over 200 species of plants for medicinal purposes alone. Nevertheless, to this day, very few tribes have been subjected to a complete ethnobotanical analysis. Robert Goodland of the World Bank wrote, "Indigenous knowledge is essential for the use, identification and cataloguing of the [tropical] biota. As tribal groups disappear their knowledge vanishes with them.... The preservation of these groups is a significant economic opportunity for the [developing] nation, not a luxury." Since Amazonian Indians are often the only ones who know both the properties of these plants and how they can best be used, their knowledge must be considered an essential component of all efforts to conserve and develop the Amazon. Failure to document this lore would represent a tremendous economic and scientific loss to humanity.
Many secrets and untold treasures await discovery with the medicinal plants used by shamans, healers and the indigenous people of the Rainforest Tribes. So alluring are the mysteries of indigenous medical knowledge that many pharmaceutical companies and even the US government are currently funding projects studying the indigenous plant knowledge and the specific plants used by native shamans and healers. Long regarded as hocus-pocus by science, indigenous people's empirical plant knowledge is now thought by many to be the Amazon's new gold. Researchers have lately "discovered" that Indians possess an unmatched knowledge of the rainforest. Muscle relaxants, stomach pills, tranquilizers, cancer drugs, organic pesticides and many more familiar products have come directly from Amazonian indigenous people's knowledge.
This indigenous use of the plants provides these researchers with the necessary clues to target specific species to research in the race for time before the species are lost to deforestation or, more often, to be the first company to patent a new drug utilizing a newly discovered Rainforest phytochemical, and of course, profits for the pharmaceutical companies. This heated new search for useful species of the rainforest has been coined "Bio-Prospecting". But it has a dark side. Indian knowledge that has resisted the pressure of "modernization" is being used by outsiders who, like oil companies and loggers destroying the forests, threaten to leave no benefits behind them. Why look to Amazonian Indians for new drugs? Laboratory syntheses of new medicines is increasingly costly and not as fruitful as companies would like. In the words of one major drug company: "Scientists may be able to make any molecule they can imagine on a computer, but Mother Nature...is an infinitely more ingenuous and exciting chemist." Scientists have developed new technologies to assess the chemical makeup of plants and they realize using medicinal plants identified by Indians makes research more efficient and less expensive. With these new trends, drug development has actually returned to its roots - traditional medicine.
While the Indian shamans go about their daily lives caring for the well being of their tribe, thousands of miles away in US laboratories, the Shaman's rainforest medicines are being tested, synthesized, patented and submitted for FDA approval. Soon children with viral infections, adults with herpes, cancer patients and many others may benefit from new medicines from the Amazon rainforest. But what will the Indigenous Tribes see of these wonderful new medicines? As corporations rush to patent indigenous medicinal knowledge, the originating indigenous communities have received few, if any benefits.
The destruction of the rainforest follows the pattern of seeing natural land and natural world peoples as resources to be used, and seeing wilderness as idle, empty and unproductive. Destruction of our rainforests is not only causing the extinction of plant and animal species, it is also is wiping out Indigenous Tribes which live in the rainforest. Obviously, rainforests are not idle land, nor are they uninhabited. Indigenous peoples have lived on the land, farming, hunting and gathering in a complex sustainable relationship with the forest. They have developed technologies and resource use systems which are now being called agroforestry. In 1500, there were an estimated six to nine million indigenous people inhabiting the rainforests in Brazil. Both Western and European cultures were drawn to Brazil's Amazon in the hopes of finding riches beyond comprehension and artifacts from civilizations that have long since expired with the passage of time. Intoxicated by dreams and fantasies of wealth and endless youth, they left behind decimated cultures in their ravenous wake. Although the fabled Fountain of Youth was never discovered, many treasures in gold and gems were spirited away by the more successful invaders of the day. Indigenous inhabitants of the Rainforest bore the brunt of these marauding explorers and conquistadors.
Losing the Knowledge
By 1900 there were only one million indigenous people left in Brazil's Amazon. From the 1900's to date, the new amazon gold marauders in logging, mining, cattle operations and colonization schemes has continued the attack on indigenous cultures. The result? Today there are less than 250,000 indigenous people of Brazil surviving this catastrophe. About half of the estimated original 230 tribes have been completely destroyed. The greatest threat to Brazil's remaining tribal people, most of whom live in the Amazon rainforest, is the invasion of their territory by ranchers, miners, land speculators and others, and the conflicts which follow. These 250,000 surviving indigenous people still demonstrate the remarkable diversity of the rainforest because they comprise 215 ethnic groups with 170 different languages. They live in 526 territories nationwide, which together comprise an area of 190 million acres... twice the size of California. About 188 million acres of this land is inside the Brazilian Amazon, in the states of Acre, Amapa, Amazonas, Para, Mato Grosso, Maranhao, Rondonia, Roraima, and Tocantins. There may also be 50 or more indigenous groups still living in the depths of the rainforest that have never had contact with the outside world.
As their homelands continue to be destroyed by deforestation, rainforest peoples are also disappearing. With them have gone centuries of accumulated knowledge of the medicinal value of rainforest species. When these Indigenous Peoples are lost forever, gone too is their empirical knowledge and wisdom. To this day, very few tribes have been subjected to a complete ethnobotanical analysis of their plant knowledge. Most medicine men and shamans remaining in the Rainforests today are 70 years old or more. When a medicine man dies without passing his arts on to the next generation, the tribe and the world loses thousands of years of irreplaceable knowledge about medicinal plants. Each time a Rainforest medicine man dies, it is as if a library has burned down.
This may sound like an old cliche, but literally, the rainforests of the world are being destroyed because "they can't see the forest for the trees." The value of Rainforest land is seen only as the value of its timber. When the timber is harvested for short term gain and profits, the medicinal plants, nuts, oils and other important resources which thrive in this delicate ecosystem are destroyed. Logging rainforest timber also provides access and opens up the rainforest to other interests which destroys even more rainforest; like settlers or squatters who eke out a living with subsistence farming, oil and mining operations as well as monoculture agricultural schemes and cattle ranching.
The problem and the solution in the rainforest are both economic. Money still makes the world go around... even in South America and even in the rainforest. The rainforest is being destroyed for the profits it yields. But the good news is that this means that if land owners, governments and those living in the rainforest today were given a viable economic reason NOT to destroy the rainforest, it could and would be saved. And this viable economic alternative DOES exist and it is working today. Many organizations have demonstrated that if the medicinal plants, fruits, nuts, oils and other resources like rubber, chocolate and chicle (used to make chewing gums), were harvested sustainably, rainforest land has much more economic value today and more long term income and profits than if timber were harvested or if it were burned down for cattle or farming operations. In fact, the latest statistics show that rainforest land converted to cattle operations yeilds the land owner $60 per acre and if timber is harvested, the land is worth $400 per acre; but if sustainable resources are harvested, the l and will yield the land owner $2,400 per acre. And this value provides an income not only today, but year after year - for generations. This is no longer a theory. It is a fact and it is being implemented today. Just as importantly, to wild-harvest the wealth of sustainable rainforest resources effectively, local people and indigenous tribes are used. Today, entire communities and tribes earn 5 to 10 times more money in wild harvesting medicinal plants, fruits, nuts and oils than they can earn by chopping down the forest for subsistence crops. This much needed income source creates the awareness and economic incentive for this population in the rainforest to protect and preserve the forests for long term profits for themselves and their children and is an important solution in saving the rainforest from destruction.
The real solution to saving the rainforest is to make them see the forest AND the trees by creating a consumer demand and consumer markets for these sustainable rainforest products... markets that are larger and louder than today's tropical timber mark et.... markets which will put as much money in their pockets and government coffers as the timber companies do.... markets which will give them the economic incentive to protect their sustainable resources for long term profits. This is the only solut ion that makes a real impact. Each and every person here in America can take a part in this solution by helping to create this consumer market and demand. By purchasing rainforest products and resources and demanding sustainable harvesting of these res ources utilizing local communities and indigenous tribes of the rainforests, we all can be part of the solution and the rainforests of the world and it's people can be saved.
The Wealth of the Rainforests
The Amazonian Rainforest covers over a billion acres, encompassing areas in Brazil, Venezuela, Columbia and the Eastern Andean region of Ecuador and Peru. If Amazonia were a country, it would be the ninth largest in the world.
The Amazon Rainforest has been described as the "Lungs of our Planet" because it provides the essential environmental world service of continuously recycling carbon dioxide into oxygen.
More than half of the world's estimated 10 million species of plants, animals and insects live in the tropical rainforests.
One hectare (2.47 acres) may contain over 750 types of trees and 1500 species of higher plants.
At least 3000 fruits are found in the Rainforests; of these only 200 are now in use.
At least 80% of the developed world's diet originated in the tropical Rainforest. Its bountiful gifts to the world include fruits like avocados, coconuts, figs, oranges, lemons, grapefruit, bananas, guavas, pineapples, mangos and tomatoes; vegetables including corn, potatoes, rice, winter squash and yams; spices like black pepper, cayenne, chocolate, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, sugar cane, tumeric, coffee and vanilla and nuts including Brazil nuts and cashews.
Rainforest plants are rich in secondary metabolites, particularly alkaloids. Biochemists believe alkaloids protect plants from disease and insect attacks. Many alkaloids from higher plants have proven to be of medicinal value and benefit.
Currently, 121 prescription drugs currently sold worldwide come from plant-derived sources. And while 25% of Western pharmaceuticals are derived from Rainforest ingredients, less than 1% of these tropical trees and plants have been tested by scientists.
The U.S. National Cancer Institute has identified 3000 plants that are active against cancer cells. 70% of these plants are found in the Rainforest. Twenty-five percent of the active ingredients in today's cancer-fighting drugs come from organisms found only in the Rainforest.
Vincristine, extracted from a Rainforest plant, is one of the worlds most powerful anticancer drugs. It has dramatically increased the survival rate for acute childhood leukemia since its discovery.
In 1983, there were no U.S. pharmaceutical manufacturers involved in research programs to discover new drugs or cures from plants. Today, over 100 pharmaceutical companies and several branches of the US government, including giants like Merck and The National Cancer Institute, are engaged in plant research projects for possible drugs and cures for viruses, infections, cancer and even AIDS.
The Disappearing Rainforests
We are losing Earth's greatest biological treasures just as we are beginning to appreciate their true value. Rainforests once covered 14% of the earth's land surface; now they cover a mere 6% and experts estimate that the last remaining rainforests could be consumed in less than 40 years.
One and one-half acres of Rainforest are lost every second with tragic consequences for both developing and industrial countries.
Nearly half of the world's species of plants, animals and microorganisms will be destroyed or severely threatened over the next quarter century due to Rainforest deforestation.
Harvard's Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist, Edward O. Wilson, estimates that we are losing 137 plant, animal and insect species every single day. That equates to 50,000 species a year.
In 1979, 29,000 square miles of Rainforests were destroyed.
In 1990, the rate accelerated to 55,000 square miles per year.
That is an area larger than the state of Florida - lost each year.
Most rainforests are cleared by chainsaws, bulldozers and fires for logging and timber value, or for farming and ranching purposes, even by world giants like Mitsubishi Corporation, Georgia Pacific, Texaco and Unocal.
As the Rainforest species disappear, so do many possible cures for life-threatening diseases.
There were an estimated ten million Indians living in the Amazonian Rainforest five centuries ago. Today there are less than 200,000.
In Brazil alone, European colonists have destroyed more than 90 indigenous tribes since the 1900's. With them have gone centuries of accumulated knowledge of the medicinal value of Rainforest species. As their homelands continue to be destroyed by deforestation, rainforest peoples are also disappearing.
Most medicine men and shamans remaining in the Rainforests today are 70 years old or more. Each time a Rainforest medicine man dies, it is as if a library has burned down.
When a medicine man dies without passing his arts on to the next generation, the tribe and the world loses thousands of years of irreplaceable knowledge about medicinal plants.
Experts agree that by leaving the Rainforests intact and harvesting it's many nuts, fruits, oil-producing plants, and medicinal plants, the rainforest has more economic value than if they were cut down to make grazing land for cattle.
If managed properly, the Rainforest can provide the world's need for these natural resources on a perpetual basis.
Promoting the use of these sustainable and renewable sources could stop the destruction of the Rainforests. By creating a new source of income harvesting these plants, fruits and nuts, the Rainforests will be more valuable alive than cut and burned.
Sufficient demand of sustainable Rainforest products is necessary for preservation efforts to succeed. Purchasing Rainforest products can effect positive change by supporting the native people's economy more so than pharmaceutical drug researchers whose main goal is a synthesized and patentable drug discovered using indigenous people's knowledge of rainforest plants.
To find out how you can be a part of saving our Rainforests check out the Rainforest Action Network website. Get involved!
© 1996 The Raintree Group, Inc., Austin, Texas 78757, firstname.lastname@example.org