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Tropical Rainforests: Nature’s Medicine Cabinet

Preserving Rainforests May Be a Matter of Life and Death for Future Generations

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Teenage girl sheltering in tropical rain
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Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that rainforests contain perhaps thousands of plants and herbs with medicinal properties?
E. Wolfson, Brooklyn, NY

Tropical rainforests, which account for only seven percent of the world’s total land mass, harbor as much as half of all known varieties of plants. Experts say that just a four-square-mile area of rainforest may contain as many as 1,500 different types of flowering plants and 750 species of trees, all which have evolved specialized survival mechanisms over the millennia that mankind is just starting to learn how to appropriate for its own purposes.

Rainforests are a Rich Source of Medicines
Scattered pockets of native peoples around the world have known about the healing properties of rainforest plants for centuries and perhaps longer. But only since World War II has the modern world begun to take notice, and scores of drug companies today work in tandem with conservationists, native groups and various governments to find, catalog and synthesize rainforest plants for their medicinal value.

Rainforest Plants Produce Life-saving Medicines
Some 120 prescription drugs sold worldwide today are derived directly from rainforest plants. And according to the U.S. National Cancer Institute, more than two-thirds of all medicines found to have cancer-fighting properties come from rainforest plants. Examples abound. Ingredients obtained and synthesized from a now-extinct periwinkle plant found only in Madagascar (until deforestation wiped it out) have increased the chances of survival for children with leukemia from 20 percent to 80 percent.

Some of the compounds in rainforest plants are also used to treat malaria, heart disease, bronchitis, hypertension, rheumatism, diabetes, muscle tension, arthritis, glaucoma, dysentery and tuberculosis, among other health problems. And many commercially available anesthetics, enzymes, hormones, laxatives, cough mixtures, antibiotics and antiseptics are also derived from rainforest plants and herbs.

The Untapped Potential of Rainforest Medicines
Despite these success stories, less than one percent of the plants in the world’s tropical rainforests have even been tested for their medicinal properties. Environmentalists and health care advocates alike are keen to protect the world’s remaining rainforests as storehouses for the medicines of the future.

The Challenge of Preserving Valuable Rainforests
But saving tropical rainforests is no easy task, as poverty-stricken native people try to eke out a living off the lands and many governments throughout the world’s equatorial regions, out of economic desperation as well as greed, allow destructive cattle ranching, farming and logging. As rainforest turns to farm, ranch and clear-cut, some 137 rainforest-dwelling species—plants and animals alike—go extinct every single day, according to noted Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson. Conservationists worry that as rainforest species disappear, so will many possible cures for life-threatening diseases.

How You Can Help Save Rainforests--and Human Lives
You can do your part to help save rainforests around the world by following and supporting the work of such organizations as Rainforest Alliance, Rainforest Action Network, Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy, and by clicking special links on websites like The Rainforest Site, Red Jellyfish and Care2, which contribute funds to organizations working on the ground to preserve rainforest land.

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EarthTalk is a regular feature of E/The Environmental Magazine. Selected EarthTalk columns are reprinted on About Environmental Issues by permission of the editors of E.

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