Tropical Rainforests: Nature's Medicine Cabinet

Preserving Rainforests May Be a Matter of Life and Death

Teenage girl sheltering in tropical rain
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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 and catalog rainforest plants for their medicinal value, and synthesize their bio-active compounds.

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.

Stumbling Blocks

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. Fueled by this urgency, pharmaceutical companies have entered agreements with tropical countries promising protection against exclusive "bioprospection" rights.

Unfortunately, these agreements didn't last, and enthusiasm waned. In some countries, bureaucracy, permits, and access became prohibitively expensive. In addition, new technologies allowed to use powerful combinatorial chemistry techniques to find active molecules without having to slog through the mud in some faraway jungle. As a result, the exploratory search for pharmaceuticals in rainforests dwindled for a while.

But the technological advancements which favored synthetic, lab-developed meds are now helping botanical prospectors once again, and a few daring pharmaceutical companies are back in the jungles looking for the next big drug. 

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.

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.

Edited by Frederic Beaudry.

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Talk, Earth. "Tropical Rainforests: Nature's Medicine Cabinet." ThoughtCo, Sep. 13, 2017, thoughtco.com/tropical-rainforests-natures-medicine-cabinet-1204030. Talk, Earth. (2017, September 13). Tropical Rainforests: Nature's Medicine Cabinet. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/tropical-rainforests-natures-medicine-cabinet-1204030 Talk, Earth. "Tropical Rainforests: Nature's Medicine Cabinet." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/tropical-rainforests-natures-medicine-cabinet-1204030 (accessed December 15, 2017).