Have you ever stopped to wonder where the drugs we rely on come from? Many of our drugs come from medicinal plants of the tropical rainforest.
Tropical rainforests evoke images of lush green trees, colourful birds, and a diversity of animal, insect, and plant life. As plants evolved over millions of years, they developed chemicals to protect themselves from threats such as insects, bacteria, and fungi. Then humans discovered that these chemicals could protect them too—as natural medicines.
A medical cornucopia
Indigenous peoples were the first to discover the healing powers of medicinal rainforest plants. They used plants to stay healthy and to treat disease. As the centuries passed, harvesting plants provided them with a livelihood and offered affordable, accessible health care.
In the late 1800s, researchers began studying the medicinal properties of wild plants. So far, 25,000 to 30,000 species of medicinal plants have been identified around the world.
The shady side of plant harvesting
Despite wild plants’ potential to provide healing substances, many species have been destroyed. A loss of habitat, caused by deforestation and climate change, as well as overharvesting, have led to this destruction.
A “gold rush” to discover and use wild plants for commercial medicinal purposes has led, in some cases, to overharvesting. Plants have been mined for their use in foods and cosmetics, as well as in medicine and supplements. Bioprospecting is the term used for the process of discovering and developing commercial products from biological resources, in this case, plants.
According to TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, 50,000 to 70,000 wild medicinal and aromatic plant species are harvested each year. The global export value of this annual harvest was estimated at US$2.2 billion in 2011.
For people in many developing countries, wild plants provide their only source of medicine—and their only source of income. As research into the medicinal benefits of wild plants has spread to developed countries, a greater consumer demand has contributed to overharvesting and the illegal trade of some species.
Threat of extinction
Unfortunately, with this increased demand and overharvesting, wild plant populations are declining. According to TRAFFIC, overharvesting has resulted in one in five wild plant species being threatened with extinction. Overharvesting of wild plants remains a “hidden harvest” that receives much less attention than the illegal animal trade or deforestation.
A brighter future
Despite these obstacles, measures have been put in place to help counteract the threats to wild plant populations.
Setting international standards
In 2007, the International Standard for Sustainable Wild Collection of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (ISSC-MAP) was published. This standard provided a tool for government, companies, and other stakeholders to ensure the sustainable harvesting of wild medicinal and aromatic plants.
ISSC-MAP merged with the FairWild Standard (version 1.0) in 2010. The resulting FairWild Standard 2.0 sets out a framework that expands the harvesting of wild plants to include ecological, fair trade, and social issues. It also provides consumers with assurance that FairWild certified products contain legally and sustainably sourced fair trade plant ingredients.
The FairWild Standard certifies
- wild medicinal and aromatic plants
- wild mushrooms
- gums and resins collected in the wild
- wild fruits, nuts, and seeds
- processed ingredients such as essential oils made from wild plants and their derivatives
- consumer products that contain FairWild certified ingredients
Conserving the rainforest
Combatting the loss and extinction of plants is a two-fold process. First, their natural habitat must be protected. Organizations such as Costa Rica’s Monteverde Conservation League (MCL) work to conserve, protect, and rehabilitate the natural rainforest to preserve the biodiversity of its tropical ecosystems.
MCL manages the 55,600 acres (22,500 hectares) of Costa Rica’s largest private rainforest preserve, the Children’s Eternal Rainforest. Initially purchased by the fundraising efforts of children, its lush habitat is now sustained by corporate and individual donations of money and resources, such as employee tree-planting projects.
The second step to saving wild plant species is to conserve the plants themselves. Finca Luna Nueva in Costa Rica is the site of the first Sacred Seeds garden. Here in this lush tropical sanctuary, more than 250 wild plants grow, but along with the plants, the healing knowledge of the local residents is also preserved. Thirty-one Sacred Seeds gardens span the globe, including in the United States, India, Peru, Cambodia, and Uganda.
These conservation measures and sustainable harvesting practices should ensure that the medicinal wild plants of the rainforest—and other habitats—will be able to provide their healing protection for generations to come.
These are just a few of the rainforest plants used to produce modern drugs:
|Drug||What it treats||Plant it’s derived from||Part of plant used|
|vinblastine, vincristine||chemotherapy drugs for leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease, and Kaposi sarcoma; used to treat diabetes and high blood pressure||Madagascar or rosy periwinkle||vinca alkaloids from shoots and leaves|
|pilocarpine||eye drops used to treat glaucoma||Jaborandi||leaves|
|quinine||antimalarial drug; analgesic used in cold preparations; treats leg cramps||cinchona tree||bark|
Supplements of the rainforest
|yerba mate||tea||a mild stimulant that has antiobesity and antidiabetic effects; mostly tested on animals|
|passion flower||tablet, liquid extract||reduces anxiety, improves sleep quality|
|cat’s claw||tablet, liquid extract, tea||anti-inflammatory, used to treat osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis|
|Stevia rebaudiana (stevia)||tablet, liquid, powder||non-calorie sweetener used alone or to sweeten a variety of processed foods; doesn’t increase blood glucose levels|
|Turmeric||tablet, capsule, tea||anti-inflammatory, used to treat osteoarthritis, joint pain, and upset stomach|
Did you know?
- It’s estimated that less than 10 percent of the world’s biodiversity has been studied for its potential medicinal benefits.
- Although tropical rainforests cover only 6 percent of the earth, more than half the plants and animals in the world live there.
5 ways to save rainforest habitat
- Support companies that are working to preserve the rainforest.
- Don’t buy furniture or flooring made of tropical woods; choose locally sourced woods or fast-growing bamboo.
- Use FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified paper.
- Buy some rainforest land by donating to organizations working to conserve the rainforest.
- Take an eco vacation to support and learn about rainforest conservation first-hand.