This diverse landscape has a huge, but largely untapped, potential for providing answers to diseases that have alluded modern medicine. However, they do still serve as vital resources for millions of forest-dwelling people who do not have access to formal health care.
Less than 10% of tropical forest plant species have been screened for their medical properties, yet they supply 25% of drugs used in Western medicine1.
For example, curare is found in a number of Central and South American plants. This chemical relaxes muscles and causes paralysis of breath in mammals. Derivatives were perfected as arrow poisons by indigenous people and now anesthetists use curare in operating theatres to take over control of a patient’s breathing while undergoing surgery.
The pharmaceutical industry has long hoped to discover cures for cancer or HIV in chemicals found within rainforest plants, but the emergence of such drugs has been slow.
The flow of finance to help communities preserve their forests in return for successful prospecting for new drugs has not emerged. Most profits from the few successes – such as the Madagascan rosy periwinkle, a drug used to fight leukaemia and Hodgkin’s disease – have flowed to big companies, with few royalties benefiting the communities or countries where the drugs were found.
Some forest-owning governments have, therefore, moved to block such exploitation, making the discovery of new drugs even more difficult. This is a real shame for medical advancement and a crime for people around the world suffering from, as yet, incurable diseases. But fair compensation for natural resources is a critical issue that must be addressed.
For local communities, forests continue to provide a free store of medicinal cures. Knowledge distilled by experimentation over centuries is passed down from one ‘shaman’ to another, often as closely guarded secrets. Yet many of the drugs they use are highly effective, so preserving their forests means that knowledge and culture like this can continue to be used to treat families where no other health service exists.
In a world that is getting sicker, to lose the incredible potential of forests for finding cures to modern diseases would be a crime. At Ecosphere+ we believe in saving forests and the magnificent biodiversity they contain, not destroying them. We do this through giving local communities a reason to keep their trees standing and to manage their landscapes sustainably. That way they – and the biodiversity around them – can thrive.
Find out more about the work we do all over the world. We invite you to join us.
Helping to achieve Sustainable Development Goals.
 Mongabay (2012) Medicinal Plants. Accessed 3 April, 2017