Thursday, June 25, 2009

Rainforests - Our Natural Drugs and Medicines Storehouse

Rainforests have evolved over millions of years to become the incredibly complex inter woven environments they are today. They represent a store of living and breathing renewable natural resources that for eons, by virtue of their richness in both animal and plant species, have contributed a wealth of resources for the survival and well-being of humankind. These resources have included basic food supplies, clothing, shelter, fuel, spices, industrial raw materials, but the most indispensable treasure contained in rainforests is medicine.

A typical case in point is Vincristine, which is extracted from the rainforest plant, periwinkle. Vincristine is one of the world's most powerful anticancer drugs. It has dramatically increased the survival rate for acute childhood leukemia since its discovery.

But scientists are racing against time to find and identify plant-based medicines. Look at the following figures: The National Cancer Institute has now identified over 3,000 plants that help fight cancer cells and many of them come from rainforests. 70% of these plants are found in the rainforest. Of the 121 drugs that have been produced from plants found in the rainforest today, 74% of them were found during research on the plant's medicinal properties.

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. These companies are working with tribal healers to learn the wealth of their knowledge. Amazonian Indians are often the only ones who know both properties of the plants and know how they can best be used. Their knowledge is very important and is helpful in the conservation of the rainforest.

Amongst those companies, the Amazon Herb Company has already set a good example, the company partners with indigenous Rainforest communities to ecologically harvest herbs in order to provide an ongoing stream of revenue for the indigenous community. The communities harvest the herbs, as they have done for centuries, the Amazon Herb Company markets the herbs and sends a portion of the profit back to the communities to help them gain legal title to their land and to have resources to make new choices about their own future.

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.

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.

Although rainforests do provide a perfect natural storehouse of drugs and medicines prodigious efforts are required in order to further explore the medical value of the rainforest plants.

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