Cutting Down the Rainforest: Have We Lost the Cure for Cancer?
The rainforest has been called the medicine cabinet of the Earth and with the continual cutting down of the rainforests, are we ruining our chances of finding the cure to cancer, AIDS and many other diseases. There is a chance this has already happened and almost did happen with a possible cure for AIDS.
The rainforests are located in Central America, South America, Southeast Asia, West-Central Africa and parts of Australia. Twenty years ago, the tropical rainforests covered 14% of the Earth’s surface; today it is less than 6%. One and one-half acres are destroyed every second, and experts estimate we lose 137 plants, animal and insect species per day.
Three acres of Amazon rainforest contain 750 types of trees, more than in all of North America. More than 20% of the Earth’s oxygen supply comes from the Amazon rainforests alone by converting carbon dioxide into oxygen. This is why the rainforest is also called “The lungs of the planet”. One quarter of the Earth’s fresh water is in the Amazon basin alone. The daily fresh water discharge of the Amazon River into the Atlantic Ocean is enough to supply New York City’s fresh water needs for nine years.
The Brazilian government reported that the official rainforest deforestation for 2003 was 2,375,000 hectares. That is 5,868,753 acres. A major reason for this has been the increase in a worldwide demand for Brazilian beef. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, exports of Brazilian beef increased from 232,000 metric tons in 1997 to 1.2 million metric tons in 2003. In 2001, the percentage of Europe’s processed meat from Brazil was at 74 percent.
There is hope this deforestation can be scaled back. In March 2009, Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio (Lula) da Silva announced a new “Action Plan to Prevent and Control Deforestation in the Legal Amazon”. The governments of Malaysia and Borneo have also acted to preserve the rainforests in their countries.
Logging also accounts for much of the rainforest deforestation. After logging the deforested land is then turned over to cattle ranching. Tropical hardwoods like mahogany come from places like Brazils rainforest. Recently Brazil has banned the cutting and exporting altogether of mahogany. Teak also comes from the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia.
Soybeans are fast becoming another cash crop in the cleared rainforest, as is palm oil, which is used in almost all processed foods. Palm oil comes from the rainforests of Southeast Asia.
Medicines from the rainforest
There is a story about a couple of scientists who searched all over the rainforest of Malaysia for a certain gum tree. When they finally found one they took samples from the entire tree and went back home to study these samples. They found that the bark could cure AIDS. They instantly flew back to Malaysia only to find that the tree had been cut down. Other scientists have recently found another tree in Sarawak, Malaysia.
In 1983, there were no U.S. pharmaceutical companies involved in research programs in the rainforest. Today there are over 100 pharmaceutical companies and US government agencies involved in tropical rainforest plant research, looking for cures and drugs for cancer, viruses and infections.
Current medicines from the rainforest include
· Vincristine and Vinblastine were derived from the rosy periwinkle plant of Madagascar. These two drugs have had a huge impact on people with Hodgkin’s disease, leukemia and other blood cancers. With this drug, the survival rate for childhood leukemia alone rose from 10% to 90%. The plant is now extinct in the wild because of deforestation.
· Quinine comes from the cinchona tree in the South American rain forest and is used to treat malaria.
· Neostigmine from the Calabar bean of the African rainforest is used to treat myasthenia gravis and certain types of glaucoma.
· Novocain used as a local anesthetic, cocaine also comes from the cocoa plant of South America.
· Reserpine from the tropical plant Rauwolfia is used as a sedative and hypertension drug.
Currently 121 prescription drugs come from plant-derived sources and 25% of the active ingredients in cancer fighting drugs come from the rainforests. At this time, the National Cancer Institute has identified 3,000 plants that are active against cancer cells and 70% of those plants are from the rainforests. Experts now say that if there is a cure for cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer’s and other diseases, it will come from the rainforests. In a 2006 report titled “Biodiscoveries, Borneo's Botanical Secret” states that an Australian company, Cerylid Biosciences, has found a compound in the plant, Aglaia leptantha, that effectively kills 20 kinds of human cancer cells in the laboratory, including brain, breast cancer and melanoma.
There is currently a big interest in the Acai berry as a health supplement. The Acai berry only grows in Brazil’s rainforest.
There has always been talk of reforesting the rainforest after logging, but that might not work. The same growing conditions and species might not be the same. The rainforest is a great gift to mankind, and here we are cutting, burning and bulldozing it out of existence.
The next time you have that cup of coffee, remember that most coffee beans also come from the rainforest, without the rainforest, there wouldn’t even be coffee.
© 2009 Sam Montana
 Newman, Erin B. "Earth's Vanishing Medicine Cabinet: Rain Forest Destruction and Its Impact on the Pharmaceutical Industry." American Journal of Law and Medicine (1994): 479-501.
Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)