Medicinal Plants in the Rainforest:Effects on Biodiversity and Indigenous Peoples

This discussion topic submitted by Stephanie Bosze ( at 12:34 pm on 5/16/00. Additions were last made on Tuesday, May 16, 2000.

Medicinal Plants in the Rainforest: Effects on Biodiversity and Indigenous peoples

Stephanie Bosze
Tropical Ecosystems of Costa Rica 2000

Of the 265,000 species of flowering plants that have been identified on this planet, only 0.5% of them have been studied in detail for chemical composition and medicinal value. In fact, modern scientists only know the chemical composition of less than 5% of the flora in the rainforest (Jackson, 1989). However, indigenous peoples who live in the rainforest can identify specific uses for 49-82% of the trees in their local environment (Weeks, 2000). In fact, 75% of the world population still use plants and plant extracts for their medicinal needs (Abelson, 1989). Indigenous people of the rainforest provide priceless resources in the form of knowledge about the potential usefulness of medicinal plants. It can even be argued that the knowledge of tropical plants as medicinal resources is more in danger of extinction that the actual plants themselves. When the Europeans first came to Amazonia, the estimated population of indigenous peoples was 6.8 million, but by the early 1970's the population was estimated at about 500,000 (Kricher, 1997).

Costa Rica is one of the most biologically diverse regions on the planet with 4% of the worlds living species being found there, while the country only represents 0.01% of the planet geographically (INBio, 2000). Compared to other countries that are well known for their biological resources, Costa Rica still comes in first in terms of biodiversity. For every 10,000 square kilometers, Costa Rica has 295 tree species, while Columbia has only 35, and Brazil, only 6 (INBio, 2000).

History of Medicinal Plant Use

The ancient use of plants can be seen in the traditional medical systems of India, China, Greece and Persia. For example, early Chinese texts discuss the details of the medicinal use of plants as medicines, while a similar system of identifying medicinal plants was developed in ancient India and is called "Ayurveda" (Trankina, 1998). As early as 1552 Aztec Indians who had been conquered by the Spaniards offered the Badianus Manuscript to the king of Spain who was interested in finding new species and medicines in the New World (Beachy, 1992). By the 19th century scientists treated malaria with quinine extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree. In the 1960's scientists discovered that an ingredient in the Madagascar rosy periwinkle could be used to treat some types of childhood leukemia. Today two anti-tumor agents are found in the rosy periwinkle, one of which provides for a 99% chance of remission in lymphocytic leukemia and the other offers a 58% chance of life in remission to sufferers of Hodgkin's Disease (Rainforest Action Network, 2000). Prior to 1960 there was only a 19% survival rate for patients with Hodgkin's Disease. Also in the 1960's, the National Cancer Institute program randomly tested taxol from the Pacific Yew Tree bark, which was previously used as a treatment for arthritis and rheumatism by Native Americans. Currently, at the University of Texas, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, doctors are testing taxol on patients who have failed to positively respond to other cancer treatments. Unfortunately, after the 1960's, drug companies in the U.S. turned their research from plant-derived drugs to easily reproduced synthetic ones. While the United States is not studying the use of medicinal plants as much as other developed nations, amazing discoveries have been made recently in treating deadly illnesses such as AIDS and cancer. In addition to the research being conducted at the Anderson Cancer Center, scientists at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston are currently testing acemannan, a complex carbohydrate found in the aloe vera plant as a possible treatment for AIDS (Beachy, 1992).

Other Important Uses for Plant-Derived Medicines

Many medications used to treat common ailments are found in plants: strong analgesics such as morphine and codeine come from the poppy (Papaver somniferum; digitoxin, a cardiotonic comes from the foxglove plant (Digitalis purpurea); and ephedra an active ingredient in over the counter antihistamines comes from Ephedra sinica (Trankina, 1998). Various curare lianas from Latin America have a deadly poisonous bark from which alkaloid d-turbocuarine has been isolated and used to treat multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's and other muscular disorders, in addition to having anesthetic qualities (Rainforest Action Network, 2000). Wild yams from Mexico and Guatemala provide us with diosgenin and cortisone, two active ingredients in modern birth control pills (Rainforest Action Network, 2000). In fact, plant-derived medications have anti-depression, anti-oxidant, and antiviral properties that are used to treat everything from arthritis to AIDS.

Deforestation and Extinction

History has taught us the dangerous consequences of destroying species that have the potential to benefit humanity. The ancient Greeks and Romans used silphion (known as silphium to the Romans) as a female contraceptive. This plant was so valued in these ancient societies it was mentioned in the writings of Pliny, Hippocrates, Dioscorides and in a play by Aristophanes (Plotkin, 2000). It had become the economic staple of the Greek city-state Cyrene, and was worth more than its weight in silver (Plotkin, 2000). Because of the high demand for this precious commodity, silphium went extinct 1500 years ago (Plotkin, 2000). Despite the lessons that humanity has learned from history, we still have not adequately changed our ways, and extinctions of this kind occur on a daily basis. Recent estimates state that about every four seconds, one hectare (2.5 acres) of rainforest is lost, and by the year 2050, 60,000 species of plants will have become extinct (Trankina, 1998). According to Beachy, (1992) 40% of the rainforests had been destroyed between 1940 and 1980 with an extinction rate of about 50 species per given day.

With statistics like these, it is necessary that immediate changes be made to the way that resources in the rainforests are used. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as just ceasing to destroy the rainforest. Indigenous people have occupied the rainforests for hundreds and thousands of years and their lives are strongly linked to the rainforest both culturally and economically. There is a delicate balance between protecting the biodiversity in the rainforest and preserving the lifestyles of the people that live within them. The rest of this paper will address issues regarding the protection of biodiversity of the rainforest while simultaneously protecting the right of indigenous peoples that dwell there. In addition this paper will discuss the Costa Rican organization called Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad (INBio) whose mission is to protect biodiversity and biodiversity knowledge in Costa Rica while supporting the social and economical development of Costa Rican people. The later half of this paper will also discuss an unprecedented agreement made between INBio and Merck, a large pharmaceutical company regarding the use of Costa Rican rainforests for medicinal research.

According to Blum (1993), at current rates of deforestation, 4-8% of all rainforest species would be in danger of extinction by the year 2015 and 17-35% would be in danger of extinction by 2040. One of the main reason that species diversity (as well as other forms of biodiversity) are in danger of extinction is that often local communities are struggling economically and when forced to decide whether to destructively mine natural resources for high profits, rather than leave the resources intact for future use, the society will usually chose the 'instant gratification' alternative. Blum (1993) states that such destruction occurs because the government is a"market externality". There are no formal rights to the ownership of the natural resources, and therefore it is not a custom to evaluate the economic value of rainforest resources in terms of the value gained by biodiversity preservation, but merely my mining of the natural resources. It is difficult for local communities to be concerned with the conservation of biodiversity in their environment, when they have no property rights to the resources and are not ensured they will reap any long-term benefits from their actions.

On the other hand, it is argued that some of the richest areas in terms of biodiversity are not only inhabited by indigenous peoples, but are managed and protected by them as well (Posey, 1996). The 1992 United Nations Convention on Environment and Development (UNCED) recognized the important roles that indigenous peoples play in both the "conservation and sustainable use" of nature resources while in turn maintaining biodiversity (Posey, 1996). While the value of indigenous people in preserving biodiversity has been internationally acknowledged, Posey (1996) believes this value is still highly underestimated. Posey states that part of the problem lies in the failure to recognize the human-modified nature of apparently pristine landscapes. Areas once believed to be wild resources are now being identified as the results of a coevolutionary relationship between indigenous peoples and nature. This includes fire, planting, soil modification and selected cutting techniques (Posey, 1996).
The recognition of the important role these indigenous people have on biodiversity has direct implications towards defining the Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) of those people. Under the convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), wild species or lands are products of nature, and thus no humans can assert claim to them. They are therefore public domain by law. However, if these species or landscapes are not wild, or are human-modified, they are not considered public domain and local communities may claim property rights to them (Posey, 1996).

Another related issue involves the mining of Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) by biodiversity prospectors. This knowledge includes practices, beliefs, or philosophies of a culture that are directly related to managing and conserving the local environment. Biodiversity prospectors can reduce research and development costs by tapping the knowledge of local indigenous people. Unfortunately, once that information leaves the local community, that community loses control over it because IPR law currently fails to protect their rights (Posey, 1990). The market value of plant-derived medicines is estimated at $43 billion in 1985, however less than 0.001% of that money is returned to indigenous people from whom the original resource knowledge came from (Posey, 1996).


The Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad (INBio) is a non-profit governmental organization in Costa Rica that was established in 1989 to promote awareness of the value of biodiversity and thereby through conservation efforts, improve the quality of life for Costa Ricans. According to the INBio website (2000) their objectives are: 1) To develop and execute a national biodiversity inventory. 2) Locate national collections within one physical space and under one administration. 3) Centralize biodiversity information currently and in the future, and 4) Put information in easily accessible formats available to a wide variety of users, and promote its use by Costa Rican Society. In September, 1991 an unprecedented agreement was made between Merck & Co. (the worlds largest pharmaceutical company) and INBio under which Merck agreed to pay INBio 1 million dollars for all the plant, insect and soil samples that INBio could collect in addition to equally splitting any royalties Merck obtained from developing drugs from those samples. While Merck benefits from the biodiversity resource knowledge as well as the samples the Costa Ricans provide, INBio and Costa Rica and said to benefit in their ability to use their natural resources in a sustainable way (Blum, 1993). In addition, all royalties that INBio receives are designated to support the conservation of Costa Rica's biodiversity as a large percentage of the money is set to go to Costa Rica's Ministry of Natural Resources. According to the World Resources Institute, if INBio receives 2% of royalties from the sale of 20 products, Costa Rica will receive more money than it does from its two largest exports, coffee and bananas (Blum, 1993). (Note: Although this agreement was made in 1991, the potential results of the agreement are discussed in the future tense, as most references are not current enough to discuss the outcome of the agreement). Although the INBio organization seems like an invaluable one for Costa Rica, the issue of the intellectual property rights of indigenous peoples once again becomes a sore issue. As a result of the Merck-INBio agreement, INBio was allowed to collect samples on national lands, including those of eight indigenous tribes. No one ever consulted the tribes regarding the collections and none of the tribes was named a beneficiary in the 1991 agreement (Posey, 1996).

Indigenous Action

Recently, indigenous peoples have agreed to assert their identity and traditional resource rights in the form of nongovernmental organizations like the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, the World Rainforest Movement, COICA, the Indigenous Peoples Biodiversity Network and the Mataatua Conference Secretariat (Posey, 1996). Many indigenous people are trying to obtain legal rights to their lands by documenting traditional land-use practices including detailed accounts of their knowledge regarding plants, animals, soils, water and forests. In doing so, these indigenous people make it known to others that their lands are not "wild" but the result of a long term symbiotic relationship between their tribes and nature.


It is obvious that the rainforests are an invaluable resource to humankind in terms of the potential for medicinal wealth that they may contain. Very seldom does something of such value exist without being surrounded by continuous debate and controversy. The ability to preserve the biodiversity of the rainforest and the rights of indigenous peoples, while simultaneously using sustainable resources is a very delicate task. Hopefully before too much of the world's rainforest is destroyed, such a balance will be achieved.

Abelson, P., H. (1990). "Medicine From Plants." Science 247(4942): 513.

Beachy, d. (1992). Nature's Pharmacy. Houston Chronicle. Houston, TX: 1E+.

Blum, E. (1993). "Making Biodiversity Conservation Profitable." Environment May: 16+.

Jackson, D. D. (1989). Searching for Medicinal Wealth in Amazonia. Smithsonian. February: 95-103.

Kricher, J. (1997). A Neotropical Companion. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press.

Plotkin, M., J. (2000). Nature's Gifts: The Hidden Medicine Chest. Time. April-May 2000: 34.

Posey, D. A. (1996). "Protecting Indigenous Peoples' Rights to Biodiversity." Environment(October): 6+.

Trankina, M., L. (1998). "Drugs That Grow on Trees." World & I(August): 158-165.

Weeks, J. (2000). Costa Rica Medicinal Plant Project, (2000). Instituto Nacional de Bodiversidad, INBio. (2000). Rainforest Action Network: Medicinal Treasures of the Rainforests, Rainforest Action Network Fact Sheets.

Next Article
Previous Article
Return to Topic Menu

Here is a list of responses that have been posted to your discussion topic...

Important: Press the Browser Reload button to view the latest contribution.

If you would like to post a response to this topic, fill out this form completely...

Response Title:

Optional: For Further Info on this Topic, Check out this WWW Site:
Response Text:

Article complete. Click HERE to return to the Research Menu.

It is 6:55:56 PM on Tuesday, November 20, 2018. Last Update: Tuesday, May 16, 2000