Warning signals have been given for many years about the irreversibility of rainforest destruction. Loggers remove the timber, but leave desolation behind them. Third World countries are desperate for cash, so the short-term advantages of authorizing logging apparently outweigh all environmental considerations.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is aware of unchecked hunting along roads opened by loggers. It is said that, in these areas, spider monkeys, ibis, curassows and macaws have disappeared. Hydroelectric projects are underway without any studies of their environmental impact.
But with care, we can manage the forest effectively.
Amid the pessimism and gloom over the future of the rainforests of the earth, one recent report provides more than a glimmer of light. The novelty is that conservation funds are being obtained from the pharmaceutical industry.
The pioneer project has been launched in Costa Rica, which has given conservation a high priority over the years. Recently, this country has developed an innovative way of financing a major program of managing, studying and preserving the wealth of plant and animal species found within its borders.
In September 1991, an agreement was signed between the National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) and a multinational drugs company which was based on the idea of ‘chemical prospecting’. INBio will identify and isolate complex chemicals produced by the largely unresearched population of plants and animals living in its rainforests, and the drugs company will screen them for medical applications.
According to New Scientist (October 19, 1991, pages 26–40), about 25 per cent of medical prescriptions in the US are formulations that can be traced back to chemicals produced by living plants and animals. This figure is remarkably high, considering that interest has been concentrated on synthetics and microorganisms for the past 30 years. There are several indications of a shift towards products derived from plants and animals. The situation has changed for at least three reasons.
First, the high cost of synthesizing and investigating chemicals: it is said that 5,000–10,000 chemicals must be manufactured to get one new drug lead.
Second, the emergence of faster screening techniques: a natural products laboratory can now screen thousands of compounds a week.
Third, the realization that a vast reservoir of potential drugs is disappearing: it is widely regarded that the rainforests of the earth are under threat.
What is the explanation of this rich potential? There are extraordinary numbers of organisms in rainforests. One tree that was studied in the Amazon basin was found to have 43 species of ants, which is about the same number as is found in the whole of the British Isles! These are complex ecosystems, with innumerable plant-consumers and predators. Consequently, there are seemingly innumerable defence mechanisms—mostly of a chemical nature.
These arc the substances targeted for investigation by the pharmaceutical industry.
There are recent reports of a potent new anticoagulant derived from the bark of a Brazilian tree—used by the local Indians as a poison for their arrows.
It has been recognized throughout history that medically useful materials can be extracted from herbs. For the Christian, this is a cause for thanksgiving to God. With careful management, we can use the trees and forests God the Creator has given us. He has provided these things for our good.
Why should plants and animals produce chemicals which are beneficial for man? Is it an evolutionary accident? Is there no purpose behind it all?
From the Bible, we learn that man is to care for the earth and all the works of God’s hands. Man’s dominion was not meant to be that of a despotic destroyer, but a responsible steward under God. If we neglect this, and act as if we are masters of our own destiny, it will be to our loss. Let us give thanks and honour to God for these created treasure troves—our rainforests.