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The world's rainforests are host to a multitude of plant and animal species, thus comprising Earth's richest and most diverse natural resource. One of the greatest benefits that rainforests have to offer is its plentiful supply of active compounds, which are used presently in many pharmaceuticals and hold the potential for the next "miracle drug." Bioprospecting is the term used to describe the extraction of natural medicines from our rainforests. Present rates of deforestation, however, pose a serious threat to our "natural pharmacy" and are daily eliminating species of plants that might provide a possible cure. Establishing policies to regulate the bioprospecting industry is challenging, but underway so that humans can benefit from our rainforests while still protecting and conserving the environment.

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2100 AD :

It's a horrible situation. Your loved one has been suffering from cancer and there is almost nothing you can do. All possible combinations of drugs have been tried, but still he is suffering from pain. For some reason, medical technology cannot find a way to leave him in peace, allowing him to enjoy his days until he fully recovers. Feeling helpless, you decide to do some research on your own, where you come across a native plant that indigenous peoples have been using for centuries to cure all kinds of pain resulting from various illnesses. This fills you with hope, thinking that you might be able to ease your loved one's pain. Pursuing this line of hope, you consult with some specialists in the medical field, only to become disheartened once again. The plant you read about no longer exists; due to the massive destruction of the rainforests the environment where this plant originated is long gone.


Indigenous peoples have been using the natural resources of our rainforests for centuries to cure a variety of ailments. Medical science is very advanced, yet still cannot duplicate what nature has given us. The simplistic problem illustrated above is very real. Deforestation is not only disrupting ecosystems and wiping out precious animal species, it is also eliminating an enormous potential supply of medicines available in our rainforests. If proper action is not taken today, we will be sacrificing potential "miracle drugs" and losing an extremely valuable source of medicines.

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What is Bioprospecting?

In order to understand bioprospecting, the concept of biodiversity must first be clarified. Biodiversity is defined as "the totality of genes, species, and ecosystems in a region", or "the variety and variability of life.

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" As follows from this definition , bioprospecting is " the exploration of wild plants and animals for commercially valuable genetic and biochemical resources" (World Resources Institute). Simply stated, it is the process by which humans take plant species from the rainforests (and other environments) to use for medicinal purposes and other ways to benefit society.

Home to 50 to 70 percent of all life forms, rainforests make up less than two percent of the Earth's surface. The primary causes of rainforest destruction are logging, cattle ranching, mining, oil extraction, hydroelectric dams, and subsistence farming (Deforestation Rates). According to Conservation International, an organization that works with industries and countries involved with bioprospecting, of the 250,000 known plant species in the world, maybe 5,000 have been tested for their medicinal potential (Conservation International).

Present rates of destruction in the rainforest illustrate the danger we face. Approximately two U.S. football fields, or 2.47 acres of rainforests, are being destroyed per second, totaling about 78 million acres per year. Scientists also estimate that an average of 137 species of life forms are being pushed into extinction every day. With business as usual, meaning if deforestation continues at current rates, almost 80-90 percent of tropical rainforests will be destroyed by the year 2020 (Deforestation Rates). It is easy to see from these statistics that the 245,000 plant species that have yet to be tested for their medicinal potential may never get the chance. The human species will suffer from this, because within our rainforest lies possible cures for AIDS, Alzheimer's, cancer, and other fatal illnesses.

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Examples of Natural Pharmaceuticals:

The indigenous peoples of developing countries continue to rely heavily on mother nature's gifts. Approximatley 80 percent of the people in third world countries use "traditional medicine", primarily from plants and animals, as their main source of health care. In addition, 25 percent of the prescriptions in the United States are filled with drugs whose active ingredients originate from plants (World Resources Institute).

The following list is a work of Conservation International and gives examples of several of the drugs derived from wild plants. For more examples, you can visit their web site which is hyperlinked below.



Pacific Yew

Pacific Northwest


Ovarian Cancer




Fever and Pains

Rosy Periwinkle


Vinblastine Vincristin

Blood and Lymph Cancer





source: Conservation International

Another important aspect to note here is the fact that scientists, as well as business people and industrial workers, need to have certain guidelines in order to protect nature's supply. A group of biologists traveled to Malaysia in 1987 to research chemical compounds in the region that held medical potential. They extracted a plant sample from a Malaysian gum tree and four years later isolated from the sample a compound that blocked the spread of HIV-1 virus in an experiment with a human cell. Upon returning to the site for more of the plant collection, none was to be found. The tree fell shortly after the original material was collected by the scientists, and a potential cure was lost (Hunter). This example shows how fragile and delicate the process of bioprospecting is, proving action needs to be taken to conserve the sources.

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Policies and Contracts

Simple supply and demand laws point out the need for regulation in the bioprospecting industry. Clearly, the demand has risen due to a renewed interest in natural medicines and supplies. Yet at the same time, our rainforests are clearly in limited supply and rapidly diminishing. This has led to an increased interest in the field by companies hoping to earn large profits. Statistically speaking, the number of biotechnology applications filed grew by 15% annually over the period from 1985 to 1990, while total product sales of the United States biotechnology industry increased by 38% from 1990 to 1991(Reid). However, bioprospecting has traditionally been very unregulated. Samples from rainforests have mainly been collected by individuals or small firms who then sent the samples to labs for testing and sometimes gave spot payments to the collector; but the collector and country of origin never received royalties on products derived from the samples. Furthermore, the countries had little or no conservation benefits in addition to the lack of economic benefits (Reid).

Times are changing, however. Genetic and natural resources are now being recognized as property of the source countries similar to any other natural resource, instead of as the "commmon heritage of humankind." Thus, legislation is increasing fairly quickly to govern wildland bioprospecting. The most important reasons are to conserve the resources on which bioprospecting depends and to benefit national governments and the people which inhabit the areas from which the samples are being taken (Reid). The international Convention on Biological Diversity was a first step in the right direction. Signed by over 150 countries during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, it went into effect in December of 1993. Its main goals were to conserve biodiversity, sustain use of its components, and establish "fair and equitable sharing of the benefits of its use"(World Resources Institute).

Government legislation and companies that work between researchers and indigenous peoples (such as Conservation International) are basically setting out to fulfill the same goals. Policy makers and environmentalists are concerned about protecting and conserving the environment, while simultaneously being able to use and benefit from nature's resources. It is a challenging task that policy makers are setting out to do. In the next section, a case example will demonstrate an effective approach to this issue.

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Costa Rica: A Case Example

Based on the numerous articles on bioprospecting, it seems that policy makers and researchers in the field concur that the agreement set up in Costa Rica is very effective and could provide many answers for future contracts. In September 1991, the National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) in Costa Rica established an unprecedented agreement with Merck & Co., Ltd., a pharmaceutical firm from the United States. The contract was structured around guidelines made by Cornell University entomologist Thomas Eisner and focused on conserving the natural environment and ensuring that Costa Rica and its people benefited from any discoveries made there. Based on the contract, INBio agreed to provide "Merck's drug screening program with chemical extracts from wild plants, insects, and microorganisms." Merck compensated INBio with a large and generous two-year research budget, royalties on any resulting commercial products, and technical assistance and training to help establish drug research capacity in Costa Rica. One of the most important and crucial aspects of this agreement, however, is the fact that INBio included in the contract an agreement to give 10 percent of the original payment from Merck and 50 percent of any royalties to Costa Rica's National Park Fund for sole purpose of conserving national parks. Therefore, this agreement is benefiting the industry, Costa Rica, and the environment. In addition, INBio will ensure to Merck correct taxonomic identification, safe storage of chemicals, and the ability to obtain more supplies if a chemical shows promise; Costa Rica will benefit through a transfer of technology and the scientists receiving advanced training in this field. Plus, this agreement ensures that Costa Rica will be adequately compensated, an aspect often neglected in the past. For all these reasons, the outcomes from the situation in Costa Rica will be very important (Reid).

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FYI: A Couple Miscellaneous Facts

Here are a few bits of trivia related to bioprospecting:

* Rainforests also provide fruits, nuts, oils, and resources such as rubber, chocolate and chicle (
* Raintree). Natural insectides, raw material for biodegradable plastic, and microorganisms used in oil spill cleanups, wastewater treatment, carbon-dioxide scrubbing, and chemical detoxification have all been found through bioprospecting(
* Reid). Approximately 10,000 to 35,000 plant or animal samples must be tested to yield one clinically valuable drug (
* Reid). The rate of deforestation destroys an area larger than Poland per year (
* Deforestation Rates). Yellowstone National Park has thermophilic ("heat loving") microorganisms that are proving to be very useful in industries, most importantly for DNA amplification. The National Park Service has had to revise regulations to address this issue (

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It is easy to see the massive potential held within our rainforests. Due to a renewed interest in natural medicines, bioprospecting has recently become a very popular area of research. As is obvious, deforestation threatens this exploration. In order to conserve our environments and protect the possibilities within them, legal and policy work needs to continue further. This is a controversial and delicate subject, as business and environment always clash. Cost Rica's agreement proves that compromise is definitely feasible, however. Increased awareness about this issue will also improve the situation. Visit the sites below to find out further information.

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Works Cited

Conservation International. "Bioprospecting." [Online] October 22, 1998.

Deforestation Rates in Tropical Forests and Their Climatic Implications. "Rates of Rainforest

Loss." [Online] October 22, 1998.

Chester, Charles C. "Controversy over Yellowstone's Biological Resources." [Online] October 14, 1998.

Hunter, Christopher J. "Sustainable Bioprospecting: Using private contracts and international

Legal principles and policies to conserve raw medicinal materials." [Online] October 22, 1998.

Raintree Nutrition, Inc. "Welcome to the Wealth of the Rainforest : Pharmacy to the world."

[Online] . October 14, 1998.

Reid, Walter V. "The Economic Realities of Biodiversity." [Online] October 14, 1998.

World Resources Institute. "Questions and Answers about 'Bioprospecting.'" [Online] October 26, 1998.
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