Green gold – rain forest ecology and new medicines

Green gold – rain forest ecology and new medicines – includes related information on folk medicine

Karen McNulty

When Felipe Chavarria Diaz goes to work, he heads for the Costa Rican rain forest. His job: to collect samples of all the creatures crawling, flying, and growing there.

It’s a big job. Scientists estimate that the Costa Rican rain forest is home to half a million species–five to seven percent of all the living things in the world. But Diaz and others who share his work for the National Biodiversity Institute (INBio), a conservation organization in Costa Rica, believe identifying these species is the first step to saving them from possible extinction.

Rain forest species throughout the tropics are threatened. People, mostly poor, who live nearby often turn to farming as the only way to make a living. But in order to plant crops, they must first chop down or burn the forests–destroying the habitats of countless species in the process.

Does it have to be this way? INBio officials say no. They insist that the huge variety of living things in the forest is worth more than crops. The trick is to find a way for people to use that biological diversity in a way that will make money without destroying the forest.


As a first step, INBio recently worked out a unique deal with Merck & Company, the largest producer of medicines in the world. The deal allows Merck scientists to study samples of Costa Rica’s plants, insects, and microbes to search for new drugs. In return, Merck has given INBio $1 million and will share any profits it makes from the research. The money will help pay the local people who do the collecting, and fund national rain forest conservation efforts.

In addition, Merck has donated state-of-the-art equipment to the University of Costa Rica, and is training scientists there to perform the tests that screen for potential drugs. Eventually Costa Ricans will be able to do all the testing themselves–and reap all the profits.

“This is really a ground-breaking agreement,” says Diane Jukofsky of the Rainforest Alliance, another conservation group. “It sets a new standard so that it will be very difficult for other companies to come to tropical countries and just take what they want–which is what they did in the past.”


Why go to the rain forest to find drugs? Well, many of our drugs come from natural sources. Penicillin was first discovered in a fungus. Quinine, used to treat malaria, comes from a rain forest plant. So does scopolamine, the stuff that keeps you from getting sick on those long rides in the car. In fact, one quarter of all prescription medications come from plant chemicals, says botanist Michael Balick of the New York Botanical Garden.

And that’s just a start. Scientists have studied the chemical makeup of only a tiny percentage of the species on Earth–less than half a percent of the plants alone. Says Balick, “You don’t have to be a genius to realize that in the other 99.5 percent, there’s going to be something.” Maybe something that will lead to a cure for AIDS.

“The fact is that scientists are still not as creative as nature” when it comes to developing new drugs, says Merck spokesperson Jeffrey Goldstein. In many ways, he says, it’s easier to look for new chemical substances in nature, and test them against different diseases, than to try to create a drug from scratch.

The key: Test a huge variety of substances, such as you find in a rain forest, says Merck scientist Lynn Caporale. “The more we test,” she says, “the better chance we have of finding something that is effective.”

Such a find would be like striking “green gold” for Merck. Another drug company now makes profits of $100 million a year from vincristine, a cancer drug it developed from the rosy periwinkle, a tropical plant.


Will INBio and the local people really get a fair share if Merck has similar success? That’s one question Costa Ricans and conservationists are still debating. Unless the profits are shared fairly, the agreement will hardly inspire other countries to follow in Costa Rica’s footsteps.

Another question is whether harvesting a medically useful species might eventually endanger its survival–and that of the forest. The current agreement states that Merck will synthesize in the lab any useful compounds it discovers, therefore leaving the forest intact. That might be easier said than done. And in the meantime, will there be a run on the natural source, as there was on the Pacific yew tree, a source of a cancer drug (see SW 4/17/92, p. 4)?

Most Costa Ricans think the plan is at least worth a try as a way to make sound use of their natural resources. And people like Felipe Diaz, one of INBio’s trained species collectors, have gained a world of knowledge. They take great pride in sharing that knowledge, especially with children. Perhaps they alone will inspire a whole new generation to preserve the diversity around them.

COPYRIGHT 1993 Scholastic, Inc.

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