1 Tahrcountry Musings: Here is yet another reason to protect the rainforests

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Here is yet another reason to protect the rainforests

Scientists have isolated Isolongifolenone, a natural compound found in the Tauroniro tree (Humiria balsamifera) of South America, which has been found to be an amazingly effective deterrent of mosquitoes and ticks. The product has been found to be as effective or even more than DEET, a potent and widely used synthetic insect repellent that works by blocking the aroma of human sweat. Isolongifolenone can be easily synthesized from inexpensive turpentine oil feedstock. Aijun Zhang of the USDA’s Invasive Insect Biocontrol and Behavior Laboratory led the research

Tauroniro is found in rainforests in the Guianas, Colombia, Venezuela, and the Brazilian Amazon. This brings in sharp focus the need to protect the rainforests, which is getting a shabby treatment worldwide.

Although rainforests make up only about six percent of the Earth's surface, they account for at least 50 percent of all the species of organisms on our planet. Rainforests are referred to as the Earth's lungs. Our lungs take in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide while the plants take in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. Rainforests once covered 14% of the earth's land surface but now they cover a mere 6% and are fast disappearing at an alarming rate. More than 200,000 acres of rainforest are burned every day. One hectare may contain over 750 types of trees and 1500 species of higher plants. We are losing 137 plants, animal and insect species every single day due to rainforest deforestation. This works out to 50,000 species a year. Estimates of species in the rainforests are only a guestimate. It varies from 2 million to 100 million species. Others put it at somewhere near 10 million. Against this backdrop only 1.4 million of these species have actually been named.
121 prescription drugs sold worldwide are derived from plant sources. You must be familiar with Vincristine, extracted from the rainforest plant, periwinkle. This is one of the world's most powerful anticancer drugs. Scientists have tested less than 1% of the tropical trees and plants for medicinal properties. A goldmine is waiting to be tapped.

The rich bounty includes the wild relatives of, oranges, lemons, grapefruit, bananas, sugar cane, tumeric, coffee, potatoes, rice, guavas, pineapples, mangoes, tomatoes, corn, avocados, and coconuts. This is only a short list.

Rainforest destruction spells doom for the indigenous people also. An estimated ten million Indians lived in the Amazonian Rainforest five centuries ago. Today there are less than 200,000. It is estimated that in Brazil alone, European colonists have destroyed more than 90 indigenous tribes since the 1900's. Rich tradition nurtured over thousand of years has gone down the drain.

The other day Barry my ecologist friend from UK was pointing out to me that a single pond in Brazil can sustain a greater variety of fish than is found in all of Europe's rivers. He also spoke about the recent discovery of 10 new frogs from the Western Ghats of India, one of the 35-biodiversity hotspots of the world. Yes, we are losing forests before we get a chance to study them properly. They hold enormous promise for our future well-being. The possible benefits are mind-boggling. Before signing off I would like to put here a small example. Harvard's Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist Edward O. Wilson over a decade ago put it like this. “Rainforest land converted to cattle operations yields the landowner $60 per acre; if timber is harvested, the land is worth $400 per acre. However, if medicinal plants, fruits, nuts, rubber, chocolate, and other renewable and sustainable resources are harvested, the land will yield the landowner $2,400 per acre”. Let us hope that wiser counsel would prevail over short-term gains advocated by our politicians in their scramble for “development”

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