Deforestation -- the clearing of forests for other uses -- can severely affect ecosystems. Lots of bad things can happen: loss of homes for animals and indigenous people, floods and changes in climate. But one way to assess the impact of deforestation is to consider what won't happen when forests are cleared. According to the Rainforest Conservation Fund, 25 percent of Western drugs contain ingredients from nature. Impressive. Then consider that scientists have analyzed less than 1 percent of rainforest plants to see if they have medicinal potential. If forest habitats are being devastated, what unknown treatments and cures might be lost to the world?
Doctors have been aware of medicinal plants for years:
- In the 1800s quinine from the cinchona tree was used to treat malaria.
- The curare plant, although toxic, has been used to alleviate heart problems.
- The rosy periwinkle, from Madagascar, is used very successfully for the treatment of lymphocytic leukemia; it's also helpful for triggering remission in patients with Hodgkin's disease.
- Novocain, a local anesthetic, and vincristine, a cancer drug, were also derived from rainforest flora.
Researchers continue to seek natural remedies for many diseases, including cancer and AIDS. Pharmaceuticals are created not just from tropical plants but from fungi, bacteria and reptiles, as well.
Deforestation not only reduces the variety of prospective drugs available, but it can also cause people to need drugs. The January 2006 issue of the "American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene" published a study that discovered a relationship between deforestation and a malaria epidemic in the Amazon rainforest. The research focused on Peru in the last decade of the 20th century. Cases of malaria there had increased from less than 500 cases a year to more than 120,000 (one third of the population). It turned out that clear-cut land was attracting more humans and mosquitoes. Clearly, through deforestation, destruction of ecosystems will harm humanity's well-being, both in what is lost forever and what develops within that void.
The world's rainforests have come under increasing threat in recent years. The impact of deforestation affects the world's ecosystems in a number of ways. Let's look at the key problems that arise when forest are removed.
Depletion of resources: Rainforests are crucial to the survival of life on the planet, not because they provide land or lumber but because they're home to myriad life forms.
Increase of global warming: In the absence of dense forest cover, more heat is reflected back into the atmosphere. Also, nearly 30 percent of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere occurs during deforestation, when trees are burned.
Vanishing species: We have yet to discover many of the medicinal plants and herbs found in rainforests. So losing rainforests could also mean losing potentially life-saving medicines. We could miss out on the discovery of new animal species as well.
Vanishing tribes: Indigenous tribes possess vast knowledge of rainforest resources, which is in danger of being lost as these tribes vanish.
While those may be gloomy data points to contemplate, all may not be lost. On the brighter side, there are groups working to combat deforestation. For example, the United Nations sponsored the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Bali, Indonesia, in 2007 to address deforestation and other issues related to climate change. The 10-day conference resulted in the "Bali Roadmap," which included specific steps to combat deforestation.
In addition to the U.N., there are many other organizations working to solve the deforestation problem. Conservation International, for example, educates farmers on how to make the best use of their existing farmlands without clearing new areas. The Sierra Club, for its part, also works to protect and restore forests in the United States and the Rainforest Action Network funds a campaign of in-your-face advertising to bring attention to the problem.
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