Deforestation, a headache for natural medicine

January 13, 2015


Río Xingú, en el Amazonas brasileño.

Banco Mundial

Latin America, with seven of the most biodiverse countries in the world, only invests 1% in environmental issues.

Have you heard about white willow? Probably not, but that plant is the source of the main ingredient of a medication that you are surely familiar with: aspirin. The ancient Greeks were the first to use willow bark, the source of acetylsalicylic acid, to alleviate fevers and headaches.

Around the world, thousands of key compounds derived from plants and animals are used daily to make medicines. Eighty percent of developing countries rely on traditional medicine for their basic health care and it is estimated that international trade of medicinal plants is a US$60 billion business. Nevertheless, high rates of deforestation are threatening this global industry.

Of the 50,000 known medicinal plants –which are the basis of more than 50% of all medications—up to a fifth are at risk of extinction at the local, national, regional or global level due to deforestation.

The planet’s biological diversity is essential not only for the drug industry but also for other industries. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, in Peru– which ranks third among countries with the most biodiversity in the world – some 4,400 native plant species are used for food, medicines, dyes, fibers, timber, firewood and other products. This represents a business of US$4 billion annually.

From the Andes of Peru to the beaches of Mexico, the region is home to 34% of the world’s flora and 27% of its mammals.

Latin America includes seven of the world’s 17 most biologically diverse countries - Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela-, however, the region’s biodiversity is threatened by limited investment.

According to a World Bank study, Latin American governments allocate an average of just 1% of their resources earmarked for the environment to protected areas, which is the equivalent of US$1.18 per hectare, on average. According to the report, this figure covers just 54% of the maintenance costs of these areas given the threat of deforestation. The report states that the sustainable conservation of ecosystems in protected areas requires an investment of over US$ 1.08 billion.

The preservation of biodiversity not only helps guarantee the survival of the region’s forests and the purity of its rivers; it is also essential to Latin Americans’ daily lives, since the protection of the delicate ecological balance directly affects their quality of life, according to the study.

Many of the region’s most vulnerable ecosystems are located on valuable, highly coveted lands where agriculture, mining and rapid urban growth exert additional pressure on conservation initiatives.

Biodiversity initiatives

Once lost, biodiversity never recovers.

One of Latin America’s crowning achievements is that 20% of its landmass is being protected in nature reserves. By contrast, only 13% of the land in other developing regions is in protected areas. Several projects financed by the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) and administered by the World Bank are contributing significant non-reimbursable funds to protect the region’s rich flora and fauna.

Recent advances in biodiversity investment have demonstrated the importance of safeguarding natural resources for the future. In Peru, a project launched in 2008 is working to conserve flora and fauna both inside and outside of the country’s 77 nature reserves. Through training, management and public policymaking activities, the project works with experts who have managed to preserve five conservation corridors covering approximately six million hectares, 20 times the size of Peru’s capital, Lima.

 “Corridors are relatively large spaces for protecting biodiversity. In this context, they are a climate change mitigation strategy since they provide the opportunity for species to migrate to other zones with more favorable climates. This is the case of the Andean guanaco, which can survive in the lower temperatures of higher areas or those further south,” says Alvaro Galiour, who served as director of the PRONAMP project “Strengthening Biodiversity Conservation through Nature Reserves” during 2013.

Another good practice is in Mexico, where a system for paying for environmental services was recently implemented. In this initiative, property owners are paid to conserve the forests with a view to protecting the ecosystem and reducing the risk of deforestation.

Costa Rica has a similar system, where in addition to protecting forests, the country is attempting to neutralize carbon emissions.

Remember that planting a tree not only helps us to breathe fresh air but can also serve as the source of the ingredients needed to create those pills that make us feel better when we need them most.