New Harvests: Today, Humanity Relies upon Rainforests for Sustaining Livelihoods, Boosting Economies and Providing Potential Cures for Such Illnesses as Malaria and Cancer

Geographical, November 2005 | Go to article overview

New Harvests: Today, Humanity Relies upon Rainforests for Sustaining Livelihoods, Boosting Economies and Providing Potential Cures for Such Illnesses as Malaria and Cancer


Forests have arguably played a larger role in the development of human societies than any other resource, bar water and soil. The prime marketable product of most forests today is wood for use as timber, fuel wood, pulp and paper, providing some 3.4 billion cubic metres of timber-equivalent a year globally.

Poor and rich nations alike need wood. The world's leading per-capita consumers of timber include nations at all levels of economic development: Liberia and Zambia; Malaysia and Costa Rica; Sweden and the USA. By continent, Africa is the second largest per-capita consumer of wood after North America.

Half of the world's timber consumption is for fuel, but in developing countries, this figure rises to 80 per cent. For almost three billion people, wood is the main energy source for heating and cooking. Many countries, particularly in Asia, face a growing domestic shortage of wood for this basic purpose--notably Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan.

Among industrialised nations, the predominant use of wood is as industrial roundwood, a category that encompasses building material, paper and packaging. Global paper use has grown six-fold since 1950, using a fifth of all the wood harvested. The focus of industrial roundwood production is moving from logging natural forests towards harvesting from plantations. In the past 25 years, the extent of plantations doubled to 180 million hectares, an area the size of Mexico.

Plantations offer the potential for high yields of fast-growing species on small areas of land. They are now being cultivated in developing countries, with most of them planning to double the area of land allocated by 2010. Plantations can help to relieve the stress on natural forests--as long as they are established on land that has previously been cleared for another use. However, plantations don't provide the same protection against soil erosion and flooding as natural forests, and they are more vulnerable to fires. They are normally monocultures with little biological diversity, and offer virtually none of the non-timber forest products that sustain many local economies and cultures.

Non-timber forest products include fruits and nuts, rattan, medicinal plants and bushmeat. Many people living in or near tropical rainforests rely on wild animals caught in the forest for half or more of their protein. But just as timber can be over harvested, so too can these non-timber resources, especially when local products gain access to large urban markets. The bushmeat industry, which has become an international business, exceeds one million tonnes a year in Central Africa alone. Such levels of exploitation are clearly unsustainable.

But the greatest wealth of the forests may lie hidden in its genes. "At the dawn of the 21st century, many people believe the natural world has nothing left to offer us in the way of new medicines. This could not be further from the truth," says Mark Plotkin, a US-born ethnobiologist. "Mother Nature has been creating weird and wonderful chemicals for three billion years, and we're only beginning to sift through these hidden treasures. While today's laboratories can synthesise new molecules at a pace that was unimaginable a few decades ago, nature provides the optimum starting points. …

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