Alternative Medicine

Studies in the Amazon

By the time this column gets up on the Fox web site, I'll be in the Peruvian Amazon with a group of 16 college students, my wife, and a graduate student in the field of medicinal plants. Up Peru's Rio Napo, I'll give a three credit course entitled "The Shaman's Pharmacy," which offers an introduction to the great Amazon rainforest, its biodiversity, and some of the medicinal plants found in that forest. Here is some of the information the students will receive.

• The Amazon Rainforest stretches over a billion acres in Brazil, Venezuela, Columbia, and the eastern Andean area of Ecuador and Peru.

• More than 20% of the world's oxygen is produced in the Amazon Rainforest. This has earned the area the name "The Lungs Of The Planet."

• The Amazon Basin holds one-fifth of the world's fresh water.

• Five hundred years ago, an estimated 10 million natives lived in the Amazon rainforest. Today, fewer than 700,000 survive.

• In Brazil, colonists have destroyed over 90 indigenous tribes since the 1900's. This not only is the destruction of people, but of their cultures, and accumulated knowledge, including that of medicinal plants.

• Most medicine men and women and shamans remaining in the Amazon Rainforest are 70 years old or more. Each time one dies, a vast body of knowledge is lost.

• Most of the shamans today do not have apprentices. So when a shaman dies, thousands of years of accumulated knowledge come completely and irreversibly to an end.

• More than half the world's approximately 10 million species of plants, animals and insects live in the tropical rainforests.

• Rainforests once covered an estimated 14% of the earth's surface. They now cover less than 6%. At current rates of loss, the rainforests will be completely gone in forty years.

• One and one-half acres of rainforest land is lost every second. This has far-reaching environmental and economic consequences.

• Rainforest land is mistakenly valued solely for the worth of its timber, mining and oil resources by short-sighted corporations and governments.

• As a result of rainforest destruction, approximately half the world's species of plants, animals and insects will be destroyed in the next 25 years.

• Due to rainforest destruction, the earth loses an estimated 137 plant, animal and insect species every day. As the rainforest disappears, so do many potentially valuable drugs. Currently 25% of Western pharmaceuticals are derived from rainforest materials. But only 1% of these materials have been tested.

• One hectare (2.47 acres) of rainforest can contain over 750 types of trees, and 1500 species of higher plants.

• The developed world has derived approximately 80% of its dietary items from rainforests, including items such as oranges, lemons, grapefruit, avocados, coconuts, figs, bananas, guavas pineapples, tomatoes, mangos, corn, potatoes, sugar cane, rice, yams and squash.

• At least 3000 fruits are found in the rainforests. While only 200 of these are used in the western world, natives consume approximately 2,000.

• Rainforest plants are rich in secondary metabolites, particularly alkaloids. Many alkaloids from higher plants (reserpine, caffeine, vinblastine, etc) are of medicinal and health value.

• Currently over 120 drugs come from plant-derived sources. Of the 3,000 plants identified by the US National Cancer Institute as active against cancer cells, 70% come from rainforests.

• One acre of rainforest timber yields an owner $60. One acre for grazing yields an owner $400. One acre of renewable medicinal plants and fruits can yields an estimated $2400.

• Promoting the use of sustainable and renewable rainforest products can help to stop rainforest devastation. The rainforests are much more valuable alive than cut or burned, providing a steady supply of medicinal plants, fruits, nuts and oils.

In the Peruvian Amazon, the students participating in "The Shaman's Pharmacy" will have a unique opportunity to experience the majesty of the world's greatest rainforest, and the world's greatest river. Hopefully they will also become ardent protectors of this great place on earth.

Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at