Biodiversity: From Abuse to Sustainable Use

Tropical rain forests occupy only 2 percent of the Earth’s surface in a narrow band encircling the equator, but they are home to over half of all the biodiversity (plant and animal species) found on the planet. This richness in species (high biodiversity) is more threatened now than at any time in human history. An area of tropical rain forest the size of New New York, New Jersey and Connecticut combined is being destroyed each year! At this rate, within the next several decades there will be virtually lowland tropical rain forest left unless something is done to reverse the current trend. The destruction of diversity is an environmental crisis of the first order.

Many scientists, such as those here at The New York Botanical Garden, think this trend of destruction be turned around if society can begin to think of plants and animals as assets that are as much a part of national and global economic picture as are mineral, industrial, or human resources. We are using these assets before we understand their value. There are many arguments that could be advanced for most persuasive to the most people is the economic one. The economic value of tropical rain forest biodiversity is the focus of this exhibition.

What is really at stake? Let us take the development of new medicines as an example. At present, there are some 121 useful prescription medicines obtained from plants, and more than one third of these come from tropical rain forests. When we consider this, together with the fact that fewer than 1 percent of tropical in forest plants have been thoroughly researched for their useful properties, the untapped potential of new drugs from currently unstudied or even unknown plants is staggering.

The development of new foods is another area for which there is huge potential. For example, world wide there are some 18,000 species of legumes, a plant family containing such well-known crops as the common bean, peanut, soybean, various forage plants, and many important tropical timber trees. However, most currently used legumes were discovered by chance, and little is being done to systematically investigate the potential of the large number of legumes that occur in the tropics. There are some 6,000-legume species in Latin America alone, and over half of these (3,000 to 4,000 species) are threatened with extinction.

The key to maximizing the ecomonic utility of plants, while at the same time conserving the maximum biodiversity possible (thereby preserving society’s options for the future), lies in the concept known sustainable development. The general idea is simple: collect, harvest, or contract only as much of a particular resource from a habitat, such as the tropical rain forest, as is possible on a continuing basis. In actual practice, however, sustainable development can be quite complicated, due to gaps in the scientitific knowledge on hand and the general lack of understanding of the issues and political issues on the other. Scientists such as those at The New York Botanical Garden are working to provide the information needed for the sustainable development of plant resources and their wise management and conservation.

This exhibition attempts to bridge the gap between what we know and what we still need to learn (science) and do (the politics) in order to tap the green treasures of the tropical rain forest not only for ourselves but also for future decades.

  • www.radicalpositivism.org
  • www.kevinmodera.com
  • roatan.net/trw/

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