Rainforest Crunch

Rainforest Crunch

On my way into work the

other day, I found myself daydreaming about a scene that could have been lifted from the Da Vinci Code.

I had my radio tuned to NPR, and as I navigated rush hour traffic, only half-listening to a report about a rift between Pope Benedict and bishops in Brazil, I imagined soaring, darkened interiors of a vast cathedral, the faraway chanting of monks in some secluded chamber, as the sound of desperate footsteps drew closer and closer

Right about here you could have cued the sound of a needle being yanked off a record as my daydream was suddenly interrupted by one small bit of information from the NPR reporter. Turns out, the issue dividing Brazilian bishops and their Pope may actually have a huge effect on wellbeing – mine, yours, and the earth’s.

In the jungle

The largest tropical rainforest on earth is located in the Amazon region of Brazil. But with each passing day, enormous tracts of this region are being cleared to make way for soy farms. In other words, the complex and abundant ecology of the rainforest is being replaced with an ecology that consists of a single type of plant.

Cattle ranching is also a concern. If you clear some forest in certain areas of the Amazon, you can gain title to the land by establishing a cattle ranch. As you can imagine, this governmental generosity has resulted in a boom of cattle ranching that has overtaken thousands of square miles of rainforest.

The cultural fallout from soy farming and cattle ranching involves local bishops who practice “liberation theology” – they actively support economic and social justice for Brazil’s poor and powerless who provide cheap labor while international agribusinesses flourish. This is contrary to Pope Benedict’s conviction that the church should not engage in class struggle. The issue reached a flashpoint recently when two prominent cattle ranchers were charged with ordering the murder of an American nun who had spent more than two decades defending the rights of poor settlers in remote jungle communities.

Meanwhile, the rainforest is disappearing – as much as 205,000 square miles over the past three decades. By one estimate, an area the size of Maryland is cleared each year, creating a profound negative effect on the oxygen cycle in which plants absorb carbon dioxide and generate oxygen. The result: weather patterns are changing and the global environment is endangered.

Acres upon acres

When it comes to questions about the Amazon rainforest, we happen to have an excellent authority on hand: HSI Panelist Leslie Taylor, N.D., who is the director of Raintree Nutrition, Inc., and has traveled extensively throughout the Amazon.

When I told Dr. Taylor that I was writing about the deforestation of the region and asked for some background, she began with soybeans – specifically, the development of a new variety of soybean that flourishes in a rainforest climate. Last year, Brazil surpassed the U.S. in soybean production.

Dr. Taylor: “To capitalize on these profits agricultural firms in Brazil have converted extensive areas of rainforest and cerrado (a savanna-like ecosystem south of the Amazon rainforest), into industrial soybean farms. Since 1990 the area of land planted with soybeans in Amazonian states has expanded at the rate of 14.1 percent per year and over 16 percent annually since 2000. Soybean farms now cover more than sixteen million acres in the Brazilian Amazon.”

And soy isn’t the only crop prompting widespread deforestation. Dr. Taylor notes that “over-hyped and over-marketed” acai fruit juice products are taking a toll: “One proposed project in Brazil calls for the planting of 5 billion acai trees in the next 10 yearsand guess where they will be planting them? You got it. They’ll be chopping down more Amazon rainforest land and re-planting it with acai trees.”

Giving up a cancer cure?

In addition to an evolving environmental disaster, Amazon deforestation will have an incalculable effect on healing botanicals.

Dr. Taylor: “Experts estimate that we are losing 137 plant, animal and insect species every single day due to rainforest deforestation which makes way for more cheap beef and more soybeans. That equates to 50,000 species a year. As the rainforest species disappear, so do many possible cures for life-threatening diseases. Currently, 121 prescription drugs sold worldwide come from plant-derived sources. While 25% of Western pharmaceuticals are derived from rainforest ingredients, scientists have still only tested less than 1% of all of the tropical trees and plants there.

“What new medical cures await discovery in these rainforest species? The U.S. National Cancer Institute has identified 3,000 plants that are active against cancer cells and 70% of these plants are found in the rainforest. Are we going to give up a possible cure for cancer for the profits to be had of rainforest beef or soybeans, or even an over-priced, over-hyped acai fruit drink?

“As consumers, we are directly affecting the economy and ecology of the globe by what we purchase. We do have power – it’s called purchasing power. You choose what you purchase. Choose wisely.”

You can read more about the rainforest and Dr. Taylor’s personal Amazon experience on her web sites: leslietaylor.net and rain-tree.com.

“Pope’s Brazil Visit Puts Social Justice in Spotlight” Julie McCarthy, National Public Radio, Morning Edition, 5/8/07, npr.org