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25 November 2013

Why it’s worth saving the Amazon rainforest: A market-based solution

How investing in Ecuador’s Amazon could be a boon for the pharmaceutical industry while accelerating the country’s scientific and technological growth.


Imagine this: A country gushing with biodiversity delays oil exploitation in exchange for $3.6 billion from the international community. Ecuador had that idea with the Yasuni-ITT initiative, but it was halted this year by a government that cited insufficient economic incentives1. It is possible that elected officials in Ecuador have failed to understand the potential economic impact of preserving the rainforest because the value of the Amazon has not been clearly stated in economic terms.

It is estimated that only 5-15% of the approximately 750,000 species of higher plants have been systematically screened for bioactive compounds, which have the potential to become therapeutic drugs. The Ecuadorian rainforest is home to an impressive percentage of those species2. Ecuador is also home to a large number of indigenous groups who have used numerous plants with medicinal purposes. Regardless of these facts, no one has put the two together. Ecuador is sitting on a pot of gold and all it can think of is getting rid of the gold to dig out some oil. It is clear that Ecuador needs a new economic strategy that takes advantage of its natural resources.

Ecuador is sitting on a pot of gold and all it can think of is getting rid of the gold to dig out some oil.

Ecuador has the potential to become an important player in the botanical and pharmaceutical industries. The global market for botanical and plant-derived drugs amounts to a $32.9 billion business and has a compound annual growth rate of 11.0%. China is one of the major players in this industry and has succeeded in merging traditional Chinese medicine and modern drug discovery technologies to overcome efficacy and safety concerns3. In comparison, the global pharmaceuticals market amounts to $300 billion a year.

The pharmaceutical industry in the United States is one of four high-technology manufacturing industries – along with computers, communications, and scientific and measuring instruments – that reported a rate of product innovation at least double their national manufacturing sector average4. That means that a high portion of its revenue came from new products even though approval of new drugs has slowed down. Although these industries are dominated by the United States, developing countries are also pursuing national innovation policies. China’s share of the world’s high-technology manufacturing rose six-fold from 1995 to 2010, notably; the pharmaceutical industry grew 17%4.

In 2006, Ecuador created a regulatory committee to oversee the research, production, commercialization, and post-marketing control of natural products with medicinal purpose. In principle, the committee was meant to make recommendations for legislation governing natural products, coordinate research efforts among institutions and the government, prepare a database of plant and animal species with medicinal use, and manage intellectual property issues5. However, there have been no substantial results from this committee and evidence-based ethnopharmacological research that takes advantage of Ecuador’s biodiversity remains stagnant.

Nevertheless, Ecuador is slowly moving from a resource-led to a technology-led economy. It is investing heavily in the development of a state-of-the-art research center – Yachay – that will facilitate the collaboration between national and international institutional research centers in the private and public sectors6. Similarly, its Prometeo Project is attracting researchers with a broad range of expertise in developing research projects in universities throughout Ecuador7. However, to truly succeed, the Ecuadorian government has to select people with a strong scientific background to direct these efforts and also needs to support the work of independent think tanks already established in the country.

Most importantly, Ecuador must invest in research projects that invest in its human capital and that can be translated into technology-led economic policies8. This is a crucial time for Ecuadorian officials since the majority of the population disagrees with the decision of stopping the Yasuni-ITT Initiative. They must look into ethnopharmacological research as a lever to economic growth. Efforts in the area of synthetic biology may also take advantage of the biological richness of the country. Ecuador has the potential to become a knowledge-based manufacturer of plant-based medicine if it manages to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.


The importance of communicating science

As a scientist trained in pharmaceutical sciences, I can relate to Albert Einstein’s words: “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” Such is the life of the scientist, trained to observe in detail, measure with precision, analyze with scrutiny, report results, and interpret them in a broader context. Scientists are interested in answering the why’s of life.

However, at times scientists lack the tools to communicate the relevance of our findings to the general public, and more importantly, the tools to translate that information into action to have an impact on society. It is not strange then that many see science with skepticism.

There is a lack of understanding for what we do. Even our elected officials lack interpretative scientific skills9 and rely on scientific advisors to make evidence-based decisions that may or may not serve their constituents. In recent years, the need for science communication skills has been increasingly recognized and new collaborative efforts to facilitate the understanding and communication of science among scientists, the media, learning centers, and funding organizations have been undertaken worldwide10. These collaborations are an important step in providing society with critical thinking skills applied to claims about science.

To truly succeed, the Ecuadorian government has to select people with a strong scientific background.

Critical science literacy skills prepare non-scientists to understand the evidence obtained using scientific methods and rationally assess the value of scientific findings which can eventually be translated into decisions by elected officials.

In the case of the Amazon, there is a plethora of information about its biodiversity, but there is an urgent need to go beyond describing the evidence and further define the value of preserving it while developing countries continue to struggle economically.

Follow Karina Vega-Villa on her blog.

Photo Credit: Collared Aracaris jE Norton via Flickr and Vaccine photo via WikiCommons.


1 Iniciativa Yasuni-ITT. 2013. Available from (accessed November 2013)

2 Catalogue of the vascular plants of Ecuador. Monogr. Syst. Bot. Missouri Bot. Gard, 1999

3 Graziose R, Lila MA, Raskin I. Merging traditional Chinese medicine with modern drug discovery technologies to find novel drugs and functional foods. Current drug discovery technologies 2010; 7: 2-12

4 Science and Engineering Indicators 2012. United States: National Science Foundation, 2012

5 Dehesa-Gonzalez MA. La legislación vigente en Ecuador para la fabricación, uso y comercialización de plantas medicinales y fitomedicamentos. Boletín Latinoamericano y del Caribe de Plantas Medicinales y Aromáticas 2009; 8: 52-7

6 Yachay: Ciudad del conocimiento. Available from (accessed November 2013)

7 Prometeo: Investigacion, Formacion, Desarrollo. Available from (accessed November 2013)

8 The Millennium Development Goals Report. New York, 2013

9 Sutherland WJ, Spiegelhalter D, Burgman MA. Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims. Nature 2013; 503: 335-7

10 National Science Communication Institute. 2013. Available from (accessed November 2013)