ENVIRONMENT: Deforestation, climate change threaten Philippine medicinal trees, plants

Deforestation and climate change are threatening the country’s medicinal trees and plants, according to a line agency of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

The Ecosystems Research and Development Bureau (ERDB), the principal research arm and thinktank of the DENR, underscored the need to implement active conservation efforts to protect and propagate medicinal plants amidst climate change and other threats, adding that the country has yet to maximize the economic value of medicinal plants.

“There is no denying that deforestation and degradation continue to threaten our forests, our repository of medicines,” said Atty. Jonas R. Leones, DENR Undersecretary for Policy, Planning and International Affairs, during the recent ASEAN Conference on Medicinal Forest Trees.

“We hope to engage more experts in the field of medicinal plants and forest trees as soon as our researchers are finite and the effects of climate change become increasingly evident,” he further said. “Through a multi-sectoral and participatory approach, we aim to turn a shared vision into action.”

ERDB Director Maria Lourdes G. Ferrer agreed. Borrowing the words from the World Health Organization’s Guidelines in the Conservation of Medicinal Plants, she said, “No single sector, private or public, can undertake the conservation of medicinal plants alone. The job requires a team effort, involving a wide range of disciplines and institutions.”

In her speech, Ferrer cited some studies on forest species which showed interconnected relationships between nature and human health used by indigenous people around the world for disease treatment.

There is a need to gather and preserve indigenous knowledge on medicinal plants and medicinal forest trees given their benefits and potential for economic activity, she pointed out.

“As we embark on this intellectual journey, let us remember that our discoveries have the potential to touch lives, alleviate suffering and shape the course of healthcare and medicinal forest trees species conservation,” Ferrer said.

Based on the database of medicinal species in the country, 456 trees have been identified to have medicinal values, according to Dr. Pastor Malabrigo, Jr., professor at the University of the Philippines at Los Baños (UPLB).

“We have 3,500 tree species,” he said. “It’s safe to assume that we are underutilizing our plant resources. There are rare, threatened species the public is not familiar with, which are not being used. We have to give attention to these.”

Perhaps one of the most popular herbal medicines used by Filipinos is lagundi (Vitex negundo), a wild shrub with long five-leaf clusters often mistaken for marijuana. The Department of Health certified lagundi as an effective relief for colds, flu, pharyngitis and asthma.

“Lagundi has been used for centuries by local populations in the Philippines for its medicinal properties,” said the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). But it was not until a Spanish Jesuit Father Colin published a book in 1990 that lagundi’s healing properties were described in detail.

“In his book, Father Colin wrote that lagundi was used regularly by Filipinos to treat wounds and as a pain medication,” WIPO wrote, adding that he also discovered that the plant’s roots are used to treat rheumatism and dysentery.

Aside from lagundi, other herbal medicines popularized by DOH include yerba buena (Mentha x cordifolia), sambong (Blumea balsamifera), tsaang gubat (Carmina retusa), niyug-niyogan (Quisqualis indica), bayabas (Psidium guajava), akapulko (Cassia alata), ulasimang bato (Peperomia pellucida), bawang (Allium sativum), and ampalaya (Momordica charantia).

According to ERDB, there are now commercially available drugs from medicinal plants. These are: lagundi for cough remedy, sambong for diuretic relief, and akapulko as lotion for anti-fungal and skin rashes.

The following plants are being develop as drugs (although they are available in the market as food supplements): ampalaya as relief for diabetes, ulasimang bato as anti-hyperuricemic, tsaang-gubat as anti-motility, mutha as relief for malaria, makahiya as relief of diarrhea, and yerba buena as analgesic.

Unfortunately, most of the country’s medicinal forest trees and plants face several conservation challenges.

“More often, people say that climate change affects agriculture,” ERDB OIC-Assistant Director Conrado Marquez explained during the conference. “But more so, it also affects our trees and so there is a need to protect the habitats of these medicinal forest trees. When we say we protect, we talk about active management, governance, and fund allocation for the protection of the forest.”

Other factors which threaten the survival of forest trees include rapid urbanization, deforestation, and unsustainable harvesting.

The Geneva-based World Health Organization said that significant medicinal and pharmacological discoveries are continuously made through a greater understanding of the Earth’s biological diversity (biodiversity).

“A loss in biodiversity, such as that caused by deforestation, may thus limit the future discovery of potential treatments for diseases and health problems experienced by individuals worldwide,” the United Nations health agency said.

A World Bank report said that thousands of key compounds derived from plants are used daily to make medicines.

“Eighty percent of developing countries rely on traditional medicine for their basic health care and it is estimated that international trade of medicinal plants is a US$60 billion business,” the World Bank noted.

Nevertheless, high rates of deforestation are threatening this global industry. “Of the 50,000 known medicinal plants – which are the basis of more than 50% of all medications – up to a fifth are at risk of extinction at the local, national, regional, or global level due to deforestation,” the World Bank said.

Meanwhile, a survey conducted by the Social Weather Station (SWS) in 1994 showed that an estimated 78% of Filipinos were availing themselves of herbal medicines to deal with a variety of common ailments and discomfort.

“Plants are one of the most important natural sources of novel pharmacologically active compounds by the pharmaceutical industry,” the National Research Council of the Philippines (NRCP) said in a statement. “Since time immemorial, the use of plant-derived products embodies a major aspect in traditional medicine and contributes to worldwide healthcare.”

The SWS survey also found that 40% of the users, mostly from rural areas, used the medicines on their own initiative. Thirty-two of the respondents, however, said they got advice from herbolarios or traditional healers. Only six percent said they learned about herbal medicines from doctors.

A study conducted in 2019 showed that one out of two patients with a chronic disease will take herbal medicinal products to improve their welfare without consulting a physician or pharmacist.

“For every disease, God has a plant for it,” said Dr. Erna C. Arollado, director of Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the College of Pharmacy, University of the Philippines. She is also a member of NRCP.

Even the Bible mentioned the importance of plants against diseases. In Ezekiel 47:12, God told the prophet that fruit trees that grow along the banks of the river had healing properties, particularly the leaves.

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