The incredible diversity of the rainforest provides many known, and to be sure, many yet to be discovered sustainably harvestable products of significant value. Of the estimated quarter million different plant species, fewer than five thousand have been studied for potential medicinal benefits. Of the approximate three thousand plants worldwide known to have effective anticarcinogenic properties, over two thousand come from the tropical rainforest. Approximately two hundred well known rainforest fruits are currently harvested or farmed as food, whereas local and indiginous cultures make use of between one and two thousand. An additional one to two thousand fruits with unknown viability have been catalogued.
The illustration below depicts the bounty of the rainforest, inferring how knowledge of the forest products, combined with sustainable harvesting and integrated management of the forest would have economic value far in excess of the raw value of the timber, the grazing value of the land, monoculture farming of the land for subsistence or agribusiness, or any other destructive use of the forest.
Each forest is unique. Even forests within the same general region can vary in the specific products they may harbor. Local or indigenous people can provide a wealth of knowledge about useful products. This knowledge itself represents yet another aspect of "harvestable" rainforest wealth.
Thoughtful management of just one rainforest resource can bring many times its original value. The rainforest tree, shorea wiesner, is commonly harvested for timber. The sap of shorea, known as dammar, also has many known uses. As a key component of varnishes and paints, one of its first known uses, dammar yeilds a return in the range of cents per ounce. Dammar has been found to be an effective medicinal remedy for depression, and is sold today for a few dollars per ounce. Another recently developed use of the product has been found as a component in finger nail polish (a type of varnish,) which however brings perhaps the highest commercial return. Of course, the wood of shorea can also be harvested for furniture when the tree has reached its expected lifetime.
Given the preceeding description of potential shorea wealth, it is tempting to turn to the development of a monocultural farming of shorea. However, we must appreciate that nature has evolved the tropical ecosystem of the rainforest over billions of years as a closely interdependent system. Isolation of and farming of a single product as a monoculture can rarely be accomplished in a sustainable way, that is, without artificial influx of chemical fertilizers and pest controls. Yet the rainforest itself has accomplished a self sustaining system. An integrated and knowledgable approach will ultimately yield greater economic returns, sustainably and ecologically, and with less overall maintenance and overhead, drawing from the already stable system nature has evolved.
With thoughtful consideration, it becomes clear how little "bang for the buck" we take from the single-use ideology which in fact has served us well in the nontropical farming culture of Europe and North America. Taking an integrated and sustainable approach to rainforest conservation and harvesting in the tropics, however, we can preserve the biodiversity while sustaining economic benefits indefinitely.