daily dependence on plant products of tropical origin is astounding. For
instance, Latin America and Africa are major suppliers of coffee and cacao
(from which we derive chocolate), while Asia produces most of our rice
and natural rubber. Our lives are enriched by beautiful hardwoods, spices,
essential oils and fruits. In addition, tropical countries export many
fibers, gums, resins, dyes, and plant essences that we may never see directly,
but which are widely used in medicine and industry. This section highlights
some of these important plants.
The Tropics in World Trade
Plant products like those just mentioned are often referred
to as "commodities" or "cash crops." Unlike many exports from the industrialized
economies, commodities are usually exported in minimally processed states
as raw materials. Whether tropical nations should continue to rely extensively
on these exports to fuel their emerging economies is a hotly debated subject,
with critics maintaining that overproduction depresses world prices of
these materials and diverts arable land from food production for local
markets. Regardless, patterns of trade in commodities are not likely to
change significantly in the near future.
Trade vs. Environmental Concerns
As tropical nations seek to increase their share in the
world marketplace, a key question is the best way to balance these strategies
with the needs to conserve and manage remaining forested areas. Indiscriminate
harvesting techniques and clearing large tracts for cultivation or ranching
have been all too characteristic of the past. The future will require more
appropriate means of extracting plants or their products if we are not
to lose the many thousands of other tropical species holding genetic "blueprints"
important to our future. This will require strong international leadership
on economic and environmental fronts and, for all citizens of the world,
a willingness to rethink our use of the Earth's resources.
Native Origins of Economic Plants
Plants listed below are native to these regions. Many
are now grown in other areas of the tropics also.
Learn about more tropical foods and spices at Tropical