CIESIN Reproduced, with permission, from: Plotkin, M. 1988. The outlook for new agricultural and industrial products from the tropics: Natural pesticides. In Biodiversity, ed. E.O. Wilson, 111-12. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.


Many tropical plants have developed chemical defenses to deter predation by herbivorous animals. Tropical people possess a sophisticated knowledge of these plants, often using them as medicines or poisons. The calabar bean (Physostigma venenosum) was traditionally used as an ordeal poison in West Africa, and studies of the active principle of this species led to the development of methyl carbamate insecticides. World trade in daisy flowers (Chrysanthemum cinerariaefolium), the source of insecticidal pyrethrum extracts, is a multimillion dollar business (Oldfield, 1984). This plant was first discovered because of its use by African tribal peoples to control insect pests.

South American Indians use Lonchocarpus, a forest vine, as a poison to stun fish. Today we import the roots of this plant as a source of rotenone, a biodegradable pesticide. Other plants used by tribal people as fish poisons have yet to be evaluated for their potential as pesticides. Plants used to make arrow poisons or curares also bear looking into, since one such species, Chondrodendron tomentosum already provides us with d-tubocurarine--an anesthetic administered during abdominal surgery. Not only do we need to investigate the individual components used in the manufacture of the many different types of curare but we must also study the interactions among different species that are sometimes used together. In the northeast Amazon, the preparation of an arrow poison may involve the mixing of seven different species, and the Indians insist that each plant changes and amplifies the toxicity of the poison.

Yet another category of potentially useful natural pesticides are allelochemicals. These are chemicals produced by plants that inhibit the growth of other plants and of soil microorganisms. Allelochemicals include a number of different types of chemicals and may one day be used directly or serve as models for seminatural or wholly synthetic compounds (Balandrin et al., 1985).

Species that might prove useful as sources of biodegradable pesticides in the future include the following:


Balandrin, M., J. Klocke, F. E. Wurtele, and W. Bollinger, 1985. Natural plant chemicals: Sources of industrial and medicinal materials. Science 228:1154-1160.

Balick, M. 1985. Useful plants of Amazonia: Aresource of global importance. Pp. 339-368 in G. Prance and R. Lovejoy, eds. Key Environments-Amazonia. Pergamon Press, Oxford.

Gentry, A., and R. Wettach. 1986. Fevilla-a new oil seed from Amazonian Peru. Econ. Bot. 40(2):177-185.

Oldfield, M. 1984. the Value of Conserving Genetic Resoucres. U.S. Department of the Interior, National Pardk Service, Washington, D.C. 360 pp.

Schultes, R. E., 1977. Promising structural fiber palms of the Colombian Amazon. Principles 21(2):72-82.