1. Tropical rainforests are a global conservation priority. Robust arguments supporting rainforest conservation can attract funding and shape land-use management. However, some popular assertions regarding the value of tropical forests remain largely untested.
2. This study tests the validity of two arguments in support of mature tropical rainforest conservation: first, that these forests should be conserved based on their value as potential sources of medicine. This argument requires mature forests to be better sources of medicine than alternative land-use types, including secondary forests. Second, secondary forest use may help conserve mature forests by providing sufficient resources to buffer against resource extraction in mature forests.
3. The research was conducted in three communities in the Cordillera Azul, Peru, where 369 individuals from 66 households were surveyed. Participants recorded all flora and fauna collected in mature (>20 years) and secondary forests over 180 days in six use categories (food, medicine, wood, weavings, adornments and ‘other’). Ecological knowledge of secondary and mature forest species was assessed for male and female household heads.
4. Households used 346 folk species (as defined by local classification systems) from 3668 collection events. Individuals had better knowledge of secondary forest species, but more access to mature forests. Participants collected significantly more medicines from secondary than from mature forests. In other major use categories (food, wood, weaving, adornment), secondary forests provided fewer resources than mature forests. Participants collected a different set of species from secondary and mature forests, with only 130 folk species (38%) collected in both secondary and mature forests.
5. Synthesis and applications. The arguments to protect mature rainforests as sources of new drugs may be overstated, because secondary forests can provide more medicinal plant resources than mature forests, and landscapes that incorporate forests of different ages can maximize availability of medicinal plant species. Conservation efforts must take a landscape level approach given the spread of resource use across different forest types. Because of the heterogeneity of resource availability and use among community members, and the dynamic nature of resource use on forest frontiers, conservation should embrace participatory adaptive management approaches that incorporate a variety of resource users.