Paul Cox says tropical rain forests should not be cut down to make toilet paper.

Such forests often represent the only assets of the indigenous people living near them - people like the villagers of the Falealupo Peninsula on the island of Savaii in Western Samoa, who regard the 30,000-acre rain forest on the peninsula as the source of their legends, the heritage of their ancestors and the future for their unborn generations.Beyond these cultural, historical and spiritual reasons for preserving the forests, there is an ecological factor. Rain forest destruction has been identified as contributing to the greenhouse effect, the gradual warming of the Earth that is believed to be destroying the planet's atmosphere, Cox says.

But Cox, a Brigham Young University associate professor of botany, gives an additional reason for preserving rain forests, and it is perhaps the most alarming.

Cox, who for a decade has been researching plants used by native healers for treating illnesses, said it is possible the cures and treatments for some of our most dreaded diseases, like cancer and orAIDS, may be found in the pharmacological properties of rain forest plants.

Approximately 25 percent to 30 percent of rain forest plants are found nowhere else. And 150 species of Samoan medicinal plants, researched by Cox and his graduate students, are being tested by the National Cancer Institute and the University of Uppsala in Sweden for treatment possibilities.

"Five percent of all prescription drugs are derived from plants," Cox said. "The best treatment for childhood leukemia comes from the rosy periwinkle. But we're cutting down the pharmacy. When the bulldozer hits those rain forests, we may lose the plant that could treat Parkinson's disease or whatever."

Cox, recently named as the 1988 professor of the year at BYU, is not a man who sits idly by, worrying about such eventualities. He is a man of action.

Cox was in Western Samoa last July when Falealupo's village chiefs, who had long refused logging company requests to harvest their forest, finally gave in, under pressure from the Western Samoan government to build a school at a cost of approximately $55,000. A licensing agreement, authorizing only the harvest of enough forest to provide revenue to build the school, was drawn up with a logging company. At $1.83 per acre, the logging company got the best of the deal. in more ways than one.

Cox was there as the bulldozers began tearing at the fringes of the forest.

"The bulldozers were ready to pulp the rain forest, to chew it up and scrape the soil off," Cox said. "The chiefs were just standing there weeping. It is pretty unnerving to see 70- to 80-year-old chiefs weep like babies at seeing their forest destroyed."

So Cox did what he had to do: He hastily met with the chiefs, and upon learning they were strongly opposed to the logging, agreed to make the payments - about $600 per month - on the school for six months, if they would stop the destruction. During that period, Cox also pledged to attempt to raise enough money for the villagers to pay for the school. Cox told the villagers they would retain title to the forest and would be encouraged to use portions of it for harvesting medicinal plants, certain timbers for construction of kava bowls used in ceremonies, hut timbers and other cultural activities.

"The chiefs were so happy, they stood shoulder to shoulder to block the bulldozers," Cox said.

Since then, Cox has broadened his goal to raising an additional $40,000 to create a permanent endowment for preserving the forest as a national park.

Cox, with the help of graduate botany students, has made progress in his fund-raising efforts on behalf of the Samoan rain forest. One donor has pledged $30,000. Another $2,000 has been contributed by school children, BYU students and private individuals.

Janice Jutila, a graduate botany student, said the Ecology Response Club at BYU has been somewhat stymied by campus regulations that prohibit clubs from engaging in fund-raising activities. But donations have trickled in nonetheless as the story has spread via word of mouth. And Cox is pleased with that response.

"The point is people living here in Utah are adopting a rain forest in Samoa," Cox said. "They are joining hands with the village chiefs to preserve the forest. We, as people, can help stop it."