The Botanic Garden and the Nature Reserve: an essential relationship

Wanderbilt Duarte de Barros

Jardim Botânico do Rio de Janeiro
Rua Jardim Botânico 1008, 22.460 Rio de Janeiro RJ, Brazil


The author outlines the need for national parks to evolve from isolated 'nature reserves' to become cooperating partners with botanic gardens, in order to meet the current demands of conservation policy and the management of biodiversity.


The discussions at this Third International Botanic Gardens Conservation Congress under the overall heading of 'Botanic Gardens in a Changing World' should result in the identification and proposal of innovations for the management of biodiversity.

Nowadays it is clear that human beings must search for new ways of achieving a harmonious and intimate relationship with nature. In short, human beings must see themselves as an integral part of the environment.


The perception of the relationship that human beings ought to have with their environment originally arose out the recognition of the need to select and protect nature reserves - areas to be preserved for their beauty or uniqueness of landscape. The criteria for selecting areas as nature reserves were their configurations of relief, geology, archaeology, hydrology, flora and fauna, and other natural characteristics.

The French architect George Catlin was responsible for the establishment of the need to, and importance of, protecting sites that met the selection criteria mentioned above. During his travels in North America in the first half of the nineteenth century, he was astonished at the amount of degradation of the land that had been caused by improper use. He urged respect for the integrity of the environment, at a time when it was being used in a predatory and wasteful way.

Many years later John Muir, a tireless traveller through the American interior, and someone whom we can recognise as an early environmentalist, took up the question of, and the preoccupation with, the effects of the misuse of natural resources. He became a crusader fighting for the conservation of natural resources in his country.

National parks first came into existence in the third quarter of the nineteenth century and were intended to serve as a benefit for the whole nation, through the idea of the rational use of forestry resources, pastures, animals, soils and, last but not least, scenery.

Those early American struggles to preserve nature rose out of the political ideology of the Victorian Age in England, when the environment started to be seen as an essential part of our existence.

Scientific and Economic Developments

At the same time as concepts of the relationship between people and the environment developed, knowledge and techniques in biology and natural sciences had continued to develop. This development of scientific methods, facilitating the study of animals and plants, had involved the direct participation of naturalists such as Wallace, Darwin, Frits Muller, Bates, Malthus and Humboldt. The rate of this development was strongly promoted by technological changes.

Economists such as Adam Smith, Ricardo and Marshall had also assigned an important role to nature in their work. They believed that a well thought out system of management was essential for the proper use of common resources.

Population movements, and the intensive and slapdash use of land throughout the world, led to the emergence of groups of people interested in protecting nature. They included artists, politicians, scientists and writers, some of them acting as practical preservationists and conservationists. They were conscious of the destructive effects of human action on natural resources. They acted with varying degrees of effectiveness, using the knowledge they had at that time, although not always with the same understanding of ecology that we have today.

The Formation Of National Parks

The first national park was founded in 1872. This was about one century after the establishment of botanic gardens as we know them, although they have been recorded in various forms for millenia. This foundation was the result of ideas previously developed in Europe by 1700, of the consensus of enlightened opinion, and of the awareness of a society characterized by rural roots which had emerged in North America during the beginning of the colonial period.

William Penn, John James Audubon, George Perkins, Marsh, John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Davido Thoreau were pioneers of the establishment of a protectionist policy for nature. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the preaching of these New World 'nature-philosophers' promoted the foundation of a pragmatic ecology-based philosophy of conservation. Their main aim was to encourage a non-exploitative attitude towards life on Earth, including its soils, forests, bodies of water, animals and landscape, in the midst of contemporary trends such as urbanization, technology, industrialization, demand, scarcity, waste, knowledge and the marginalisation of nature. Their goals have been adopted by many other groups of people in the twentieth century.

National parks were first created with the implicit assumption that they would be kept free from human activity. They were thought of as natural sites, still untouched by human activity, where flora and fauna, fantastic relief features, large or beautiful bodies of water, unique and rare soils and fantastic speleologic phenomena could be enjoyed by everybody. All these scenic components, whether occurring in isolation or in groups, made up the landscape complexes to be protected as nationals parks. This concept was first realized in 1872 with the foundation of the Yellowstone National Park in the United States.

Recreation and leisure, the scenic elements and the connexion with the idea of preservation - often confused with conservation, to which preservation relates - characterize the roles of national parks.

The Role of Botanic Gardens and their Relationship with National Parks

It is my belief that botanic gardens must be allowed to carry out surveys, inventories and systematic research programmes within national parks. This will give national parks an auxiliary and parallel role to that of botanic gardens in the field of plant studies.

We can trace the beginnings of botanic gardens to the famous Babylonian Gardens. From the Middle Ages to the beginning of Illuminism in the eighteenth century, they kept to a conventional role, more interested in ornamentals, medicinals, scented and fibrous plants. During this period many botanic gardens with specific or restricted objectives were created. Sometimes they were coupled with arboreta. Systematic botanical studies according to Linnean taxonomic rules comprise the main research field to which those Botanic Gardens applied their efforts.

Although the roles of botanic gardens have been added to as occasion dictated, the adoption of new roles and techniques was not simultaneous - they were not equally accepted by all botanic research institutions. Systematic botany remains a priority role for botanic gardens. It has a particular value, not always well distinguished by botanic gardens, which lies in its statistical character.

At the end of the twentieth century we must consider the necessity for botanic gardens to widen their roles, either by expanding existing ones , or by introducing completely new roles. The use of formal biological indicators in programmes for the restoration of plant cover is an example of a new field to be explored. We also can think in terms of the evaluation of the potential use of exotic species in afforestation or reafforestation projects, to save rare or endangered species. The use of new procedures in such fields as environmental education or economic botany will play their part in the overall improvement of the quality of life.

In order to carry out their assigned roles, modern botanic gardens are now concerned with the following range of topics: ecology, phytosociology, phytogeography, paleobotany, anatomy, limnology, landscaping, ethnobotany, phytochemistry, physiology, genetics, biotechnology, phytopathology, entomology, morphology, dendrology, natural resources in general, environmental education and palaeontology.

Although they were created for different reasons, in distinct periods of human history, botanic gardens and national parks have distinct but non-conflicting and complementary characteristics. National parks and botanic gardens can act in a close and productive functional relationship, because of the role of national parks as nature reserves.

National parks can, and should, be used for phenological and ecological studies, as in botanic gardens, as part of an in-situ conservation policy. They can be thought of as having a role as seed banks or germplasm banks. Botanic gardens can also use national parks as centres for the study of rare or endangered species, without neglecting their role in preserving biodiversity. Botanic gardens can also use national parks to hold stocks of plants, mainly those to be used for propagation because of their economic value or for their conservation. Such development of the possibilities of linkage between national parks and botanic gardens should not cause conflicts between policies of preservation and conservation.

Establishing working links between botanic gardens and national parks implies that national parks will need to change their roles, in one or more of the following ways:

In a country like Brazil, which has created 40 national parks and 40 ecological research stations, it is possible to identify the capacity that a botanic garden has to explore natural resources in a national park, mainly through ecosystems surveys. But it is crucial that such research is not interfered with by any obligations which a park has for public access.

The involvement of botanic gardens offers the possibility of having efficiently-managed, reliable and high-quality projects for in-situ or ex-situ conservation in national parks. The implementation of these projects should always be sufficiently flexible to allow staff to supplement conventional methodologies with new ones when facing unforeseen circumstances.

Thus national parks can aid the research and conservation activities of botanic gardens, for example where a garden is not sufficiently large or is located in an inadequate site, or is without access to sufficient biodiversity.

Botanic gardens also need good management of their facilities, conducting investigations and promoting user education. Where rare species occur, they also need an area with facilities for the introduction or reintroduction of plants involved in conservation programmes.

Botanic gardens and national parks can help each other in the task of offering society a response to the perceived need for the conservation of biodiversity.

Future Prospects

The numbers and activities of national parks will grow and diversify up to and beyond the end of this millennium. This implies a need for a review of related concepts, resources and requirements.

We see a close and efficient integration between these two institutions for nature protection. They must be given the resources that they need to meet their changing roles.

As described above, this integration must reflect their multiple functions and their use for leisure, research, landscape contemplation and the preservation of ecosystem biodiversity, as well as their respective management philosophies. The necessary changes must be carried out in an orderly, gradual and progressive way.

It is clear that the institutional linkages outlined in this paper promise a better coupling of the expertise found in botanic gardens with the plant resources of national parks.

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