The collection, conservation, assessment and utilization of plant genetic resources are vital to the economic well being of every country. This is especially the case in many developing regions where industry contributes less to the economy than agriculture and the population uses locally grown plants directly for food, medicine, building materials and for other day-to-day purposes.
This paper examines how botanic gardens can play a pivotal role in the development of national germplasm conservation strategies to help contribute to national development by acting as a germplasm bank of economic plants and source of supply for the local economy, in addition to their well recognized role as institutions concerned with the conservation of wild plant species.
The world-wide threats to the survival of a significant proportion of global biological diversity make it urgent for countries to create national plans for the conservation of their plant resources. These will also form an essential part of national implementation of the provisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Most countries take at least some measures to conserve their indigenous plant life, through legislation, by the establishment of protected areas and by developing and supporting conservation institutions and agencies.
The development of a "national germplasm conservation strategy", may outline:
Furthermore, very few national germplasm database documentation systems have been developed; these must become an important tool to assist in the implementation of such a strategy.
If botanic gardens wish to be taken seriously as important germplasm conservation centres, it is vital that they are both advocates for the creation of national biodiversity conservation strategies as well as being major institutions charged with the implementation of elements of the plan once created.
The economic recession world-wide hit all biological institutions hard. Botanic gardens are having to work increasingly to justify and maintain their present levels of funding, let along increase them. In many cases, only when botanic gardens are seen as essential and relevant to the national future will they achieve their targets. Only by playing a greater role in developing national strategic germplasm conservation plans then hitherto and in implementing them, will their relevance be demonstrated.
The parts that a botanic garden can play in such strategies are many and varied, as outlined in the Botanic Gardens Conservation Strategy. They can include the following:
Botanic gardens can also provide expertise, technical assistance and back-up for other institutions nationally and internationally in these and other activities.
However, it is important that botanic gardens see themselves, and are perceived by others, as being capable of fitting into an overall national plan and being able to exploit their unique resources to allow them to work with and alongside other biological and conservation institutions and agencies. Botanic gardens must not allow themselves to become an exclusive club to which only they belong, as increasingly isolated and irrelevant institutions. In this regard the development of networks has been very significant in the last few years. Some of the networks, such as the Australian Network for Plant Conservation, the Centre for Plant Conservation in the U.S. and the Indonesian Network for Plant Conservation have placed great emphasis on developing their activities integrated with other non-garden institutions.
How must botanic gardens adapt their present structures to allow them to play more effective roles in germplasm conservation? Clearly the majority of botanic garden plant holdings represent totally inadequate samples of the variation of all but a few plant species. Many botanic gardens have poor records and records systems. Many botanic gardens currently play little or no part in growing native wild plants or economic plants important in their own region. Relatively few botanic gardens even have a written accessions policy. Undoubtedly the functional survival of many botanic gardens will be dependent on a radical rethink of their institutional policies and review of their accessions, activities and resources.
Through the successful development of the genetic resources conservation sector, the conservation of significant cultivars and landraces of the world's major crops is now widespread and a network of gene banks has developed around the world. Botanic gardens have played little role in this system so far and the collections of economic plants they hold have not, for the most part, been regarded as significant.
Nevertheless, many botanic gardens hold very important and extensive collections of several economic plant groups. For example: at the Rimba Ilmu, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia an important and IPGRI-designated collection of south eastern Asian Citrus wild species is maintained; at the National Tropical Botanic Garden in Hawaii collections of cultivars of breadfruit, banana, taro, spices, coconut and Pandanus;. at the Lancetilla Botanic Garden in Honduras, the former United Fruit Company Botanic Garden, major collections of coffee, mahogany, Citrus, mangosteen, rambutan and mango are grown, although most of their accessions are, sadly, undocumented. At the Moscow Main Botanic Garden in Russia major collections of economically important plants are maintained, including strawberry and gooseberry cultivars, fruit trees and herb, spice and essential oil-yielding species. Many other similar examples from botanic gardens could be cited. In other botanic gardens small but significant collections of a number of economic plant groups or even single species are maintained, such as a new collection of wild mango and bamboo germplasm at the Cuc Phuong Botanic Garden in Vietnam and an exotic fruit collection at the Hamma Botanic Garden in Algeria. Furthermore, one should not underestimate the economic significance of ornamental plants, a vast diversity of which occur in the world's botanic gardens. The Andromeda Botanic Garden in Barbados, originally a private garden, has been an important source of ornamental germplasm for the burgeoning trade in cut flowers for several Caribbean states. In many botanic gardens extensive collections of medicinal plants have been assembled. Notable here are those of the medicinal plant collections and work of many Chinese botanic gardens, of the botanic gardens of Sri Lanka, the Honiara Botanic Garden in the Solomon Islands and so on.
The development of more seed banks specializing in wild plants will be an valuable part of the implementation of national germplasm conservation strategies. Such work presents excellent opportunities for botanic gardens to become a major force in this regard. A BGCI survey noted 144 botanic gardens with low-temperature seed storage facilities. It is important that the development of a closely co-ordinated network of seed banks for wild species is planned. Initiatives to link many of them, especially those in botanic gardens should be urgently considered.
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