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The Potential Role of African Botanic Gardens in Environmental Awareness Programmes and the Need to be Involved

Contributed by George Owusu-Afriyie, Aburi Botanic Gardens, P.O. Box 23, Aburi, Akwiapim, Ghana.

Introduction

This paper attempts to highlight two main issues, namely:

  • the role of African botanic gardens in the creation of environmental awareness among the local people through education
  • the need to involve African botanic gardens in the world-wide crusade to protect the environment from extensive exploitation and degradation.

To enable us have a clear perception of the potential roles of African botanic gardens in these sub-sectors, it is important to briefly discuss the historical development of these gardens on the continent.

Overview

In tropical Africa many of the botanic gardens and arboreta were established in the latter part of the 19th century in response to a number of factors, the primary ones being:

  • to undertake the exhaustive exploration of agricultural resources with a view to finding suitable economic plants for European markets
  • to experiment on both economic and decorative plants from other tropical and sub-tropical countries with a view to finding out which ones could thrive under local conditions
  • to teach scientific methods of agriculture to local farmers.

Botanic gardens not only served as part of the instruments of colonial expansion but also acted as experimental stations for the introduction of new crop plants in the local agricultural economy.

The pursuit of the latter objective led to the establishment of agricultural experimental stations in most botanic gardens and there is no doubt that the promotion of agricultural activities within botanic gardens adversely affected their development. With the setting up of Departments of Agriculture in the gardens in the 1940s, the botanic gardens were freed from the suffocating influence of agricultural activities and began to develop in their own right.

Today some of the 60 botanic gardens and arboreta in Africa are among those botanic gardens that are leading the worldwide fight to save plant diversity, as well as creating an understanding and awareness for the promotion of methods of conservation and development of plant resources. Despite financial constraints, a number of African botanic gardens are implementing major reforms under the auspices of Botanic Gardens Conservation International, to enable them play a more purposeful role in conservation.

The Creation of Environmental Awareness Among the Populace

African's biological diversity is not only of continental economic importance but is also of global significance. Unfortunately, existing arrangements for the utilization of the continent's biodiversity cannot be considered sustainable and this is having serious repercussions on development programmes in Africa. The rich plant diversity in Africa is indiscriminately harvested for a number of purposes including:

  • cultivation and production of food and cash crops for domestic and external interests
  • herbal medicine
  • construction.

Luckily, in spite of their continued exploitation, botanic gardens and other habitats still contain some of the richest assemblages of plant life known on this planet. Thus African gardens are appropriate institutions with the necessary capacities and plant diversities for use in environmental awareness programmes.

The success of environmental awareness programmes will largely depend upon the communities' understanding of the functioning of the environment, the problems it presents, and their expected contribution to its protection and improvement. The pursuit of conservation-oriented practices to halt the degradation and extinction of plant resources will depend not only on their acceptability, but also on the active support and involvement of the populace at large. In addition, people need to be well informed, sensitized and motivated towards adopting specific plant conservation practices and the sustainable use of plant resources.

It is well known that plants are the key to life on Earth and the prime element in biodiversity. They dominate our landscape, providing the framework of natural ecosystems that provide the habitats for animal species and make life on earth possible for humans as well as other living beings. Yet in spite of this common knowledge of the importance of plants in human survival, plant life is being lost at an increasing rate not only in Africa, but also throughout the whole world. This is the result of economic pressure on the developing countries and careless human activities. Until unfair transactions, particularly in trading systems, are addressed and humans made the centre of attention, only a limited impact will be made in our effort to control the excessive utilization of resources and the regenerability of the various life-sustaining systems on the Earth.

The United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 (known as the Earth Summit) raised issues related to sustainable development. An output of the conference, Agenda 21, brought into focus ways and means in which the nations of the world could conserve their biodiversity for use by future generations. Botanic gardens in Africa have come to realize the enormity of a varied range of environmental problems that exist on the continent and have taken up the challenge of addressing them. Lack of awareness is a major constraint in the implementation of measures to conserve biological resources. African botanic gardens therefore need to spearhead a major awareness campaign at all levels. This is necessary since conservation cannot be ordered. Conservation is more of an attitudinal issue. There are existing laws to ensure biodiversity conservation but the efficiency and effectiveness in enforcing these regulations still leave much to be desired. The full participation of the public and the use of existing religious and traditional knowledge as a basis for the activity are therefore essential for the success of education programmes.

Educational Programmes and their Contents

The design and content of such programmes should be related to local conditions. There should be collaboration between local authorities, town development committees, social clubs, non-governmental organizations and the friends of various botanic gardens, since they all can help not only to sustain existing botanic gardens, but also to improve the local environment.

African botanic garden and arboreta remain some of the only few places where the continent's natural plant richness has been preserved and are thus the present windows to the wonders of the plant kingdom. They are excellent centres for education and resource centres for conservation research and development. The need for African botanic gardens to get involved in public environmental education cannot be overemphasized. Botanic gardens should therefore not overlook the role of education in their strategic plans for the improvement of the environment. The offering of guided tours, giving out information sheets, organizing exhibitions and labeling of plants will go a long way to stimulate the interest of visitors and earn revenue for the gardens. Garden staff should always ensure that any educational programme they embark upon will help raise the level of public awareness of environmental issues to a point where individuals, groups and organizations will, of their own accord, fully assume responsibilities in safeguarding the environment.

As regards school programmes, staff can arrange educational tours, provide in-service training for teachers, organize treasure and plant-hunting, and mail information packs to local schools. These programmes will help, instruct and excite future generation about plants. Finally, friends of the gardens, other non-governmental organizations, religious groups and community leaders can be used effectively for implementing some of the environmental educational programmes.

Lack of awareness is still a major constraint in the implementation of measures to conserve plant resources. The need for African botanic gardens to be involved in the education and creation of environmental awareness could not have come at a more opportune time than in today's world. A major awareness campaign is necessary at all levels using the educational system. The full participation of the public is also essential for its success. Such a campaign must encompass everyone in society from the school child to the decision/policy maker (i.e. all stakeholders). The involvement of African botanic gardens in education will also increase the recognition of, and support for, their progress towards becoming educational and environmental awareness centres, thus playing a crucial role in the sustainable use of the continent's plant diversity resources.

Conclusions

As educators, the major objective should be to educate people to use plant resources sustainably through:

  • promoting awareness among policy makers in the community
  • providing training for botanic garden staff and selected group leaders in the community
  • promoting greater public awareness and motivation for environmental action.

Botanic garden educators should also bear in mind the following implications for educational campaigns:

  • that the concept of education for sustainability begins with the ideas and aspirations of the stakeholder
  • that through learning by participation, members of environmental groups are enabled and empowered to make informed decisions about their relationship with their own environment.

The successful implementation of educational programmes will largely depend on the availability of professionally qualified and well-motivated staff, logistic support, appropriate policies and a congenial political environment.

Finally, for African botanic gardens to effectively realize their potential role in environmental awareness programmes, they will need the support and encouragement from well-established botanic gardens in the developed countries through international networking and exchange programmes.

References

WWF, IUCN, BGCI (1989). The botanic gardens conservation strategy. Kew, Richmond, UK.

BGCI (1988). Plants: the key to life on Earth. Botanic Gardens Conservation Secretariat, Kew, Richmond, UK. Video.

Aburi Botanic Gardens (1960). Guide Book. Aburi, Ghana.

Owusu-Afriyir, G. (1992). Project Work I.C.C.E. U.K.

   

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Journal Articles

July 1998