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Making Biodiversity Conservation More Effective

Volume 1 Number 25 - December 2002
Brigitte Laliberté, Ehsan Dulloo & Imke Thormann





Networks promote the sharing of ideas, methodologies, technologies and results where all partners contribute and benefit. Plant Genetic Resources (PGR) networks are mechanisms for encouraging the collecting, conservation, exchange, evaluation, enhancement and use of genetic resources. The International Plant Genetic Resources Institutes (IPGRI) was established with this purpose. Conservation can only be effective if countries and regions work together in partnership.  There are 3 major types of networks: regional PGR networks, crop networks and thematic networks. Examples are the European Cooperative Programme for Crop Genetic Resources (ECP/GR), INIBAP’s International Musa Testing Programme (IMTP) and the Global Network of Base Collections. The mode of governance should provide members with a balanced opportunity to influence the objectives, strategy and workplan. Monitoring and evaluation are critical to enhance effectiveness.  Impact indicators have been used to develop criteria of success for collaborative networks. IPGRI contributes to stimulate the development of networks, provide a coordinating function, and make technical inputs, which would not be possible without the intensive cooperation of a large number of partners.


Networks promote the sharing of ideas, methods, tools and results. Networks bring members together in such a way that all partners contribute to and benefit from the network; their efficiency in reaching the network’s goal is higher than if each member had attempted to do so on their own. Networks often pool existing talents rather than adding new staff and use existing facilities rather than building new ones. These principles are crucial in reaching global objectives of biodiversity conservation. Networks are important mechanisms for encouraging the collection, conservation, exchange, evaluation, enhancement and use of genetic resources.

Collaboration and partnership on the conservation and use of plant genetic diversity are vital if we are to meet the world's future development needs. The serious threat of disappearing crop diversity was recognized in the early 1970s. The International Plant Genetic Resources Institutes (IPGRI), formerly the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR), was founded in 1974. It is now the world's largest international institute dedicated solely to the conservation and use of plant genetic resources (PGR). IPGRI is a Centre of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), whose objectives are to reduce hunger and poverty, improve nutrition and human health, and protect the environment.

Since its foundation, IPGRI has concentrated on supporting work on plant genetic resources being conducted by national research and development systems in developing countries. IPGRI’s mode of operation is based firmly on working with partners and networks.

Work to conserve plant genetic resources is by its nature trans-boundary. It needs to capture the genetic diversity of crop genepools, which cut across national boundaries and regions. Conservation can only be effective if countries and regions work together in partnership through networks. The interdependency between countries and regions for germplasm calls for collaborative conservation actions.

Without the collaboration of a wide range of partners, IPGRI would not be able to achieve its objectives. IPGRI therefore plays a crucial role in establishing networks, in coordinating some of them and in promoting their establishment by others. IPGRI’s networking activities bring together many different kinds of institutions concerned with plant genetic resources; mainly national genebanks and also research institutions, public-sector institutions, farmers and forest dwellers who are the custodians and users of plant genetic resources, NGOs, and international organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and several other UN bodies. IPGRI works closely with its donors to identify priorities and to develop and implement projects.

How PGR Networks Have Evolved

Ideas on how networks can best ensure sustainable long-term conservation and use of plant genetic resources have evolved a lot over the last 20 years. In the 1970s, IPGRI’s emphasis was on establishing a network of a few centralized collections that would underpin extensive collecting activities. During the 1980s, because of growing awareness of the importance of genetic resources for crop improvement, and the wish of individual countries to hold their own collections, emphasis shifted to the development of national programmes and the promotion of collaboration. At the end of the 1980s it was recognized that the use of conserved plant genetic resources had been neglected. While continuing the development of regional networks, IPGRI shifted its emphasis again to the development of international crop networks.

Types of Plant Genetic Resources Networks

IPGRI takes part in three major types of networks: regional PGR networks, crop networks and thematic networks. While all types of network are effective in furthering plant genetic resources conservation and use, they have very different intermediate objectives and potential impact.

Regional Plant Genetic Resources Networks

Regional plant genetic resources networks are geographically based. This means they have a comparative advantage in dealing with the practical conservation of collections, policy, regional task sharing, and species or themes of only regional importance. They can be used as platforms to implement regional projects, increase public awareness, identify trainees, identify partners for research projects, receive feedback on regional strategies, and so on. Several regional PGR networks have been established and IPGRI has been instrumental in creating many, such as:

  • Amazonian Network on Plant Genetic Resources (TROPIGEN)
  • Andean Network on Plant Genetic Resources (REDARFIT)
  • Central Asian Network for Plant Genetic Resources (CAN/PGR).
  • East African Plant Genetic Resources Network (EAPGREN)
  • European Co-operative Programme for Crop Genetic Resources Networks (ECP/GR)
  • European Forest Genetic Resources Programme (EUFORGEN)
  • Genetic Resources Network for Western and Central Africa (GRENEWECA)
  • Mesoamerican Network on Plant Genetic Resources (REMERFI)
  • Regional Committee for South East Asia (RECSEA)
  • SADC Plant Genetic Resources Centre (SPGRC)
  • West Asia and North Africa Plant Genetic Resources Network (WANANET).

Example Of The European PGR Network ECP/GR

The European Cooperative Programme for Crop Genetic Resources (ECP/GR), operational since 1 October 1980, is an example of operation through networks. It links 10 networks that deal with groups of crops or general themes related to plant genetic resources. The overall purpose at its foundation was to establish a network of cooperation for the maintenance of comprehensive, well-documented collections of crop genetic resources and to encourage the more effective use of plant genetic resources in plant breeding. The Programme is overseen by a Steering Committee of country coordinators, while the main implementation of the Network's activities is through twelve crop Working Groups. Scientists and institutions of the member countries carry out agreed workplans as inputs in kind to the Programme, which enables the generation of added value deriving from collaborative initiatives; as opposed to individual actions. Thirty five countries are participating in the current Phase VI of the Programme, which has set among its objectives to facilitate the long-term in situ and ex situ conservation of plant genetic resources in Europe, and to facilitate the increased utilization of PGR in Europe.

Crop Networks

Crop networks have a comparative advantage over regional networks, in addressing species and themes of global importance, and frequently deal with species that are not adequately taken care of by the regional networks. In 1988, IPGRI recommended the implementation of crop genetic resources networks, based on the concept of the crop genepool, to bring together specialists from different fields for rapid progress in enhancing use of collections. The following are some well functioning crop networks:

  • Coconut Genetic Resources Network (COGENT)
  • International Barley Genetic Resources Network
  • International Cassava Network
  • International Musa Genetic Resources Network
  • International Network for Bamboo and Rattan
  • International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (INIBAP)
  • International Rice Genetic Resources Network for the Asian Region
  • World Beta Network

Example of INIBAP’s International Musa Testing Programme (IMTP)

The International Musa Testing Programme (IMTP), of the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Platain (INIBAP), has been very effective in furthering the conservation and improved use of these crops. IMTP coordinates the development and evaluation of new germplasm, which meets local requirements of small-scale farmers for Musa cultivars resistant to major diseases, especially black Sigatoka and Fusarium wilt. The spread of these diseases has resulted in serious production losses for many small producers. Before IMTP was set up only limited international exchanges of germplasm had taken place. Very few national programmes have the necessary resources to embark on a Musa breeding programme and no system was in place to allow the wide-scale testing and evaluation of promising material.

The Musa testing programme is the first systematic global distribution and testing of new banana and plantain cultivars in banana-producing countries. In addition to the testing, the IMTP builds the capacity of national organizations to carry out appropriate research. The success of the IMTP has encouraged several breeding programmes to contribute new and promising resistant germplasm for further evaluation. Disease-resistant germplasm selected as a result of IMTP has already been distributed to many countries for national evaluation programmes.

Thematic Networks

A large number of thematic networks have been established to promote collaboration among scientists. Recent examples include:

  • On-farm Conservation Project
  • Recalcitrant and Intermediate Tropical Forest Seed Research Network
  • Global Experiment on In Vitro/Slow Growth of Sweet Potatoes
  • Sub Saharan Africa Forest Genetic Resources Network (SAFORGEN)

SAFORGEN aims to develop strategies in collaboration with national, regional and international institutions for effective conservation and sustainable use of forest genetic resources (FGR) in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Network has been endorsed by more than 16 African country members and has catalyzed the development of national programmes in several of the member countries. Two regional training workshops have been held under the network, which resulted in 58 scientists in the member countries being trained in methods and strategies for conservation and sustainable use of FGR. SAFORGEN has also set up three networks of experts on Medicinal Trees, Food trees, and Wood and Fibre species. They all share common priorities and experiences and these networks serve as a platform for sharing information and to develop and implement joint projects.

Governance and Coordination of Networks

The mode of governance of a network needs to be adapted to its objectives, but should in all cases provide members and donors with a balanced opportunity to influence the objectives, strategy and workplan. In commodity-focussed networks, scientific leadership, which can be provided by a scientific committee, needs to be complemented by an institution. The institution then assumes a coordinating function with sufficient time and financial resources to ensure that the network remains active. A prerequisite for the establishment of a network should be the firm, and at least medium-term commitment of an international organization or a national institution to coordinate or facilitate the network. This role needs to be active but should not dominate, in order to foster close relationships between the network partners.

A research network will benefit from flexible governance by a scientific committee, which organizes meetings and supports information flow. Most activities are bilateral and do not require special coordination. Truly common projects are usually externally funded and one member is compensated for taking a coordinating role. In the case of the Recalcitrant and Intermediate Tropical Forest Seed Research Network, IPGRI and Danida Forest Seed Centre provided a coordination role and help to disseminate information among partners of the network through a project newsletter and the establishment of web page for the network

 Experiences within IPGRI over the past 15 years with regional networks show that governance plays an important role. In successful cases, governance is officially recognized and linked to a membership fee, which gives countries a sense of ownership of the network and constitutes a form of national commitment.

Monitoring and Evaluation of Networks

Monitoring (internal evaluation) and evaluation (external evaluation) are critical to addressing issues related to the everyday management of networks, the quality of the services they offer, and hence to the general satisfaction of members. Networks need to monitor their operations and strategies to ensure continuing relevance and success. In order to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of networks, impact indicators should be developed.

Impact Indicators

The network’s impact will reveal whether it has effectively promoted and increased long-term conservation. A list of indicators for the evaluation of a network’s impact is provided in an IPGRI internal impact assessment case study, which focused on networks in which IPGRI is involved. These have the ultimate objective to support the long term ex situ conservation and promote the use of genetic resources. These indicators are assessed as degree of change since initiation of the network.

Indicators of Network Impact:

  • The level of awareness of the importance of conserving genetic resources in a particular region or of a particular crop genepool
  • Increased proportion of the region’s genetic resources conserved ex situ
  • The establishment of National Plant Genetic Resources Programmes (in the case of regional networks)
  • Increasing level of financial support by countries or international cooperation agencies, in support of the conservation effort
  • Higher level of international cooperation and information exchange in the area through the Network
  • Higher level of the science concerned with the conservation of genetic resources in the region (of the crop genepool)
  • Increased exchange and utilization of the conserved genetic resources
  • Increased technology transfer occurring through the network
  • Increased formation of National Programme Committee.

Indicators Describing Functioning and Quality of the Networks:

  • Proportion of the relevant countries which are involved in the network
  • Status of participants in the network meetings
  • Sustainability of the financing mechanism of the network
  • Countries’ willingness to make contributions in kind to the network

As an example, the SADC plant genetic resources network, which is one of the oldest PGR network in Africa, has achieved major progress in securing the plant genetic resources in the region ever since its establishment in 1989. It has grown from 9 member states to 14, each now with a fully fledged national plant genetic resources programme. Each member regularly undertakes collection missions, characterization and evaluation activities funded under the project and send duplicate collections to a central base collection at SPGRC in Zambia.

Principles and Criteria of Success for Collaborative Networks

Several studies on existing networks have been carried out to develop criteria of effectiveness and success of networks. Plucknett et al. (1990)  summarized 14 principles underlying the overall success of scientific consultation and collaborative research networks. These are the following:

  • The focus of the network is clearly defined;
  • The problem is widely shared by all the network’s participants;
  • A baseline study is undertaken to produce an authoritative founding document;
  • A realistic research agenda is drawn up;
  • Participants are motivated by self-interest;
  • Participants are involved in planning and management of the network (to feel that it is their network, that they work in it, not for it;
  • Research and management are flexible;
  • Leadership is efficient and enlightened;
  • The network is constantly infused with new ideas and technologies;
  • Regular workshops or conferences are held to provide opportunities for assessing progress and discussing problems;
  • Collaborators have sufficient training and expertise to contribute effectively;
  • Collaborators contribute resources;
  • External funding is provided to facilitate travel, training, and meetings;
  • The network’s membership is relatively stable.


A network is not an end in itself. It is a mechanism by which participants can address needs and improve collaboration with one another. The network must take full account of and adapt to the changing environment and the needs of its members. The impact the network has depends largely on how much is done between meetings. Without major external funding members must be willing to accept extra responsibilities. Practical work plans need to be established during meetings as well as provision for follow-up between meetings. This all takes time and commitment.

During the past thirty years, plant genetic resources networks have proven to be effective mechanisms for international collaboration and national programme strengthening. They have stimulated commitment from national programmes and helped raise awareness among policy makers. Research or theme focused networks are expected to play an increasingly important role in international collaboration. IPGRI has made a significant contribution to networks by stimulating their development, providing a coordinating function, and making technical inputs to networks activities. There is greater recognition of the importance of building strong national programmes, and ensuring collaboration among them as the best way of building an effective global system. Networking activities have allowed institutes to reach and collaborate with genebanks and research institutes worldwide. Networks are now a key tool necessary to implement the Global Plan of Action (GPA). These achievements would not have been reached without the intensive cooperation of a large number of partners.


Les réseaux favorisent les échanges d’idées, de méthodologies, de technologies et de résultats auxquels tous les partenaires contribuent et tirent bénéfice. Le réseau Ressources Génétiques des Plantes (PGR) sont des organismes qui encouragent la collecte, la conservation, l’échange, l’évaluation, l’augmentation et l’utilisation des ressources génétiques. Les Instituts Internationaux pour les Ressources Génétiques des Plantes (IPGRI) ont été mis en place dans ce but. La conservation n’est efficace que si les pays et les régions travaillent ensemble en partenariat. Il existe 3 principaux types de réseaux : Les réseaux PGR régionaux, les réseaux sur les plantes cultivées et les réseaux thématiques. Par exemple, le Programme de Coopération International pour les Ressources Génétiques des Plantes Cultivées (ECP/GR), le Programme International d’Etude du Musa de l’INIBAP et le Réseau Global des Collections de base. Leur mode de gestion doit permettre aux membres participants d’influencer de façon équilibrée les objectifs, les stratégies et les plans de travail. Le suivi et l’évaluation sont essentiels pour assurer l’efficacité. Des indicateurs d’impact ont été utilisés pour élaborer des critères de réussite de ces réseaux de collaboration. L’IPGRI stimule le développement de réseaux, assure une fonction de coordination et apporte une aide technique, ce qui ne serait pas possible sans l’intense collaboration d’un grand nombre de partenaires.


La redes de comunicación o “networks”, benefician el intercambio de ideas, metodologías, tecnologías y resultados donde todos los que colaboran contribuyen y se benefician.  Redes de recursos genéticos de plantas (Plant Genetic Resources (PGR) Networks) son mecanismos para fomentar la recolección, la conservación, el intercambio, la evaluación, la promoción  y el uso de los recursos genéticos.  El Instituto Internacional de Recursos Genéticos de las Plantas (The Internacional Plant Genetic Resources Institute IPGRI) se creó con este propósito.  La conservación solo puede ser efectiva si los países y las regiones trabajan en conjunto.  Hay tres principales tipos de redes: las redes regionales PGR, las redes de productos agrícolas, y las redes temáticas.  Algunos ejemplos son el Programa Cooperativo Europeo de Recursos Genéticos de las Especies Agrícolas, el Programa Internacional de Pruebas de Musa del INIBAP, y la Red Global de Colecciones de Base.  La administración de estas redes debe permitir a los miembros una oportunidad nivelada para influenciar a los objetivos, la estrategia, y el plan de trabajo.   El control y la evaluación son necesidades críticas para promocionar la efectividad.  Los indicadores de impacto han sido utilizados para desarrollar los criterios de éxito para las redes de colaboración.  El IPGRI contribuye a estimular el desarrollo de las redes, sirve una función de coordinación, y contribuye técnicamente, lo cual no sería posible sin la intensa actividad de gran numero de colaboradores.

About the Authors

Brigitte Laliberté, Scientific Assistant, IPGRI Regional Office for Europe,

Ehsan Dulloo, Scientist, Genetic Resources Science and Technology Group, e.dulloo@cgiar,org

 Imke Thormann, Scientific Assistant, Genetic Resources Science and Technology Group,

International Plant Genetic Resources Institute – IPGRI, Via dei Tre Denari 472/a , 00057 MACCARESE (Fiumicino), Rome, Italy. Tel. (39) 06 611-82. Fax (39) 06 6197-9661.