Botanic Gardens Conservation International
BGCI provides a global voice for all botanic gardens, championing and celebrating their inspiring work. We are the world's largest plant conservation network, open to all. Join us in helping to save the world's threatened plants.

Exploring Ethical Issues in Botanic Gardens

Volume 1 Number 22 - July 2001

Sue Baughan and Peter Batty





Working with collections of plants from around the world at the University of Leicester Botanic Garden, UK, has stimulated the development of an education programme where the plants are used as a starting point for the exploration of global issues, particularly in the area of sustainable development.  Ethical questions arise about what we are teaching, how, and why.  The article explores what we are trying to achieve in programmes that provide experiences through which the children can develop skills to equip them to ask questions and challenge assumptions about the world in which they live.  The programmes also help them to practise making decisions and working both independently and co-operatively towards building a more sustainable future.


Last summer I read an article in The Ecologist about education in the small Buddhist kingdom of Ladakh in the Indian Himalayas.  In promoting education, the government has achieved very high levels of attendance at school: from one perspective a real success story; but from another?  Children who used to grow up alongside their parents in the fields, learning agricultural skills, or in the home learning about ‘…spinning, cooking, weaving, and maintaining relationships with the community’ (Newberry 2000), now go to school to learn geography, maths, Urdu and English.  However, the failure rate in examinations is very high (95%) and ‘Even pupils who leave school with qualifications have no use for their knowledge at home.  A few run businesses or become tour guides in the capital, Leh, but most are unemployed.  School gives them the skills to go to Delhi and be unemployed…It is not giving them the skills to live in their locality, and live healthy, fulfilled lives’ (Newberry 2000).

This has had a dramatic effect both on the whole Ladakhi community, its culture and sense of identity, and also on the personal development of children who learn from their textbooks that ‘…roads and dams are progress’.  They have become dissatisfied with what they have, but their options for changing it have become even more restricted as a result.

There may be messages here for those of us, including our government and many non-governmental organisations (NGOs), who argue that education is the key to sustainable development.  The ethical questions raised also resonate strongly with some of the issues which underscore our work with young people in this country.  What is the relevance of the education we offer to the real lives of young people? What hidden messages are conveyed?  Can these sometimes be destructive?  In which case, how do we deal with this?  In essence, what are we trying to achieve?

The education programme at the University of Leicester Botanic Garden, UK, started with a cake.  The idea was to begin with something that children could relate to, that they recognised and liked - and then to use it as a basis (and a reason) for learning through discovering more about its origins.  Each cake ingredient is taken as a springboard for finding out about some of the people, plants, places and issues associated with it.  So, for example, children collect cocoa from beside the cacao tree and can connect the ingredient to the plant.  They hear the story of Ricardo, a twelve year old lad who can't go to school because he is needed to help earn the family income on the cocoa plantation.  They learn about the different people contributing to the process of transforming the cocoa bean into chocolate, and have the chance to consider how to share the money they themselves spend on a chocolate bar between all the people involved in making it.

This process flags up some, often uncomfortable, ethical dilemmas: What do the children do with the information they receive?  Do they feel sorry for Ricardo?  Do they envy him? What are the implications for them?  What can they do about it? Is there an alternative?  Should they go home and demand a change in family shopping policy?

The cake idea started as a classroom project in a school on a council estate that has been described as one of the most deprived in Europe.  Where do ethical arguments stand in relation to the hard realities of shopping bills?  And what ethical questions does this question itself raise?

The World Cake programme was, among other things, an attempt to provide a way into exploring ethical issues such as these.  What we have found is that although ethically there may often seem to be a right solution to a problem; that same solution can raise more questions for those involved about choices which they are not yet empowered to make.  Going back to Ladakh or even Ricardo, the general assumption is that it is right that children have the opportunity to go to school, but what questions does this raise for them, and what real choices does it present?

We also recognise that in many situations there is no right answer, ethically or otherwise.  More recently we have developed another approach, the Botanica Project, using simulation in the garden to help children explore the issues for themselves from different angles and perspectives.

In this project, the botanic garden becomes the country of Botanica and the students a wide range of its citizens from government officials to scientists and artists, from traditional healers to plantation and construction workers.  The country is faced with a major opportunity for development and all its citizens are being consulted and have to think through the implications for themselves, their environment and their country's future.

This not only directly introduces ethical issues which have to be thought through in the activity, but it also gives the children the opportunity to learn and practise skills to develop their own ethical base.  It helps them learn new things in a real and vital way, through interaction and reflection and through stepping into other peoples' shoes and looking at issues from different starting points.  It helps them begin to realise that there is a complexity to issues and that often there are no easy, many wrong, and possibly quite a few different right answers.  It also may help them to think about what choices are available to people, including themselves, and how to begin to influence that.

A volunteer helper, who worked with us on the simulation, commented afterwards ‘It was brought home to me that these children really are our future and they need to know what the real world is like.  This exercise showed them, in a kind way, that things are not always what they seem or for that matter what we want.  To make things better we have to work together’.

A parent commented ‘I think they learnt that what you expect is not always what you get: effort is required if you want something done, teamwork is valuable, [and] personal achievement no matter how small feels great’.

Is this a way forward? In an uncertain world to ‘…see learning as a journey without fixed or final destination in which challenge, uncertainty and risk are inevitable features of any process of personal growth and transformation’ (Selby 1995).  We need to provide learning experiences for young people that help them develop the skills they will need for their journey; and to seek partners on that journey who can really widen our perspectives and help us towards a more holistic world view: partners such as Mohammed Abdul Kareem from The Foundation for the Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT), who came to a workshop on the Botanica project at the BGCI Education Congress in Thiruvanathapuram, India in November 1999.  It caught his imagination so much that he wanted to pursue the idea to use in his own work with FRLHT.  The following July, Kareem visited us in Leicester when we were running Botanica and contributed hugely to the learning of the children from the school on the afore-mentioned council estate which is now keen to develop the link with him.  He is currently facilitating a version of Botanica back in south India and we in turn look forward to learning from his experiences and to setting up more joint learning opportunities.

So through a teaching method that is learning through partnerships, that is posing questions and challenging assumptions and demanding a multi-faceted approach, maybe children can be helped towards beginning to think about what they might do with what they learn.  They might also be enabled to appreciate what it means for different people (including themselves) to live healthy fulfilled lives in their own locality, be it in Leh, Ladakh or Leicester, England, within the context of an interconnected world. It might also help us (as well as their teachers) to keep asking ourselves about the ethics which lie behind and are within our teaching and what it is striving to achieve with our children.

And why do all this in botanic gardens? A question for you!


Newbery, Beatrice. (2000) Labouring under Illusions. The Ecologist, volume 30 (5).
Selby, D. (1995) Earthkind: A Teachers' Handbook on Humane Education. Trentham Books Ltd.

ResumeResumé: L’Examen des Documents Éthiques dans les Jardins Botaniques

Travaillant avec les collections de plantes du monde entier, le Jardin botanique de l’Université de Leicester met en œuvre un programme où les plantes sont utilisées comme point de départ pour l’exploration des documents généraux particulièrement dans le domaine du développement durable.  Des questions d’éthique émergent à propos de ce que nous enseignons, comment et pourquoi.  L’article expose ce que nous essayons de faire dans les programmes mettant en jeu des expériences à travers lesquelles les enfants peuvent développer leur habileté pour pouvoir se poser des questions et des problématiques à propos du monde dans lequel ils vivent.  Le but est aussi d’aider à la pratique de prise de décisions et de travailler à fois de façon indépendante et en coopération pour mieux construire un futur plus durable.

ResumenResumen: Explorando Cuestiones Éticas en Los Jardines Botánicos

Trabajando con colecciones de plantas de todo el mundo en el Jardín Botánico de la Universidad de Leicester, se ha estimulado un programa donde las plantas se utilizan como punto de partida para el estudio de cuestiones globales, particularmente en el área de desarrollo sostenible.  Las cuestiones éticas surgen acerca de lo que estamos enseñando, el cómo y el porqué.  El artículo explora lo que intentamos conseguir con programas que proporcionan experiencias a través de las cuales los chicos puedan desarrollar habilidades que les permitan poder preguntar cuestiones y desafiar supuestos acerca del mundo en que viven.  El objetivo es también hacerlos practicar en la toma de decisiones y en el trabajo individual y colectivo hacia la construcción de un futuro más sostenible.

About the Authors

Sue Baughan is the Education Officer for Support for Education in Environment and Development (SEED), University of Leicester Botanic Garden, Stoughton Drive South, Leicester LE2 2NE. 

Peter Batty is a free lance management and education consultant based in Cumbria.