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Botanic gardens traditionally play a major role in plant science, horticulture and education. In the last decades, they have also become important centres for biodiversity conservation and have acknowledged the need to undertake a global mission for conservation. This was expressed for the first time in The Botanic Gardens Conservation Strategy and refined and updated in the light of the CBD as International Agenda for Botanic Gardens. BGCI was considerably involved in the development of the Global Strategy of Plant Conservation (GSPC), that was adopted by the Conference of the Parties to the CBD in 2002. As one of the leading institutions of the Global Partnership for Plant Conservation (GPPC) BGCI takes an active role in the implementation of the Strategy (see also http://www.plants2020.net/).
Over 2000 botanic gardens around the world are cultivating more than 80.000 species, almost one third of the known vascular plant species of the world, and are visited by over 150 million visitors each year: a great chance for conservation and raising public awareness.
Being very diverse in size, structure, and organization botanic gardens perform a multitude of different roles in conservation. The major activities range from education, building public awareness and research to ex-situ and in-situ conservation and should be considered as implementation of a number of articles of the CBD (see also Botanic Gardens and Conservation).
As a result, botanic gardens are actively involved in stemming the loss of plant species and their genetic diversity and heightening the level of awareness of plant diversity, its value and the need for conservation. Capacity building and co-operations amongst botanic gardens are the key to strengthen these efforts.
The daily work of botanic gardens depends basically on the exchange of plant material between the gardens and on access to plant material from the wild. According to a survey led by the Association of BOtanic Gardenss in German speaking countries international seed exchange is the most important mechanism for acquiring plant material and thereby conserving the ex-situ collections.
International seed exchange has a long-standing tradition, going back to the 18th century. Its purpose has always been mainly non-commercial. This exchange system runs within a more or less closed circuit of botanic gardens and other botanic research organisations and takes place free of charge.
Consequently, botanic gardens are deeply affected by the ABS provisions of the CBD as recipients of genetic resources on the one hand and as institutions supplying plant material on the other hand.
The CBD underlines in its Article 15 the sovereignty of States over their natural resources and their authority to determine access to such genetic resources. According to this article, access shall be on mutually agreed terms (MAT) and be subject to prior informed consent (PIC). The recipients of genetic resources are required to share benefits resulting from its use. However, the article also states that each Contracting Party shall endeavour to facilitate access to genetic resources for environmentally sound uses.
Article 15 particularly aims at the commercial sector and intends to promote a sustainable use of the natural resources. In the course of history, for example during colonial times, botanic gardens have played an important role in commercialisation of plants. They were declared turntables of Plant Genetic Resources, which were to promote the worldwide exchange of economic plants. Actually, in that time some botanic gardens have been founded especially for the import and acclimatisation of tropical plants to Europe (e.g. Rio de Janeiro, Orotava). This role changed fundamentally. As outlined above, research, education and conservation activities are the main tasks of botanic gardens nowadays.
Nevertheless, under the provisions of the CBD botanic gardens have to redefine their position in the worldwide transfer of Plant Genetic Resources, for example the relations to plant enthusiasts, to the pharmaceutical as well as to the agricultural industry. In Germany, this role of botanic gardens has been discussed in 1996 for the first time. These discussions have been the initial point for the development of IPEN (see History of IPEN).