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Botanic Gardens in Bolivia: A Luxury or a Contribution to the Development of Bolivia?

Volume 2 Number 4 - December 1994
Pierre & Claudia Ibisch and Stephan G. Beck

Bolivia has a high floristic diversity - about 18,000 species of vascular plants - the same number that occur in the whole of Central America. It has the most varied ecology in South America - the Amazon rainforests, the dry forests of the Chaco, the mist forests, the punas and high Andean vegetation represent only some facets of its diverse vegetation. Unfortunately, there are only three institutions which can be called "botanic gardens" in Bolivia and these need further development to meet international standards. This article includes descriptions of the state of botanic gardens in Bolivia, in particular the "Botanical Garden Martin Cardenas" in Cochabamba and discusses the potential contribution of botanic gardens to the development process in Bolivia.

Botanic Gardens in Bolivia: the Present Situation

1. La Paz

There has been a small botanic garden, like a city park, in the Miraflores neighbourhood of La Paz for many years, where exotic plants from the temperate zone of the northern hemisphere are mostly grown. The Institute of Ecology, UMSA, has produced a design for a new Jardin Botanico La Paz, and has recently started its implementation. The site is about five ha. and is situated on the university campus in the Cota neighbourhood. In accordance with the agreement between the Institute of Ecology and the University of Göttingen, Germany it will provide different ecological areas. This garden has several functions such as academic teaching, research and recreation and also to contribute to building public awareness of ecology, nature and species conservation. Due to the lack of a funds and specialized labour this project has shown little progress. However, a geobotanical section with succulents and their accompanying vegetation of the dry interandean valleys has been realized. Part of the ornamental section and a number of medicinal plants have been maintained for some years.

2. Santa Cruz

In 1984, the well known Bolivian naturalist Noel Kempff Mercado (assassinated a few years ago by drug traffickers) founded a botanic garden in the lowlands of Santa Cruz de la Sierra (at about 400 m.) which was completely destroyed a few years later, when inundated by the Piray River. In 1988, a new garden was created which today is not open to the public. It is about 180 ha. in area covered by (secondary) native forest vegetation (a transition from humid-dry forest). In some parts clearances have been made with small tracks which cross the area. An inventory of the trees and bushes contains approximately 100 species - the most important of which are Gallesia integrifolia (Phytolaccaceae), Anadenanthera macrocarpa (Mimosaceae), Astronium cf. fraxinifolium (Anacardiaceae) and Enterolobium contortisiliquum (Mimosaceae) (Saldias, 1991). However, this area is not a botanic garden.

3. Cochabamba

Cochabamba, the third city of Bolivia after La Paz and Santa Cruz, is situated in an high interandean valley (at 2,550 m.). The original bush vegetation - a dry forest with Schinopsis haenkeana (Anacardiaceae), Aspidosperma quebracho-blanco (Apocynaceae)) was destroyed long ago. As a result of the favourable climate, the dry interandean valleys have been colonized for a thousand years and these zones show the highest population index. The quechua name of Cochabamba (Khocha Pampa = humid plain, marsh) reminds one of the humidity that existed formerly in the flat part of the valley. As a result of its large number of avenues and parks they still call it "Ciudad Jardin" "City of the Parks", which reflects its long horticultural history.

Tadeo Ha‰nke (1761-1816), the first naturalist of Bolivia, started a plant collection here in 1791, which can probably be considered as the first one of its kind in South America.

In 1962, 171 years later, another "botanic garden" was created in Cochabamba by the well-known Bolivian botanist, Martin Cardenas (1899-1973). In 1969 cactus and bromeliad collections were added but in 1970 the garden had still not developed to the extent wished by its founder and he complained publicly about the lack of interest.

This garden "Botanic Garden Martin Cardenas" is maintained by the city and still exists today. It is a public park of modest size (about 4 ha.), serviced by ten gardeners and an agricultural engineer. Recently, it was feared that the city might want to use part of the land that belongs to the garden for another purpose on the "Cerro de San Pedro" (6 ha.), which is at present covered by low bushes.

The 200 or so species in the garden are not representative of the abundant flora of the dry interandean valleys. There are about 50 tree species, but exotic species dominate such as Acacia dealbata, Acacia melanoxylon, Araucaria angustifolia, Catalpa bignonioides, Eucalyptus globulus, Fraxinus americana, Morus nigra, Olea europea, Phoenix canariensis, Quercus robur etc. Even a small Ginkgo biloba thrives well on this high tropical mountain.

Amongst the native species in the garden are Jacaranda mimosifolia (Bignoniaceae) (in the garden there is a small avenue of this species along the main road), the False Peppertree (Schinus molle, Anacardiaceae), a characteristic tree of the riverbeds and the old marshy plain of Cochabamba, and other trees of the dry interandean valleys such as Carica quercifolia (Caricaceae), Acacia visco (Mimosaceae), Caesalpinia spinosa (Caesalpiniaceae) and Tipuana tipu (Fabaceae). A quite miserable specimen of the Kehui¤a tree (Polylepis besseri, Rosaceae) stands in the garden. This is a species that grows on the Tunari Cordillera of Cochabamba and even today testifies of an ancient belt of andean forest (approximately 3,300-4,100 m.), which now has been destroyed by man.

A giant cactus Neoraimondia herzogiana which in its natural habitat reaches ten metres in height decorated with engravings by the visitors of the park, still carries in honour of the gardens' founder the name Neocardenasia herzogiana. The ancient important collection of Cactaceae has practically been lost, as have also the collections of Begoniaceae and Amaryllidaceae. Obviously, the national Bolivian flower, the Kantuta (Cantua buxifolia, Polemoniaceae), is grown amongst the plant collection.

The botanic garden of Cochabamba even possesses a significant collection (60 specimens) of a botanical curiosity, Parajubaea torallyi (Arecaceae). This is an endemic palm species, found in the dry interandean valleys where it grows at an even higher altitude than the other representatives of this family (1,800-2,000 m.). In 1969, Cardenas collected seeds at Sorama in the Chuquisaca department and sowed them immediately in the botanic garden and at the end of last year, some of these palms started to reproduce.

The garden is open daily but is only visited by students and school children and in its present state, is neither a destination for an excursion for the Cochabambinos nor is it a significant tourist attraction. A library of Cardenas' books and magazines is not open to the public. Important objectives of a botanic garden such as scientific study, documentation of the plant collection, adequate and correct labelling of the plants, exchange of information and plant material and technical/scientific research are hardly met by the garden.

An agreement exists between the University UMSS and the garden, where the national Forestry Herbarium "Martin Cardenas" is located, to provide assistance to the garden. Unfortunately, after classifying some plants, the cooperation has not continued. One of the main problems of the garden is the lack of finances, infrastructure and continuity. Nevertheless, the intention to improve the garden exists:

  • The staff of the herbarium have proposed a scientific work plan this year, including the collection of living native plants, the development of material for environmental education and the restoration of the cactarium.
  • The support of the Missouri Botanic Garden is foreseen in order to restore the cactus collection.
  • The Natural History Society of Cochabamba declared in its regulations (May 1993) that, amongst others, it wants to undertake the development of the garden.

The Potential Role of Botanic Gardens in the Development Process in Bolivia.

Bolivia is a country where environmental problems are increasing. The country's natural resources are being indiscriminately exploited. Its biodiversity is one of the country's remaining wealths. In many regions the people suffer from severe poverty and an insecure food supply. This is a direct result of excessive use of the natural resources and advanced degradation of the ecosystems which leads to migration and colonization of virgin lands. The conservation of natural resources and control of land use in relation to the ecosystems is imperative. Against this background it is obvious that these tasks can be undertaken in botanic gardens. Botanic gardens in Bolivia must take up these tasks which are a feature of many modern botanic gardens and which can not be carried out in the same way by other institutions:

Research

The botanic gardens can be places of intensive and applied research of the native flora of Bolivia. Furthermore, in cooperation with the herbaria, they are not only centres for systematic research of the regional flora, which is poorly understood, but also institutes for the study of the ecology, life-forms, phenology and taxonomy of the Bolivian plants.

A great deal can be learned from living collections which help activities of other development institutions (like agro-forestry: propagation techniques, growing characteristics and phenological particulars of native tree species). From within the garden fenced areas of natural vegetation can be observed and studied in detail, like successional phenomena or degradation reversibility for natural regeneration. In cooperation with international research institutes live material can be made available (e.g. pharmaceutical plants).

Nature and Species Conservation

Botanic gardens are ideal coordination centres for the research, planning and implementation of conservation measures for endangered areas, such as established national parks, which so far have only received sporadic study. Not withstanding, that less importance might be given to the conservation of individual species ex situ than in European gardens, this potential function should not be neglected in special cases as in the example of Parajubaea torallyi in Cochabamba. The gardens should not only be places for wild species conservation, but also for varieties of indigenous cultivated plants such as Ca¤ahue, Chenopodium pallidicaule, which is on the brink of extinction.

Academic Teaching

The value of instruction of botanists/ecologists with living plants should not be underestimated, particularly with the use of Bolivian examples. It has been a main concept of the agreement between the Institute of Ecology and the University of Gottingen to improve the professional instruction and training in this way. The quality of this teaching determines the capability, the ideas and the motivation of the people who will be responsible for the destiny of Bolivia.

Public Awareness-Building

The majority of urban Bolivian citizens and those in authority have lost their understanding of living organisms and their complex ecological relationships and are ignorant, not only of the living conditions of their fellow countrymen, but also the present state of their natural resources. The citizens of Bolivia depend much more upon these and the local food production than do people in Europe. What institutions are going to play the role in making the people aware of the "last treasure" of Bolivia if botanic (and zoological) gardens and their associated collections do not do this?

Recreation and Tourism

There is an extremely low population density in Bolivia. 7 million inhabitants live in an area that is, for example, three times larger than Germany, which has 80 million inhabitants. Nevertheless the population of Bolivia is concentrated in the urban areas of the country and thus there is a need for recreation facilities. This need has to be used to build ecological awareness as well as contributing to the well-being of the people. Tourism could even become an important source of income in the future. Botanic gardens create places of cultural importance, which eventually attract more tourists to the cities and might generate an income.

It must be clear from this article that modern, internationally recognized botanic gardens are not exactly a luxury in Bolivia. However, Bolivia alone cannot accomplish the creation of such gardens, considering the extent of existing problems and the limited financial resources. Therefore, the interest of international development institutions has to be sought and it has to be made clear that patronizing botanic gardens represents a useful investment for the development of Bolivia and, in addition, will signify an important contribution to the implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

 

Find Out More

The Convention on Biological Diversity
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Ex Situ Plant Conservation: Supporting Species Survival in the Wild (Guerrant et al, 2004)
With a foreword by Peter Raven, this volume aims to win converts to ex situ efforts to protect plant genetic diversity.