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Botanic Garden’s Collections and the Convention on Biological Diversity

Volume 3 Number 4 - June 2000

T. Sampaio Pereira

A case study from the Rio de Janeiro Botanic Garden Research Institute, Brazil

Botanic garden collections represent one of the most powerful tools in the conservation of the world's plant heritage. They have skills to carry out ex situ conservation and have the facilities to manage important genetic resources.

Botanic gardens associations have developed conservation strategies and an international network (Botanic Gardens Conservation International - BGCI). Herbaria also have a huge international network (International Association for Plant Taxonomy - IAPT) and a long-standing code of conduct involving loan and exchange of genetic resources in the form of herbarium material. Their exchange programmes are well placed to lock into the world’s conservation movement. The IAPT is responsible for the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature which is well regulated with internationally agreed practices.

In spite of the lack of financial and human resources, botanic gardens prioritise the range of species represented in their collections acquired from around the world. The gardens are updating their rules for enriching their collections by having responsible acquisition policies based on the letter and spirit of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

The exchange of seed between a network of institutions (Index Seminum) will facilitate public awareness and support for conservation. With this procedure, among others, botanical gardens can enhance community goodwill for conservation.

The Convention has a major influence on the access both to in situ genetic resources as well as to genetic resources held by botanic gardens and other ex situ collections. Botanic gardens will be increasingly affected by requirements that access should be on Mutually Agreed Terms (MAT) and that benefits arising from research and commercialisation should be shared with source countries (ten Kate, K .1995. Access to “Ex-situ” Collections: Resolving the Dilemma?, Jakarta. Global Biodiversity Forum. WRI/IUCN/ACTS, Resumos. p. 12)

The CBD was ratified in 1993 and acquisitions made prior to 1993 are not covered by the Convention. However, the timing of the acquisition of botanic garden collections has no significance on the grounds of conservation need, with or without CBD. Thus we recognize that botanic gardens and Herbaria must treat all their acquisitions as if they are post 1993 acquisitions. The arguments for this approach are that the majority of their acquisitions are pre 1993, reduced administrative procedures, uniform approach to benefit-sharing, uniform treatment under the “coverage” of the Convention and maintenance of the spirit of the CBD. Botanic gardens have no power to make or break laws but do have a scientific and moral imperative to support responsible conservation of the world’s biodiversity. The biggest argument against this approach could be the potential legal complications for the botanic gardens, once pre 1993 acquisitions have legal coverage under the CBD.

A Botanic Garden's Material Transfer Policy

A harmonised, multilateral botanic gardens policy on access and benefit-sharing is needed and will increase transparency among botanic gardens. The main reason for developing this policy is that botanic gardens who do not adhere to the letter and spirit of the CBD’s access and benefit-sharing provisions could expose all botanic gardens to criticism and risk provoking future restrictions on access to source-country material.

With over 1700 botanic gardens worldwide, a botanic garden policy will build trust with government access authorities and thereby facilitate access with less bureaucracy and lower transaction costs. It will also promote more efficient communication and exchange of genetic resources among botanic gardens through standardisation of exchange agreements and policies.

On this basis, a team of 16 botanic gardens worldwide were grouped to discuss and formulate “The Common Policy Guidelines on Access and Benefit-Sharing for Botanic Gardens”, which sought ‘best practice’ by operating in the spirit of the CBD.

Members of the group saw the link between ex situ and in situ conservation as crucial in defining a niche for botanic gardens within a CBD policy framework. In this context, the value of botanic gardens was noted in three principle areas: re-introduction of certain species to in situ environments, alongside habitat rehabilitation; conservation of species ex situ where reintroduction is impossible; and capacity-building in source countries undertaking in situ conservation of plant genetic resources.

Conservation in Brazilian Botanic Gardens

Brazilian plant systems represent one of the richest systems of the world in terms of biodiversity. Much of their environment is threatened; including the Brazilian Atlantic rain forest and the Brazilian savanna ("cerrado"). However, the few Brazilian botanical gardens are not sufficient to hold a significant collection of the flora and conserve the Brazilian Plant Heritage in such a large country. There are 26 botanic gardens linked to the Brazilian Network of Botanic Gardens, and they do not have a clear collections acquisition policy. They hold many species from other countries in cultivation but their main living collections are regional, and their value increases as agricultural practices and urban growth are degrading their natural habitat.

The absence of a national law to govern plant material transfer (Silva, M. 1995. Lei de acesso à biodiversidade brasileira. Brasília. Senado Federal.) makes decision-making very difficult for all public institutions. For this reason it is necessary to create local procedures based on standard methods to implement the main policies, to provide codes of conduct and the best practice.

The Rio de Janeiro Botanic Garden Research Institute

The Rio de Janeiro Botanic Garden is the oldest botanic garden in Brazil, with a long history of plant taxonomy and species conservation.

Sited near the biggest world urban forest, Rio Botanic Garden receives yearly a huge amount of visitors, close to 600,000 per year, and has one of the oldest and largest plant material exchange programmes in the country, including herbarium specimens and seeds. It provides a service for scientists and the general public on areas such as plant identification, information on checklists and propagation.

These products and services must have a monetary value, but it is not easy to evaluate. Knowledge transfer must have an added-value other than scientific publications from the Botanic Gardens. Access and benefit-sharing need to be seen as a useful way to build capacity and training for Botanic Gardens development. On this basis, the Rio de Janeiro Botanic Garden Institute receives sponsorship to maintain living collections, plant labels, lawns and visitor paths. But knowledge must have benefits which revert to the institution.

The staff has agreed on a policy for collecting and accessing genetic resources and knowledge transfer, which includes material transfer agreements for germplasm and herbarium specimen exchange where the receiving institution must make a formal agreement with the Rio Botanic Garden with conditions before receiving the material/knowledge.

These policies will ensure that: the request is approved by the Permanent Commission of Germplasm Collection and Assessment; the material is used for conservation research, education and to improve Botanic Garden collections; the plant material or any product, progeny, propagule or derivative genetic material is not transferred to others without written authorization from the Rio de Janeiro Botanic Garden Research Institute; any publication arising from the use or study of the material granted will include a credit to the Research Institute; and a copy of the publication sent to the Rio de Janeiro Botanic Garden within a year of publication. In case of acquiring the material for trading or any of its parts or derivatives, or the use by a third party or of any associated information about genetic resources sample, it is necessary to obtain permission under the terms and conditions of the agreement between the Rio de Janeiro Botanic Garden Research Institute and the seeker.

Beside this procedure the research team has developed a scientific collections policy and an Exchange Germplasm Agreement (MTA) in order to protect their collections under the CBD in the area of access and benefit-sharing.