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A Global Initiative to Conserve Crop Wild Relatives In Situ

Volume 2 Number 2 - July 2005
Annie Lane

In situ conservation of crop wild relatives through enhanced information management and field application’ is a UNEP/GEF supported project that addresses national and global needs to improve global food security through effective conservation and use of crop wild relatives. This large, multi-faceted, five year project was launched in 2004 and brings together five countries and six international organizations to manage and make use of the wild relatives of vitally important crops.

The natural populations of many crop wild relatives are increasingly at risk and they are at present poorly conserved, for a range of reasons. There are technical problems involved in developing conservation plans for such a diverse range of species with different biological characteristics, ecological requirements, conservation status and uses. There are also political, administrative and infrastructural problems that limit effective in situ conservation actions. In many cases, collaboration between different ministries, agencies or institutions is required where there is neither a tradition of collaboration nor a history of inter-institutional competition. While many countries already have conservation initiatives in place (e.g. gene banks and protected areas) few of these target crop wild relatives (Meilleur & Hodgkin, 2004). An assessment of in situ conservation of Lupinus spp. in Spain, for example, showed that protected areas do not consider crop wild relative populations unless they are an endangered species (Parra-Quijano, et al., 2003). Undoubtedly, however, a major limitation is in the capacity to bring together and use information that does exist. A number of studies have shown that substantial amounts of information often exists (e.g. Thormann et al., 1999) but that it is dispersed among different institutions and agencies in different countries and international organizations.

The project was developed to address national and global needs to improve conservation of crop wild relatives, focusing on improved management and use of information on these species. It brings together five countries - Armenia, Bolivia, Madagascar, Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan, with IPGRI as the project manager, and five other international conservation agencies - the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), the United Nations Environment Programme’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and the German Centre for Documentation and Information in Agriculture (ZADI) - to enhance the conservation status of selected crop wild relatives in each country. All partners are contributing experience, expertise, information and to the project. Each country has significant numbers of important and threatened taxa of crop wild relatives and all but Uzbekistan are among the world’s biodiversity hotspots--places that have the highest concentrations of unique biodiversity on the planet. They are also the places at greatest risk of loss of diversity.

Project Development and Implementation

The preceding two year design and development phase of the project analyzed the conservation situation for crop wild relatives in the five countries. It was found that relatively little is known of the conservation status of these species, no management plans have been developed for reserves with such species in mind, where modern information management systems existed they were extremely limited in their scope and application, and no in situ conservation projects or monitoring activities targeted to crop wild relatives were currently in place. All of the partner countries expressed their desire to improve the conservation and wise use of these important resources in a sustainable and cost-effective way. To achieve this, they decided to use approaches that maximize the use of existing information and conservation resources in ways that are widely applicable to the different taxa that occur within their borders.

Key Elements

The project has four major components, the first two of which focus on the systematic compilation, access and use of information related to crop wild relatives. Application of this information will significantly enhance the development of effective in situ conservation and monitoring strategies for crop wild relatives, which is the major focus of the third component, and in raising awareness, the fourth component. 

Component 1.  International Information System.

An information portal dedicated to crop wild relatives will be developed to serve as a gateway for access allowing users to search for information through a single web address. The system will bring together information from available national and international sources on the identity, status, distribution and potential use of crop wild relatives. National partners will test the effectiveness of access and use of the international systems to support country conservation decisions. The development of the International Information System is co-funded by GTZ, an international cooperation enterprise for sustainable development.

The major activities under this component are:

(a) Design of the system will involve all international partners and national information experts and will be achieved using Unified Modeling Language. The design process will also address issues of ownership, custodianship, access, use, exploitation and intellectual property.

(b) Joint terminology which will involve the development of an appropriate ontology that will provide definition of terms, their specification and the relationship between them. The main entry point for accessing information is likely to be species name. Sixty four crop genera comprising about 12, 000 species have at this stage been identified as the focus of the project. Eighteen of these are crops listed in Annex 1 of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), which came into force on June 29, 2004, for which multilateral exchange agreements are envisaged. The terminology development work will directly support national information management in the five partner countries.

(c) Development of infrastructure that will provide a cost-effective internet based system that can host information gathered and compiled by partners. Analytical tools suitable for spatial information and geographic analysis will allow the distribution of crop wild relatives to be visualized and related to variables such as climate, edaphic factors and land use and social-economic factors such as human population and poverty.

(d) Content development will ensure that information maintained by relevant international and national organizations is made available to users.

At the first IMC meeting it was agreed that the system design would be based on the model used by Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). Information categories were agreed and work was initiated on the development of descriptors. This work has now been finalized and countries and international organizations are beginning to enter data and modify information categories and their descriptors.

Component 2. National Information Systems.

In all five partner countries information exists in herbaria and ex situ gene banks that can be used to determine the likely location of populations of species of crop wild relatives. Information on the extent and distribution of protected areas is also available from natural resource management agencies, and information on the use of crop wild relatives can be found in institutions attached to the Ministry of Agriculture, Universities and Colleges. 

The national partners will analyze existing information holdings, establish necessary infrastructure, develop appropriate hardware and software systems and national data exchange protocols and ensure that the information is available to the information system. Their systems will include aspects of species biology, ecology, conservation status, distribution, crop production potential, local community uses and existing conservation actions and information sources on crop wild relatives, as well as between national agencies.

Component 3.  Enhanced capacity and in situ conservation actions.

Lack of capacity, including the absence of an effective operational framework and national plans to deal specifically with conservation of crop wild relatives, has been identified as a significant obstacle to the conservation and use of crop wild relatives. This component contains a range of activities to improve country capacity to effectively conserve and use crop wild relatives. A solid legal structure is needed and decision-making procedures for identification of priority conservation actions need to provide for the participation of all stakeholders. The legal framework as it relates to in situ conservation of these species will be reviewed in each country. Recommendations will be made where new or modified legislation is required. Similarly, benefit-sharing practices are to be framed into legal rules that set out entitlements. Supporting the development of an operational framework will be a series of training activities and these will include information management, Red Listing procedures, and participatory approaches and benefit sharing issues.

The partners in each country will implement and monitor conservation strategies that are needed to conserve priority crop wild relatives in situ. Countries will undertake ecogeographic surveys and analysis on three to five selected taxa and use this information to refine procedures for using spatial information as a tool in conservation management and monitoring. Specific conservation actions will be identified by integrating information on the species themselves, information on the existing conservation actions and the use of these species at local level. A selected set of actions that are identified as high priority will be implemented and tested for operational effectiveness and sustainability. An action plan will be developed for at least one protected area per country that contains crop wild relatives, and at least two significant in situ crop wild relative conservation demonstration projects will be implemented and assessed with a view to their application as national (and potentially international) models for sustainable conservation. Priority will be given to working with wild relatives of crops of importance to the partner countries. However, wild relatives important for crop improvement in one country may only occur in other countries. This international dimension will be reflected by working on wild relatives of a common agreed list of crops. In this way, the outcomes will provide globally relevant solutions to improving conservation of crop wild relatives. 

Component 4.  Public awareness.

Awareness concerning the need for conservation of plant genetic resources (PGR) and especially crop wild relatives is relatively recent. Awareness of PGR has increased since the approval of the ITPGRFA but knowledge of the value of crop wild relatives to plant diversity and sustainable livelihoods is low. The output will raise awareness within the countries and internationally of the importance of considering crop wild relatives and their value for improving agricultural production. Country and international partners will work together to develop international public awareness activities that ensure that project outputs are made available to conservation workers in non-target countries. These activities will be targeted at various sectors involved in PGR such as policy makers, conservation managers, plant breeder and local users.

The outcomes of the project will be widely disseminated nationally and globally and successful strategies (best practices) will be readily transferable to other countries with significant populations of crop wild relatives. In this way, global efforts to conserve biological diversity in general, and crop wild relatives in particular, will be accelerated and optimized for the benefit of both the global community and local users.

Expected Benefits

The UNEP-GEF Crop Wild Relatives Project will provide a sustainable and cost-effective information and decision-making framework for current and subsequent work on the conservation of crop wild relatives and in doing so make a significant global contribution to their conservation and use. Whilst wild relatives have already contributed many useful genes to crop plants, there is great potential to significantly improve our knowledge, information dissemination systems and ultimately effective use of these species. This will lead to further improvements in crop production and, critically for subsistence farmers, reduced risk of crop failure and improved food security.

References

Meilleur, B. A. and Hodgkin, T. 2004. In situ conservation of crop wild relatives: status and trends. Biodiversity and Conservation 13: 663-684.
Parra-Quijano, M., D. Draper and Iriondo, J. M.  2003. Assessing in situ conservation of Lupinus spp. in Spain through GIS. Crop wild relative 1: 8-9.
Thormann, I., D. Jarvis, J. Dearing, and Hodgkin, T. 1999. Internationally available information sources for the development of in situ conservation strategies for wild species useful for food and agriculture. Plant Genetic Resources Newsletter 11(8): 38-50.

 
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