Hot Topics 2006
Number 10 - February 2006
Hot Topics for Botanic Gardens in 2006
Botanic gardens in 2006 are going to see the issues of climate change, human well-being, and equitable sharing of benefits become hot topics. Meanwhile, the pace of change in the world generally is increasing, particularly as the internet allows ever greater and quicker exchange of information, and there is constant pressure on botanic gardens to adapt and take on new roles in society. Meanwhile, those who do not have access to the leading resources may be getting more isolated. Here is a look at how gardens can, and are already, taking part in these changes and forging new roles. If you have any comments or would like to know more about any of these topics, please email us.
As climate changes, entire ecological systems could come under threat – and plants are often not able to move rapidly in response to fast change. It will be essential that ecosystems and their constituent biological organisms can adapt and survive in the changed environment enough to make it possible to continue to exist. Plants, as we know, form the basis of all living systems as they are the only organisms that can turn light into food.
Human intervention could be crucial in facilitating adaptation and evolution. If the living organisms are kept safe from these changes in protected environments they can be used to create new ecosystems and help existing ecologies to adapt to change in the environment.
Gardens have an absolutely crucial role to play in saving plants and protecting them from changes - a kind of Diversity Savings Bank. Apart from seed banks, transfer of material through commerce for gardeners and crop-growers, and "invasive species" there aren't any other obvious ways that plants will be preserved or move around enough to adapt.
Living material can be preserved within and moved between institutions to areas where they may survive better. Exchange of information and a strong network of gardens is key to this process. Knowledge of propagation, horticulture and genetics are essential to successful aided adaptation. The prevalence and increase of seed banks and other genetic resource preservation is also important.
By being the world's guardians of living plant material, gardens could actually be the key to the future of life on earth!
BGCI are taking part in a workshop on climate change and botanic gardens in April and you can expect to see consultation and reporting on this key topic over the coming year. In the meantime you can put your spare computer power (if you have any) to take part in the world's biggest climate change experiment.
GBIF (Global Biodiversity Information Facility) is a project to document all data on life forms. In collaboration with Google Earth, they are mapping the collection locations of thousands of species.Botanic gardens can share their data - and BGCI have signed an MoU with GBIF on acting as a GBIF 'Node' for botanic gardens.
ARKive are doing something similar for images; they want you to bring out all your old photos of plants and send them in to share with the public; commercial use of the images will still be protected but children, educators and non-commercial use is part of the deal. They are very short of images of rare plants right now so BGCI are developing a plan to improve the media resources on plants held in their secure digital storage for future generations.
And here at BGCI we are building a database of all plant species held in living collections worldwide – cross-referencing these with Google image searching, IUCN Red Lists and IPNI plant name checking to make it possible to locate and identify rare species in cultivation. If your garden has a list of the plants in its living collections you can share the data. At present, the identity of the gardens is protected from users, but contact can be made via BGCI.
BGCI US is also developing an online self-assessment tool for botanic gardens to find out how much they really are achieving in conservation and education. Often gardens hugely underestimate the importance of their work and the tool will help you to measure your success, thus proving to yourself – and to potential supporters – the enormous value of your work. The things your garden is doing are measured against the International Agenda for Botanic Gardens in Conservation and you get a score, which is fed into a database that analyses the efforts of the community as a whole. The tool is expected to be ready in April – keep an eye on our website for the announcement.
You can also expect to see more online conferences like the Virtual Curitiba Biodiversity Conference running until March. BGCI is going to be examining the possibilities in online training and seminars over the next year, in time for the 3rd Global Botanic Gardens Conference in Wuhan, China in 2007
The Digital Divide
However, there is an increasing 'digital divide' as those without access to internet services, or with intermittent, slow service, are unable to access information being rapidly shared across the globe. BGCI' s new website is designed to take up low bandwidth, and has information on how you can use Loband to reduce download time to an absolute minimum, along with useful tech tools like website translators, feedback forms to help us improve and links to open source (free) software.
It is becoming increasingly important to link the conservation agenda to measurable benefits to human well-being - which encompasses poverty alleviation, and improvements in health and nutrition, amongst other things. If our attempts to conserve biodiversity are to be successful, they must take account of the views and needs of local people, whilst efforts to alleviate poverty and improve human well-being depend on the conservation and wise use of natural resources. Botanic gardens are using biodiversity to contribute a great deal to all aspects of human well-being, even although they may not be immediately aware of the fact.
BGCI's Kerry Waylen is currently undertaking a review of botanic gardens and human well-being and will be publishing a report in April on the many ways botanic gardens can and do contribute in this area. Promoting the importance of botanic gardens for this type of work will demonstrate our relevance to the modern conservation sector and its supporters, which increasingly expect projects for conservation to also directly benefit local people. If you'd like to tell us about botanic garden successes you know of in this field, please email us.
Along with all this data sharing comes the responsibility to share it equitably and fairly, and without exposing valuable information to exploitation.
There are increasing efforts to make sure that any benefits gained from shared knowledge are in turn shared with those who gave the information. A United Nations biodiversity convention grants countries sovereign rights over their flora and fauna, but there is little a government can do to claim compensation once a natural material is taken overseas. There have been some cases in the past year in this area – one famous case involves the bushmen and a new slimming tablet made from Hoodia extracts. This and other similar problems have been highlighted in a provocative report 'Out of Africa: Mysteries of Access and Benefit Sharing' (PDF) by Jay McGown which continues to stimulate debate at international benefit-sharing discussions.
However, ABS is not just about foreign researchers developing drugs from native plants. Botanic gardens can share benefits with each other and form reciprocal arrangements for learning and research too.
BGCI's website is running a section on Access & Benefit Sharing in collaboration with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. There, you can find out more on how to develop suitable policies and ensure information and research is shared fairly between the parties involved in research and data collection. IPEN is a network of botanic gardens agreeing to abide by certain codes in relation to benefit-sharing and you can sign up by visiting the BGCI ABS pages.
Following the success of programmes like the BGCI China scholarships programme, and suggestions from our members, in the coming year BGCI are going to be looking at the possibilities of developing a botanic garden matchmaking service. Gardens with complementary needs or interests, or in different countries, could be matched up by placing requests with BGCI. We could then put them in contact with each other for mutual benefit. It would be useful to the wider community if we could also request some follow-up, like an article for our newsletter. If you have suggestions on how you would like this to work, please, as always, let us know.
'Out of Africa: Mysteries of Access and Benefit Sharing' by Jay McGown (edited and introduced by Beth Burrows Edmonds Institute in cooperation with African Centre for Biosafety 2006. ISBN 1-930169-49-3)