Botanic Gardens and Global Change

Vernon H Heywood

Botanic Gardens Conservation International, Descanso House,
199 Kew Road, Richmond, Surrey TW9 3BW, U.K.


The traditional image of botanic gardens as conservative institutions, reacting slowly to change, has changed dramatically in recent years. There is in fact a new dynamic in the botanic garden scene. For one thing, many new botanic gardens have been created, while a number have closed their doors. Others have been remodelled or have undergone a radical reorientation of their policies. At the same time the world has been undergoing dramatic changes in terms of population growth, pollution, famine, and habitat destruction, thus changing the context in which botanic gardens have to operate. Many of them, especially the newer ones, have embraced enthusiastically the conservation ethic and have adopted policies which aim at the conservation of the plant life of their region.

In terms of plant introductions and the collection and exchange of plant genetic resources in areas where botanic gardens have played a significant role in the past, especially in the 18th and l9th centuries, there has been a major shift of emphasis away from the introduction of exotic germplasm to a focus on local native species. The adoption of conservation policies has brought botanic gardens much more fully into the plant genetic resources scene, and in the future some of them will become major players as regards the conservation of stocks of wild species, especially those used in local economies, including medicinal plants and fuel wood species, crop relatives, and local cultivars of crops. They will also be leading centres for the provision of material for species reintroduction programmes and habitat rehabilitation and restoration. A closer link with the forestry sector in the collection and testing of germplasm of native trees for reafforestation and other purposes is also indicated. Botanic gardens will play an increasing part in the management and monitoring of genetic reserves for target species.

All of this will require the adoption of rigorous standards for the sampling, documentation, handling and conservation of the plant material concerned, and will require close cooperation with other conservation and genetic resource agencies. Education will also become an increasingly important role of botanic gardens, as will close involvement with the local community. The challenges facing botanic gardens in this time of global change are enormous and BGCI will work closely with them to help them face up to these important responsibilities.


We live in a world that is subject to continual change, often rapid, sometimes dramatic. These changes may be (a) political, (b) social, (c) environmental, (d) demographic, (e) climatic, (f) institutional. Not surprisingly, all kinds of organizations and institutions are learning to adapt so as to be able to live with these changes, and botanic gardens are no exception.

While we are accustomed, in a conservation context, to focus our attention mainly on changes that are taking place in our natural environment, these changes may be overshadowed by political and social upheavals. However, appalled we may be at the industrial pollution that is being revealed in Eastern Europe, which requires immediate and urgent action, the closure of botanic gardens and genetic resource institutes (with their valuable collections of living material) through lack of funds, must no less demand priority action, for if our institutional and technical resource are neglected then our capacity to respond is diminished. There are no scientific principles involved here, simply economics and finance and, of course, political decisions as to what are priorities for national survival. In such instances, short-term expediency tends to overlook the strategic nature of botanic gardens and conservation collections.

Here in Latin America, in the year that commemorates the meeting of the cultures of the Old and the New Worlds 500 years ago, we would do well to ponder on why it is that in a region with over a third of the world's flora, there are only one in fifteen of the world's botanic gardens, and many of these just barely existing. If we are serious, then, about implementing the decisions made at the UNCED Conference at Rio de Janeiro in June this year (1992), these are the kinds of issues that we must address that is, not only the deteriorating state of our living environment but mobilising the resources to be able to take effective action. What is quite clear is that the tasks of conservation are best done where the biodiversity exists, and not some thousands of miles away.

Those of us who work in the botanic garden world cannot ignore the inequalities and consequent tensions between the North and the South as so eloquently expressed at the Rio de Janeiro summit, especially with regard to such themes as access and ownership of genetic resources, technology transfer, resource transfer, training, infrastructure development and the like, which directly affect the work and effectiveness of botanic gardens. Botanic gardens need to develop policies for responding to change, and I shall address some of the key issues here.

The changing environment

The salient facts of the deterioration of our environment do not need to be rehearsed before an audience such as this:

The consequences that botanic gardens have to face are fairly stark: a vast and increasing number of species and populations that are being put at risk of local or even total extinction. Fortunately the mass extinctions predicted by many have not yet happened, at least for higher plants, but an uncomfortably large number of species are losing part of their genetic variation as their habitats decrease in area and their populations decline.

What action do we take to cope with this massive haemorrhaging of our diversity of plant species, populations and genes? Given the large numbers of species concerned, how do we set priorities as to which to conserve, and how? Or do we succumb to those voices which tell us that speciesbased conservation is a failure and that we ought to be placing emphasis on habitat, ecosystem or landscape approaches? (cf Soulé and Mills 1992; Walker 1992). Pursuing this last point, the reasons for the pessimism about speciesorientated conservation approaches stems from the fact that even in well-heeled countries such as the United States, little effective action appears to have been achieved. As Soulé and Mills (1992) point out, of the 570 threatened and endangered species (plants and animals) listed in the United States, only about half of these have recovery plans. What is worse, few of these recovery plans have been financed, so that they cannot be implemented. It is not surprising therefore that Soulé and Mills describe most plans as little more than a promise cloaked in a prayer. Similar statistics could be cited for Europe, while for the tropics so few recovery plans have been devised that no judgement needs to be made as to their effectiveness.

There is a danger, however, that people are beginning to talk about the system breaking down (Scott et al. 1991) before it has even been successfully put in place. We need to look at the whole picture and explore the options open to us. Species and their populations and genes grow in ecosystems and habitats and there is little disagreement that our first approach should be to attempt to conserve these natural communities. It is all too evident, however, that the policy of attempting to conserve biological diversity in nature, especially in protected areas, cannot be adjudged a great success, as we learn daily of the failure of national parks and the relentless loss or conversion of natural or semi-natural vegetation for the demands of a growing and developing world, for agriculture, industrialization and the like.

Furthermore, if we probe closely, not only are many of our protected areas poorly managed or even secure, but for the large majority, we do not even possess a near-complete inventory. It is not surprising therefore, that protected area managers profess little interest in the conservation of target species in the reserves they are responsible for. Indeed it is a sad reflection on the conservation world that we cannot even today say which rare and endangered species occur in which protected areas, although belated steps are being taken to remedy this situation.

Thus while conservation in nature is the ideal path to follow, the large scale failure of this policy must lead us to consider what alternatives we have available if we are not in many instances simply to lose our valuable plant resources. An integrated or pluralistic approach to conservation leads one back again to consider the effectiveness of ex situ conservation which is, of course, a speciesbased approach. The fact is, however, that no serious attempt to embark on a largescale species conservation approach has ever been attempted, although botanic gardens have come close to it by default. By this I mean that over the years, botanic gardens have amassed large collections of samples of species, although generally without any conservation ethic in mind. 'Serendipitous collectionism' has been the rule in most botanic gardens until recently. Yet this has shown that botanic gardens do have the capacity to work on a large scale. What is now needed is to apply much more rigorous and effective standards and to explore the feasibility of undertaking the largescale sampling and collection of germplasm at risk and its conservation as seed, clones, growing plants (in field gene banks or in plots), tissue or cell cultures, pollen samples, in and through botanic gardens following these standards. What will no longer suffice if botanic gardens are to take their place as major centres for the conservation of wild species germplasm, is the previous uncoordinated and unscientific procedures of the past.

Of course, not all botanic gardens will wish to participate in such an endeavour. It will mark a major and unacceptable change in policy and image for many of them. I believe, however, that sufficient of the world's 1600 botanic gardens and arboreta are interested in facing up to this challenge, so that a major impression can be made on the problem of conserving, through a variety of different approaches, a substantial number of threatened wild species, or at least genetic samples of them.

Individual botanic gardens in several countries are carrying out successful species recovery programmes and other kinds of conservation activity such as seed banking. The gardens belonging to the Center for Plant Conservation's (CPC's) network in the United States are engaged in the rescue of the most threatened species of North American plants. As an example, the work of the Endangered Plants Program at Bok Towers Garden, Florida, may be cited (Wallace 1992). This has involved cooperation with the Nature Conservancy, the Florida Nature Conservancy and other conservation professionals in planning and executing their endangered plant recovery strategies.

An other example is the programme of the Black Hill Centre of Adelaide Botanic Garden which is devoted to the conservation of locally endangered species, especially those of horticultural or other economic potential.

Some Chinese botanic gardens and arboreta have set aside large areas as field gene banks for the ex situ conservation of endangered tree species, as well as employing other techniques (cf. He ShanAn et al 1990), which gives many examples), and recently funding and the approval was given by the Chinese government for the Ex situ Plant Conservation Laboratory at Nanjing Botanical Garden.

Many other examples of effective conservation programmes by botanic gardens could be given, including the Seed Bank at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Wakehurst Place, the integrated Canary Island conservation programme undertaken at the Las Palmas Botanic Garden, the ex situ palm conservation plots at the National Botanic Garden of Cuba, the work of the French Conservatoires Nationaux at Porquerolles, Brest, Nancy and Bailleu.

Increasingly botanic gardens are becoming involved in the establishment, maintenance and monitoring of reserves and other protected areas, especially for conserving target species such as crop relatives, locally endangered species, economically important species such as wild fruit trees, and other significant species. The techniques of in situ management of genetic resources are poorly developed so far, and botanic gardens should cooperate with other agencies such as IBPGR and FAO which also have an interest in this approach to conservation. As far as possible, links should be established between protected areas and local botanic gardens, and, where the latter do not exist, at least a minimal botanic garden with nursery and propagation facilities should be established.

Collectively, then, we possess the resources and the skills to undertake this large-scale rescue mission, and a good number of gardens are already engaged in it. What then are the key issues that we have to resolve to put make it more effective? The first requirement, to be really effective, is for the conservation activities of botanic gardens to be integrated into the national conservation strategy or germplasm conservation strategy of the country concerned. If there is no such strategy, then botanic gardens should press for one to be formulated and in the meanwhile form a conservation network. An excellent example of the latter is the recently created Australian Network for Plant Conservation which has amongst its aims the maintenance of cooperation between botanic gardens, kindred agencies and land management agencies. A somewhat similar arrangement is being planned for New Zealand's botanic gardens. And at a conference of the Mexican Association of Botanic Gardens, held in Xalapa, Mexico, in 1992 (which I had the pleasure of attending), the theme was the development of national collections.

The need for a national strategy is obvious enough: unless there is cooperation, communication and coordination of effort, there is a serious risk of omission, duplication, and general lack of effectiveness. Certainly we would not advocate any bureaucratic structures, but sufficient to ensure that there is effective cover at a national level.

The second requirement is an effective information and documentation system in which all botanic gardens in a country will participate. The information needed includes passport data, threatened status, cultivation requirements, availability of germplasm (seed, clonal material, tissue culture, pollen etc.).

A third requirement is the application of internationally acceptable standards for germplasm sampling, maintenance, documentation, distribution, storage, regeneration (in the case of seeds), and for reintroductions. Considerable progress has been made by BGCI and other groups such as CPC in developing such standards for use by botanic gardens; the BGCI Guidelines for Germplasm Conservation by Botanic Gardens and draft Guidelines for Reintroductions are being made available to workshops at this Congress.

Another very important requirement is staff education and training. Germplasm conservation and reintroduction programmes have not been regular activities of most botanic gardens until recently and much of the work involved is far from glamorous. There may, therefore, be a considerable lack of enthusiasm to engage in such work at all levels, including management. Amenity horticulture, development of cultivar collections or taxonomy may be preferred activities. It will be necessary, therefore, to explain to all staff the significance of conservation programmes, their importance at a local, national and international level, and exactly what their aims and purposes are.

Constraints in implementing such a strategy are obvious enough lack of finance, resources, facilities, staff and even land and it would be foolish to gloss over these. Part of the reason for the lack of support is simply that botanic gardens have not yet established themselves sufficiently in the public and official consciousness as playing a serious national role in conservation. In the matter of gene conservation they are often still lumped together with the rest of what is called the 'informal sector', along with seed savers' organizations, independent seed companies, amateur groups and the like, which, it is accepted, play a role, although its importance is difficult to assess.

Fortunately there are signs that this attitude is changing and it is encouraging, for example, to read in the IUCN/UNEP/WWF document Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for Sustainable Living, that '...botanical gardens have a key role to play in maintaining ex situ collections of ...plants' and 'All botanic gardens should contribute to the implementation of the Botanic Gardens Conservation Strategy and join the Botanic Gardens Conservation Secretariat' (now BGCI). Likewise, in the WRI/IUCN/UNEP Global Biodiversity Strategy, Action 68 reads 'Develop the world's botanic gardens as major off-site network for conserving wild plant resources.' There is a long way to go, however, if the conservation work of botanic gardens is to be acknowledged and financed adequately, and each garden individually or in cooperation must make strenuous efforts to lobby for support. And of course the best way is by demonstrating solid achievements. In other words we need to be able to show that we can do it before funding for germplasm conservation will be forthcoming.

BGCI is committed to supporting botanic gardens in these efforts to establish a global network for the conservation and sustainable use of wild plants through botanic gardens, this being the first of its recently published 10 Point Worldwide Action Plan. It also aims to catalyze government action to support the conservation and sustainable use of wild plants as vital resources for human development. These are not just lofty ideals, but, I believe, constitute a realistic assessment of what needs to be done and a belief that botanic gardens can do it. If the world's botanic garden network cannot be mobilized as the principal mechanism for the conservation of genetic material of wild plants, it is highly unlikely that any other body will assume the responsibility.

In practice, there are lots of difficult decisions to be made on priorities which of the thousands of species at risk should we attempt to conserve and how many and by what means. Many elements of the strategy are in place, but a great deal remains to be done. This Congress is an ideal forum to agree on how to fill in some of the gaps and push the process forward.

Another important change facing botanic gardens is in public attitudes. For too long botanic gardens have been seen as bastions of the privileged with little relevance to local needs. This is especially true in developing countries, where implantation of the European model of botanic garden is seldom relevant. Gardens must respond to community needs, whether it be for making available expertise in horticulture, agriculture, propagation techniques, disease resistance, or introduction of new crops and provision of germplasm. A good example of the latter are the communal nurseries (viveros comunales) established by Lancetilla Botanic Garden and Experimental Station with the local inhabitants for the supply of germplasm of fruit trees.

Of course, nothing of what I have said is intended to detract in any way from the role of botanic gardens as places of recreation and spiritual refreshment. This is still an important function, as is education and extension which we will also be debating at this Congress.

It is my hope that we will be able to look back on this Third International Botanic Gardens Conservation Congress in Rio de Janeiro as a turning point in the development of botanic gardens one where the challenge of conserving the world's threatened wild plant resources is taken up and acted upon.


Preface  |  Contents List  |  Congress Report  |  Workshop Conclusions  |  List of Authors