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Why botanic gardens are key to our future

Sara Oldfield

14th June, 2010

The unsung heroes of conservation, botanic gardens are quietly acting as 'arks' for our planets endangered plant species. And we should be very glad they are too...

With our gardens and hedgerows bursting with colour, it’s hard to imagine that there is a plant diversity crisis. But worldwide it is estimated that one third of all plant species are currently threatened with extinction. The figure rises to half of all plants when the anticipated impacts of climate change are taken into account. The silent loss of plants receives little attention from politicians and the media and there is very limited allocation of financial resources to reverse the trend of species loss. Plants not only colour our world, they provide a vast array of natural resources, underpin our ecosystem services and help regulate our climate. More can and should be done to tackle the plant diversity crisis.

In 2002, governments worldwide agreed to the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC), with the overall objective of halting the current and continuing loss of plant diversity. The Strategy was developed under the auspices of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) – an international treaty designed to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity with equitable access to the benefits arising from it. The GSPC was innovative within the framework of the Convention in that it set ambitious targets for action. 2010 was set as the deadline for 16 plant conservation targets to be reached and this year, the UN’s Year of Biodiversity, is the time to take stock. At a recent meeting of the CBD held in Nairobi, the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation was hailed as one of the Convention’s success stories. Although the loss of plant diversity has not been halted, the Strategy has worked to catalyse and integrate action from local to global levels.

Insurance policy for the future

Botanic gardens around the world have embraced the GSPC and are using it to calibrate their own work in plant conservation. Acting as ‘arks’ for plant diversity, botanic gardens collectively grow about one third of all wild plants, providing an insurance policy for the future and a source of plant material for repairing our damaged earth. Increasingly botanic gardens are working beyond their garden walls helping, for example, with community-based plant conservation programmes both in urban areas and areas of high natural biodiversity. Botanic gardens also help to educate and engage children with the natural world, reminding them that not only polar bears, pandas and elephants are threatened with extinction.

Somehow plant conservation needs to find a louder voice. Connections need to be made between our love of gardening – creating diversity – and the loss of plant diversity in the wild. On one level botanic gardens show what can be achieved, but connections with the wider public are still failing. The existence of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation is not widely known or understood! But many of the targets will only be fully reached with wider engagement. The call for ‘30 percent of plant-based products derived from sources that are sustainably managed’ to be met for example will only be reached with increased demand for certified timber, paper, cut flowers and medicinal and aromatic plant products.

Celebrity endorsements

The need for plant conservation is better appreciated in countries where 80 per cent of people rely on wild plants for their only source of healthcare and millions rely on harvesting so-called ‘non-timber forest products’ for their financial livelihoods. In the ‘developed’ world we need to use iconic threatened plants to highlight what is happening to wild species. We need celebrity endorsements! The links between forest conservation and plant diversity need to be emphasised and the links between plant diversity and climate change need to be made more forcefully.

In October this year, governments that are signatories to the CBD will meet in Nagoya, Japan to debate a controversial new strategic plan for saving biodiversity over the next ten years. The issue of funding for implementation of the strategic plan is likely to prove a sticking point. At the same meeting a revised version of the GSPC with updated targets that take into account the impact of climate change is likely to be approved with little fanfare. A new campaign is being launched to remind governments that people do care about the future of this Strategy. To add your voice to the campaign please go to www.plantsfortheplanet.com

Sara Oldfield is secretary general of Botanic Gardens Conservation International and author of Botanic Gardens: Modern-Day Arks (New Holland, £24.99). Ecologist readers can buy a copy of the book with a 30 per cent discount by entering the offer code 'BOTANIC' at the checkout on the publisher's website

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