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Australasian Plant Conservation

Originally published in Australasian Plant Conservation 18(2) Setember - November 2009, p 2-3

Guest Editorial: Botanic gardens as 21st Century enablers of plant diversity conservation for human welfare

Stephen D. Hopper
Director, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK.

The development of botanic gardens is a global growth industry. Of the more than 2500 significant botanic gardens around the world, half have been created since 1950. Australia conforms to this trend.

Why is this so? Clearly, communities value and consider it worthwhile investing in botanic gardens—for the local community’s enjoyment and recreation, for tourism, for conservation, for education and for ongoing scientific discovery. This is healthy, essential and timely, enabling better conservation and use of plant diversity for human welfare in a time of rapid global change.

Indeed, I suggest that at no other point in history have plants and botanic gardens been more important to the future of humans, and of life on Earth. If this contention is correct, it is all the more distressing that, while botanic gardens continue to diversify and thrive, biodiversity has taken such a hard hit globally over recent decades, despite growing awareness of its decimation. Few would question that an extinction crisis is underway. Why is more not done to address this crisis? Is this due to poor understanding, lack of engagement or lack of commitment and sufficient action? What can botanic gardens do?

The world’s population is not lacking a broad understanding of the natural world. Such public awareness owes much to decades of brilliant documentaries by Sir David Attenborough and countless other enthusiasts for natural history. Something else must account for the increasingly alarming plight of life on Earth, and apparent indifference to the situation.

Of course, not all are indifferent. Australia has many fine examples of work aimed at conserving its biological jewels: magnificent national parks and nature reserves; extensive state forests; private land with wild vegetation retained for posterity by enlightened owners; and road verges similarly burgeoning with unique plants and animals persisting on slivers across the landscape.

Displays of native plants at Mount Annan Botanic Garden. Living plant collections help educate the public about the importance of plant biodiversity.
Photo: Murray Fagg.

Many threatened Australian species have been saved from extinction by the good work of committed conservation biologists, land managers and others. Seeds of native plants are being collected, stored and used as never before to repair damaged landscapes.

At the same time, the impact of people and choices in land use detrimental to biodiversity and to ourselves are to be seen everywhere, from extensive clearing for agriculture, infrastructure and ever-expanding cities, to the drying of climate associated with global warming. Water sources are being taxed to the limit. Applications of fertilisers are acidifying the land, poisoning plants and other organisms, and causing toxic algal blooms in wetlands.

Salinity due to excessive destruction of native vegetation silently consumes vast areas of Australia’s agricultural lands, including towns and roads as well as farmland and bushland alike. Dieback disease spread by moving infected soil is destroying more native plants than in any other region on Earth. Invasive weeds are more numerous and malignant to native plants and animals. Feral animals such as foxes and rabbits abound, the direct consequences of contemporary life styles.

We are literally poisoning our own nest, knowingly or not, silently, in what has been, and could continue to be, a global paradise.

At some point, soon, such approaches to land and water management must turn the corner. Green economics is now receiving serious mainstream attention across the world, no longer regarded as a catch cry of marginal extremists. We must develop a new paradigm for sustainable living over the next decade or two. The economics point more and more clearly in this direction. The environmental signals do likewise. The need is evident. It’s now time for concerted action, in all walks of life. Many are already grasping this nettle, especially young people who have most to lose and most to gain. While change is sometimes difficult, there are also superb opportunities and benefits for all if we seize the day.

Biodiversity, especially plant life, offers great potential to help with solutions to the inescapable environmental challenges we all face. Plants absorb carbon, and therefore help cool the world. They provide oxygen, so you and I can breathe. They provide food at a time where the word ‘crisis’ is now being used for the supply of staples that feed the world. Plants provide filters in the landscape for clean water. They enrich and modify hostile soils. They are a source of medicines for human health; quinine from cinchona bark and now Artemesia annua remain the best defences against the world’s greatest killing disease—malaria. Some Australian plants are known to have anti-cancer, anti-bacterial and anti-viral activity.

Does the plant biodiversity of Australia matter? Absolutely. As one of the world’s great repositories of biological novelty, many solutions to sustainable living undoubtedly lie quiescent and as yet unrevealed in remnant patches of native vegetation.

We know from Aboriginal people that there is a rich array of useful foods, medicines and culturally significant plants and animals found in Australia and nowhere else on Earth. The Australian native flora has already given the world edible crops such as macadamia nuts, sandalwood for aromatic oils, some of the most durable hardwoods for furniture making on Earth, and many plants adapted to saline habitats for land reclamation. New plants for perennial cropping sit largely unrecognised at our doorstep. Wildflowers of exquisite beauty and intrinsic interest still adorn remnant vegetation across the nation. Animals of great antiquity and such novel biology abound.

If we are to retain and restore the Earth’s vegetated carbon sinks to help minimise global warming, all people must look to their own backyards and manage biodiversity as though they were here to stay on this planet, in their place, living lives enriched by biodiversity. Australians bear a special responsibility as custodians of one of the most important biodiversity regions on Earth.

Will we save it? I sincerely hope we do. We cannot afford to let such riches slip through our fingers, for self-preservation as much as for the intrinsic interest and wonderment for which the Australian biodiversity has become internationally renowned.

How? By valuing, celebrating and investing in biodiversity. A step change in conservation action and financial resources for biodiversity is needed. Investing the cost of a few jumbo jets in Australian plant biodiversity over the next few decades would reap irreplaceable long-term rewards.

Such investment has already started, ranging from substantial work and contributions from government, business and wealthy individuals through to those of more modest resources establishing native plant gardens in their backyards or helping as volunteers with conservation organisations. We must ensure that this work continues and accelerates.

As the world moves through the present financial crisis, in a new era of environmental challenge, the opportunity exists to rethink our world and ways of living. Great historical moments such as the abolishment of slavery or democratising South Africa demonstrate we are capable of enlightened transformation as a global society, despite the economic and political difficulties. We owe it to ourselves, our families and the future to ensure today’s new deal for the environment and biodiversity becomes such a transformation.

I would conclude by simply saying that botanic gardens have a pivotal role to play now and in the future in this challenging enterprise, from scientific discovery, documenting and demonstrating the value of plant life, through seed banking, to helping restore damaged carbon sinks and plant diversity essential for a sustainable future. We need to harness the strong community interest in botanic gardens towards helping conserve plant biodiversity. If botanic gardens can’t achieve this, who will?