Australasian Plant Conservation (formerly Danthonia)
A shortened version originally published in Danthonia 9(1), June 2000
GLOBAL PLANT DIVERSITY - TIME TO MOVE
Associate Professor David
International Centre for Nature Conservation,
and Vice-President, ANPC
Date: May 2000
The variety of plant diversity on earth is essential to the survival of the
biosphere as we know it and is also essential for human welfare. Plants as the
primary converters of the sun's energy maintain animal life. Humans are sustained,
inspired and sheltered by the plant diversity of Earth. Plants also provide
much of the character of our familiar homelands, yet many people cannot recognize
or name the plants native to their surroundings.
I like the answer that David Brackett, Chair of IUCN's species Survival Commission
gives to those who doubt the need for plant conservation: "If you like to
breath and you like to eat, you should care more about plants." Yet, Professor
Vernon Heywood, former chief scientist for IUCN has pointed out the paradox:
despite the key role of plants in the environment and our existence, even the
conservation movement has not given plants attention that is commensurate with
We may well be facing an extinction crisis that threatens the stability of
the Earth as we know it. Cultures world-wide talk of the primal garden - the
world into which humanity was once placed. But the primal garden - the paradise
- is under threat. There are strong indications that the survival of about a
quarter of the world's flora may be threatened over the next few decades by
population growth, deforestation, habitat loss, destructive development, the
spread of alien invasive species and agricultural expansion. The loss of such
vital and massive amounts of biodiversity provides one of the greatest challenges
currently faced by the world community.
It is not only at the species level that plant diversity is under siege. At
the landscape level, this century has seen the loss of tropical rain forests,
many other habitat types, and large-scale desertification. The removal of plant
cover often means loss of soil, lessened water quality and irreversible changes
in ecosystem function. At the other end of the scale, we cannot even start to
estimate the loss of plant genetic variation, nor the foreclosure on options
for crop-breeding and biotechnology which have resulted.
Just one example will suffice. According to UNEP's state of the environment
report, "Global Environment Outlook 2000": Some 65 million hectares
of forests were lost between 1990 and 1995, out of a total of 3,500 million
hectares. The quality of the remaining forest is threatened by a range of pressures,
including acidification, fuelwood and water abstraction, and fire. Reduced or
degraded habitats threaten biodiversity at gene, species and ecosystems level,
hampering the provision of key products and services."
As pointed out by UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer at the opening of the
IFF-4 session in January: "We must consider forests as ecosystems that provide
a range of economic, industrial, cultural and social benefits, as well as environmental
benefits and services." And what is said for forests can be said equally for
grasslands, scrub, and marine systems.
In August last year the botanists of the world, convened at the XVI International
Botanical Congress in St Louis, Missouri, USA, noted that many of the world's
plant species are in danger of extinction in nature during the course of the
twenty-first century. They recognized that this threatens our expectation of
using plant diversity to build sustainable, healthy and better lives for the
future. The Congress called for plant conservation to be recognized as an outstanding
global priority in biodiversity conservation.
Responding to the Congress resolution, a small ad hoc group from 14 countries
came together in Gran Canaria, Spain in April, 2000 to consider a global initiative
for plant conservation. This group concluded that the creation of a Global
Strategy for Plant Conservation and its implementation should be urgently
undertaken, within the context of the United Nations Convention on Biological
Diversity. The aim would be to support and facilitate appropriate plant conservation
initiatives at all levels, halting the current and continuing unacceptable loss
of plant diversity.
Such a Strategy should effectively enhance collaboration and networking that
will strengthen and support plant conservation locally, regionally, and internationally.
This must link varied partners - government ministries, institutions, NGOs,
and local communities. A global Strategy must also link programs such as Diversitas,
the UNESCO Man and Biosphere, the Millennium Assessment of the World's Ecosystems,
the International Agenda for Botanic Gardens in Conservation and the IUCN Species
Survival Commission's Plants Programme, and should draw on the experience and
resources of bodies undertaking the implementation of other appropriate international
mechanisms and instruments, including the FAO Global Plan of Action.
Such a Strategy must integrate social, economic, and biological approaches
to plant conservation so that all appropriate and available resources, technologies,
techniques and sectors are brought together in support of plant conservation.
This would see a practical outcome for the massive Global
Biodiversity Assessment, published by the United Nations Environment
Programme in 1995, which built on the expertise of over 1200 of the world's
scientists as a summary of the science of biodiversity generally. This initiative
is on the agenda of the Fifth Meeting of the Conference of Parties for the Convention
on Biological Diversity. Its main elements are:
- Integrated ex situ and in situ conservation
- Promotion and coordination of research, monitoring, and information management
- Identification of social and economic benefits of plant diversity: its products
- Articulation and development of widespread education and public awareness,
using 'shop windows' to promote conservation and create awareness
St Louis also saw the launch of a Global Plant Strategy for the IUCN Species
Survival Commission. The Plant Conservation Subcommittee of the Species Survival
Commission (Editor's note: of which David Given was then Chair) which coordinates
and links the plant conservation program of the Commission. We see five fundamental
objectives contributing to a robust and far-reaching program within the commission:
- Sound interdisciplinary scientific information underpins decisions and
policies affecting plant diversity
- Collaboration and strategic alliances, including local and national organisations
are increasingly used within the plant conservation community to achieve plant
- Modes of production and consumption resulting in the conservation of native
plant diversity, are adopted by users of plant resources.
- Plants policy recommendations, guidelines, and advice are valued, adopted,
and implemented by relevant audiences.
- Capacity to provide long-lasting, practical solutions to plant conservation
problems is markedly increased.
The present time of crisis provides both danger and opportunity, and although
futurists predict a context of chaos there will also be new opportunities for
innovative partnerships and thinking 'outside the box' which we need to have
the courage to face. There is a general consensus among those involved in conservation
of biodiversity that major changes need to take place in human relationships,
and we need to pursue opportunities for new approaches and attitudes in education,
science, the arts and religion, if biodiversity security is to be achieved.
But while the vision is necessarily global, action must be local. There is no
global prescriptive approach - at the global level there are principles that
only become prescriptive in the unique social, biological and economic mix of
local community-based situations. It is essential also to continue to believe
that solutions to the extinction crisis are achievable - without that hope the
war against depletion and extinction will be lost.
Finally, none of us can stand on the sidelines. If we have no opinion, claim
neutrality, or regard the status of plant life as an issue that does not concern
us, then we are tolerating depletion and extinction, with the inevitable and
irreversible loss of part of our heritage. "If we do not speak for the flowers,
who will; if not now --- when?".
Heywood, VH and Dowdeswell, E. 1995. Global Biodiversity
Assessment. United Nations Environment Programme. Cambridge University Press,