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Australasian Plant Conservation (formerly Danthonia)

A shortened version originally published in Danthonia 9(1), June 2000


Associate Professor David R. Given
Manager, International Centre for Nature Conservation, Lincoln University, New Zealand
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 their importance.

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 and services
  • 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 conservation success.
  • 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, Cambridge.