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|Preface from the printed volume:
The balance between people and their environment is being upset. Escalating human numbers and increasing demands for material resources are leading to the transformation and degradation of ecosystems worldwide, with consequent loss of genetic diversity and an inevitable rise in the extinction of species. More and more land is being converted to intensive production of food, timber and other plant products, much of the world's pasture land is overgrazed, and soil erosion and salinization are reducing the fertility of farmlands, especially in semi-arid regions. Wild species are being displaced or overcropped, and wild ecosystems can no longer be taken for granted as reservoirs of genetic diversity and regulators of the cycles of the elements.
Plants are a central component of this threatened nature. The loss of plants is very significant, for they stand at the base of food webs and provide habitats for other organisms. Although people in some modern societies may be mentally distanced from the reality of nature and are unaware of the services it provides, even city inhabitants are part of wider ecosystems, based on wild plants and natural vegetation. For example, genes from the wild can play major roles in the breeding of new varieties of food crops and other cultivated plants. New medicines continue to be derived from wild species. In many countries, natural and semi-natural ecosystems provide many plant products essential for human welfare, including fuelwood, timber, fiber, medicinal plants, fruits and nuts. Forests protect catchments and thus help regulate the flow of water for drinking, hydropower and irrigation. And wild nature—not the least wild plants—contribute to the natural beauty of the world that we rightly cherish.
In Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 over a hundred Heads of States and Governments signed a new International Convention of the Conservation of Biological Diversity—that is, of the world's rich variety of genes, species and ecosystems. They did so not out of altruism, but because they recognized that these resources were economically valuable and important to the future of humanity. Under the Convention—which entered into legal force at the end of 1993—each country accepts a responsibility to safeguard its own natural diversity and to cooperate internationally, especially to help poorer countries enjoy the benefits of their living resources.
All ecosystems contribute to the biological wealth of the planet, but some have a much higher diversity than others. Tropical forest contains a much richer flora than tundra, and some areas of tropical forest have many more plant species than others. Even agricultural land varies in the diversity it supports, from the richness of traditional agriculture with its many local varieties of crops, to the ecological deserts of industrial farming with high-yielding monocultures. To be effective, conservation of biodiversity must depend in part on surveys to identify how species and ecosystems are distributed and to identify key sites where diversity is greatest.
The three volumes comprising Centres of Plant Diversity are the product of information received from hundreds of botanists from many countries. They have worked together to identify some of the most important sites for plants worldwide. These are priority areas for conservation. These volumes are offered to national conservation authorities and to global conservation organizations as an aid in their work, especially in implementing the obligations of States under the Convention.
A publication like this can only be a beginning. Strategies to conserve plant diversity are needed at all geographical levels—global, national and local—and should form an integral part of all land development plans. And strategies have to be turned into action. Many of the sites described in these volumes are subject to threats and pressures and solutions will depend on finding a balance between different interests, site by site. The solutions are likely to be almost as diverse as the sites, since the environmental features of the latter and the nature of the threats to them vary so widely.
People are at the heart of conservation as well as the source of many threats. Virtually all terrestrial ecosystems, even those that appear to be more pristine, have long included people as components. For example, there are very few, if any, areas of tropical forest which do not provide local people with products for their use, and which have not been altered as a result of interaction with the users over the centuries. And, although local people have been components of natural ecosystems, sometimes for tens of thousands of years, their present day interactions with their environment are not necessarily harmonious.
The conservation aim is to conserve the diversity of nature: clearly this must be achieved within the context of cultural diversity. Conservationist must work with local communities, understanding how they use and manage nature, examining whether current practices are sustainable (for both particular species and in terms of wider impacts) and, if necessary, searching for alternative approaches. Moreover, cultures, whether of local people or professionals, including botanists, land managers and legislators, are not static. The search for appropriate practices, which will conserve plant diversity, perhaps while using it and other environmental resources sustainably, will be a continuing process.
It is our hope that these volumes will stimulate such activities throughout the world, not only at the key localities identified here. Without urgent, informed, practical action, the marvelous plant wealth of our planet will not be conserved, and future generations will be the poorer.
Director General, WWF International (World Wide Fund For Nature).
former Director General, IUCN—The World Conservation Union.