Botanical gardens are combatting poverty

Posted: 16 May 2006

Medicinal plants supplied by botanical gardens are helping to treat HIV/Aids sufferers in South Africa where access to traditional drugs is limited. According to a new report, published today, indigenous plants such as Bulbine and Carpobrotus, which patients can plant themselves, are being used to treat skin conditions commonly associated with the disease.

Natal National Botanic Garden (part of the South Africa National Biodiversity Institute) is supplying the plants to a local primary healthcare centre. It has also developed posters to educate on the uses of medicinal plants, and how nutritional plants' vitamins can boost the immune system.

Weaving with Taboa to make saleable items from the Zoo-Botanic Foundation, Mexico. Photo: BGCI
Weaving with Taboa to make saleable items from the Zoo-Botanic Foundation, Mexico. Photo: BGCI
A local woman weaving with Taboa to make saleable items from the Zoo-Botanic Foundation, Mexico.© BGCI
According to a report from Botanical Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), this is just one of the numerous ways in which botanical gardens around the world are not only helping to conserve plant diversity but combating global poverty.

Many other botanical gardens run projects to promote medicinal plant use to treat other common healthcare problems. For several years Aburi Botanic Garden in Ghana has used a variety of techniques to encourage medicinal plant use, and to date has supplied over 2 million seedlings to local communities.

Children get back to nature at Akoteu Tuingapapai, Auckland, New Zealand. Photo: BGCI
Children get back to nature at Akoteu Tuingapapai, Auckland, New Zealand. Photo: BGCI
Children get back to nature at Akoteu Tuingapapai, Auckland, New Zealand© BGCI
Other examples include tackling diabetes and obesity among school children in New Zealand, improving urban food security in Colombia, and providing horticultural therapy for disabled war veterans in Jerusalem.

Improving neighbourhoods In Bogotá, Colombia (where 60 per cent of the urban population lives below the poverty line), the botanical garden is improving urban food security through vegetable gardens.

In Jerusalem, the activities include teaching skills to the unemployed and new immigrants, and providing horticultural therapy and encouraging community integration for disabled war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorders.

Transforming the Bronxwith the help of New York Botanical Garden. Photo: BGCI
Transforming the Bronxwith the help of New York Botanical Garden. Photo: BGCI
Transforming the Bronx environment with the help of expertise from the New York Botanical Garden© BGCI
Other gardens concentrate on using plants to improve neighbourhood environment, and as a consequnce, reduce crime and social problems. The New York Botanical Garden, for example, has been working with community groups in the Bronx district to supply expertise, training and resources that allow derelict lots to be transformed into safe and attractive places to socialise. This has helped to build a closer-knit community with the courage to tackle other local problems.

Other projects can provide local people with financial benefits. For example, the Oaxaca Ethnobotanical Garden in Mexico sells the work of local artisans who use certified sustainable timber to form fantastic figures called "alebrijes", carved and painted in bright colours, whilst gardens from Costa Rica to Poland train local people how to sustainably use their local plants to make useful products and handicrafts for sale.

Extinction crisis

The report argues that traditional development has failed to properly value or take account of the vital role of the conservation of natural resources to human survival.

It points out that 350 million of the world's poorest people directly depend on forests for all their basic needs and 2,000 million for cooking and fuel wood, yet 10 per cent of all tree species are threatened with extinction worldwide. Plants represent a lifeline inherent to successfully sustaining life on earth, yet scientists believe that two-thirds of the world's plants could be extinct by the end of the century.

In this context, it says, few people would regard botanic gardens as key players - they are often perceived as places of mainly aesthetic value, prized for their roles in gardening and horticulture but with little or no relevance to the conservation and development agendas.

"But they are not just pretty places," argues Sara Oldfield, Secretary General of BGCI, "Botanic gardens are a major force for the conservation of plants around the world - because they represent unique and powerful repositories of botanical knowledge and expertise.

"Through their scientific research, education and community programmes, they are able to study and manage plants in cultivation and in the wild and thus can provide a major contribution to both ecological and human well-being. Many of the world's globally threatened species are represented in their living collections or seed banks which are quite literally an insurance policy for the future of global biodiversity."

The report illustrates how botanic gardens use biodiversity as a catalyst to improve human well-being in many ways including improving healthcare, raising nutritional standards, financial poverty alleviation and through providing community and social benefits.

But it says, the other roles of botanic gardens should not be forgotten. These institutions represent world-class research organisations involved in a huge range of projects including those concerned with population genetics, taxonomy and the control of invasive species, pests and diseases.

Far from being just pretty places, the report says, the worldwide network of botanic gardens represented by BGCI, is a powerful force in conservation uniquely placed to offer dynamic solutions to the resolution of global biodiversity issues.

To discover which plants botanical gardens are cultivating in 120 countries around the world, and more about BGCI's work, see: www.bgci.org.