A Renaissance for African Botanic Gardens?

Mike Maunder, Ph.D., Director

A colleague, exasperated by a lack of understandihg about the importance of plants, hisses at the unconvinced: “If you care about eating and breathing you should care about plants!” We often forget that plants are the basis for much of our daily existence. In Africa, the link is so much more tangible: plants are the substrate of everyday life for many people; a large proportion of the medicines are derived from wild-harvested plants; and bush and forest provide wood, charcoal and forage, and protect watersheds. In addition to these utilitarian concerns, Africa supports an extraordinary variety of plants, e.g., the Cape Region of South Africa alone supports 5,682 endemic plant species, many threatened with extinction.

If botanical gardens are going to demonstrate their value as resources for sustainable development, it is in Africa they will do so. The African botanical gardens have had a hard ride. Many were established by the old colonial powers, under which they flourished until the financial and political upheavals of post-colonial Africa reduced them to under-resourced shells. Today, that pattern of decline is being reversed as many African nations rise to the challenge of the Convention on Biological Diversity and produce strategies that recognize the need for retaining plant resources.

There are wonderful success stories that demonstrate the role of the contemporary African botanical garden. Nairobi Botanic Garden, Kenya, is only six years old, yet is already a center for environmental education and has established a wonderful succulent and orchid collection. The Limbe Botanic Garden, Cameroon, was originally established by the German colonial authorities as a resource for plantation agriculture. After years of neglect, it is now a regional conservation resource for West Africa, with forest conservation, medicinal plant and lively local community outreach programs. Farther south, the South African botanical gardens, managed by the National Botanical Institute, have weathered the transition to democracy. Their flagship garden, Kirstenbosch, near Cape Town, is one of the world’s great botanical gardens. South African gardens, along with their neighbors, have created a regional botanical network, SABONET, to undertake regional training activities. However the majority of African gardens are in terrible financial straits. The Amani Botanic Garden in Tanzania, sited in the rolling Usambara Mountains, was once one of the most active field stations in the tropical world. Now it is in picturesque decline, the old German Bavarian style cottages abandoned and empty. The botanical gardens in Congo and Mozambique have been looted and devastated by civil wars.

In November 2002 the first congress for African botanical gardens was held. A total of 120 delegates, representing 23 African countries, converged on the Durban Botanic Garden, South Africa. The meeting brought together botanical garden people from such diverse nations as Angola, Nigeria, Mauritius and Congo. All met under the flag of the global botanical garden network, Botanic Gardens Conservation International; the southern African botanical network, SABONET; and the City of Durban. This was the first formal meeting of the African Botanic Garden Network. The meeting included training sessions on education, plant collection management and conservation assessments. This was followed by a review of the status of African botanical gardens and the development of a continental strategy using the framework of the Global Plant Conservation Strategy (see box, opposite).

It was an exciting meeting. Pragmatism was balanced against enthusiasm as drafts of the strategic plan bounced back and forth through successive English, French and Portuguese translations. The African botanical gardens have set an ambitious agenda that places their institutions in the center of the continent’s priorities, namely securing resources for sustainable development and the alleviation of poverty. Through the conservation of wild landscapes and species, they will play a role in securing ecosystem services and medicinal plants and retaining of species-rich habitats. As a tropical botanical garden, Fairchild Topical Botanic Garden shares many of the concerns facing our African colleagues. One such challenge shared by all botanical gardens is to remind people that botanical gardens are not only ornamental gardens, but places concerned with studying, celebrating and conserving the very stuff of life.

Garden Views Spring 2003

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