Protecting Biodiversity

Map of New Guinea

A prime reason for learning about biodiversity (see last post) is to find ways to conserve it.  One approach was developed at a meeting in Rio de Janeiro in 1993 and led to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) that gives each nation sovereignty over its biological wealth.  It aims to prevent developed nations from continuing to exploit the biota of developing nations, most of which had their progress thwarted by centuries of colonial rule.  The CBD represents a major shift in how the biological resources of a country are seen not only economically, but politically and culturally.  For example, the cinchona tree, native to Andean rainforests, is considered not only as the source of a valuable commodity, quinine, but as a resource growing in a particular place and therefore subject to the regulations of the government of that place.  Cinchona also has a long cultural history; it was Andeans who originally discovered its fever-relieving effects centuries ago and this plant has been documented with herbarium specimens, seeds, and also in poetry and art.  It is an integral part of Andean heritage, though it now grows in plantations around the world (Crawford, 2016).

Cultural connections can be found for thousands of plants worldwide, but economic and political issues often are at the fore when it comes to plant collecting.  Since the ratification of the CBD by most of the world’s nations, these issues have had a significant effect on botany, and on herbaria, just as they have had throughout the history of botany.  The difference now is the aim of equitable distribution of value.  Even non-signatory nations must comply with the procedures set down by those that have signed if they want to be allowed to collect, so this and the other international agreements have had a significant impact on how the biological wealth of nations is viewed and treated.  This is especially true since ratification of another UN-sponsored document, the Nagoya Protocol, a 2011 agreement that grew out of the CBD. It deals with the genetic resources of plants and animals, and how their benefits can be shared and used fairly and equitably.  It aims to prevent exploitation of resources, for example, by drug companies collecting plants that have medicinal uses and then developing drugs based on these plants in the companies’ laboratories without sharing profits with the country where the plant was collected and with the people who revealed its medical efficacy.

The Nagoya Protocol gives the host country the right to set strict limits not only on what can and cannot be collected, but also on how it can and cannot be used after collection.  Restrictions along with those of the CBD are meant to prevent the kind of exploitation by wealthy nations carried out for centuries, so they are attempting to right grievous wrongs.  A botanist who wishes to collect in another country must obtain a permit, or a series of permits, to do so.  These delineate what can and cannot be gathered, often only specific plant groups and in specific quantities.  Travel might also be limited to particular geographic areas.  Where possible, unless the plant is very rare, it is collected in multiples, and specimens are retained in an institution in the host country as well as in the collector’s institution. 

Requirements and procedures vary widely from country to country, and it may take months if not years to obtain necessary documents, which in some case are issued across multiple government agencies at levels going from country-wide to state, municipality, or other jurisdiction.  This sounds daunting, and it can be.  Some botanists and policy makers argue that the paperwork can be so difficult as to effectively prohibit or severely curtail collection and therefore hinder biodiversity research; requirements can have the opposite effect to what was intended.  The protocol does prevent exploitation, but in some cases it prevents research that might lead to practical benefits for the country in question.  In a commentary on a recent assessment of the biodiversity on the island of New Guinea, the authors noted that while half the island is part of Indonesia, a signatory to the protocol, the other half, Papua New Guinea, is not.  This is making the latter a more attractive location for biodiversity research (Novotny & Molem, 2020).

More mundane problems also persist.  Travel in many areas is difficult, as is transport and communications.  Shipments can get lost and may turn up eventually, or may be gone for good.  Australian customs officials destroyed type specimens sent from France over a mix-up about proper identification of the plant material (Davidson, 2017).  Restricting movement of plants into Australia is understandable.  These are definitely legitimate issues in preventing spread of invasive non-native species.  Australia, because of its remoteness, has a large number of endemic species and has suffered extinction of native plants and animals due to invasives.  But the invisibility of herbaria and their work has compounded the customs problem, since most nonscientists have never heard of herbaria and do not understand that specimens are dead, not living, plants. 


Crawford, M. J. (2016). The Andean Wonder Drug: Cinchona bark and imperial science in the Spanish Atlantic, 1630-1800. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Davidson, H. (2017, May 8). Australian biosecurity officials destroy plant samples from 19th-century France. Manchester Guardian.

Novotny, V., & Molem, K. (2020). An inventory of plants for the land of the unexpected. Nature, 584(7822), 531–533.

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