|Social deviants collecting seed in an unnamed central Asian country|
I was at an interesting event today – curating it in fact. At London's Garden Museum. A symposium on the future of plant hunting, run as part of the current exhibition. Its something that several of us have been wanting to hold for years, to thrash out some difficult issues that have been caused by that most well-intentioned declaration – the 1992 Rio Convention on Bio-diversity (CBD).
The Convention has made the transfer of plants or wild-collected seed from one country to another technically illegal but set up no mechanism for 'buying' material. Yet another badly-thought out international agreement, that once signed, freezes everything in a place where nobody wants to be. The results have been botanical institutions wanting (and needing) to do everything by the book, and needing to keep well clear of non-botanists doing any plant collecting which does not have country of origin authority. The result is the sundering of the former good relations that often existed between botanical institutions and the horticulture community. I wrote about the background in an article in The Telegraph.
I kicked off saying that at least everyone is talking. The idea of getting someone from Kew (Tim Entwisle), Prof. James Hitchmough from Sheffield, Bleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones from Crûg Farm Plants (the UK's leading plant hunters) and maverick nurseryman Michael Wickenden of Cally Gardens together on the same platform would have almost unthinkable a few years ago. It could have been too incendiary. We also had John David, the acting Head of Science from the Royal Horticultural Society too, and, a special treat this, Roy Lancaster who gave us a great historical perspective.
Just before it began, Christopher Woodward, the Museum Director called me into his office. I knew he had something important to say. Which was that the RHS although they had helped the Museum put on and had refused to help publicise the symposium. Too much beyond their comfort zone apparently. Too politically sensitive.
The whole issue of industrialized countries acquiring the genetic resources of poorer ones is a sensitive one. The absurdity is that very little money is made by anybody doing so for ornamental or landscape plants. The world horticulture community is suffering blow-back from the issues raised by (e.g.) pharmaceutical multinationals and others engaged in 'bio-piracy' or plant-breeding companies acquiring crop genes from the global south and then selling them back to them in new varieties. Post-colonial elites in the south make a lot of noise, with justification in some cases, but all too often exploit liberal guilt in the north, resulting in a kind of defensive paranoia in the botanical community. In any case, the real damage to plants and habitat in many countries is not coming from plant hunters taking a few seeds away (depriving a mouse of its lunch as Michael Wickenden put it in his eloquent, punchy, radical presentation) but habitat destruction and the plundering of natural resources for traditional medicine (a lot of which doesn't work anyway).
James Hitchmough got us going. As articulate and entertaining as ever, he informed us of how limited the gene pool is for many ornamental plants, of how climate change is going to mean a lot of re-thinking about what we plant, of how different urban gardening is from rural (where most of the garden-designing, garden-writing, garden-opinion-forming classes live, and needless to say garden). We need more diverse genetic material amongst our cultivated plants, to improve the ecological fitness for conditions in our towns and cities. Sustainability is about the genes not technological short-cuts like irrigation or mulching. He stressed the incredible floral diversity of British gardens and how beneficial this is for wider bio-diversity. Above all he stressed how the damaging the CBD has been – how it makes plant hunters into pariahs.
Tony Entwisle from Kew (Director of Conservation, Living Collections and Estates)was good - and very open-minded, the "sort of man one can do business with" unlike the negative approach that some at Kew and Edinburgh have taken in the past.
All in all, a good day, feeling like a logjam is beginning to loosen.