"The essence of horticulture is action," wrote Diane Relf in her 1981 introduction to the concept of "horticulture therapy." Exquisite evidence of this thesis arrived this month in the form of a report from Botanical Gardens Conservation International: "Botanic Gardens: Using Biodiversity to Improve Human Well-Being." (Thanks to Scidev.net for the link.)
BGCI links together some 800 botanical gardens and describes itself as "the world's largest network for plant conservation, environmental education and sustainable development." Lest you think of botanical gardens as mere oases of peace and quiet where nice people spend a lot of time with watering cans, be forewarned: The botanical gardeners of the world have an agenda. To end poverty, improve human health and preserve biodiversity, as well as seek "political empowerment, improved social networks and community cohesion, reduced vulnerability and a freedom from violence and conflict."
That's a tall order and the report itself could be accused of being more than slightly earnest, with its optimistic survey of the many ways that botanical gardens from Congo to Thailand are helping local communities improve themselves. But what else would one expect from a league of extraordinary gardeners? The report's main thrust emphasizes a crucial thread of contemporary environmentalism -- plants, animals and humans, we're all in this together. Thus the report makes a distinction between old-school "protectionist" conservation, which sees nature as something to be preserved from being soiled by any interaction whatsoever with humankind, and whose application has had disastrous effects on some of the poorest peoples of the world, and a more interventionist program of botanical environmentalism that traces its ancestry back to the tradition of "economic botany." Nature is not just to be admired, but to be used.
But sensibly! Sustainable development, notes author Kerry Waylen, was defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987 as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Botanical gardeners all over the world apparently see themselves as part of that mission, whether that means teaching villagers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo how to keep caterpillar populations thriving ("caterpillar meat has been estimated to contribute 40 percent of the total protein consumed in the Bas Congo" says the report) or looking for plant species with "immuno-modulators or anti-tumor properties," as researchers at the Komarov Botanical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences are doing.
"Botanic gardens are often perceived as institutions prized only for their aesthetic values and roles in gardening and horticulture, and so seen as institutions with little relevance to the linked conservation and development agendas," writes Waylen. "However, botanic gardens are not just a 'pretty place.'"
They are laboratories for survival.