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Botanic Gardens and National Sustainable Development.

Angela Leiva Sánchez
National Botanic Garden CUBA

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These two words "sustainable development", have become in the last years, the paradigm of what we all need to survive as a civilization. At the same time, it is the dream of what any modern society hopes to achieve because, like many other challenges, it involves a 180 degrees change in personal, social and government attitudes and patterns of production and consumption. In other words, "sustainable development" implies a new ethic for living.

Thus, it is not surprising that scientists, politicians, writers, artists, lawyers, religious leaders, and many other people, outstanding or not, have something to say about sustainable development, especially after the Earth Summit in 1992. In the same sense, more and more, it is an area which involves politics, economics, sociology, the sciences, technology, and religion.

One week ago, I received a gift from the representative a.i. of UNEP in Cuba, a book named "The America that we wish", (La América que queremos) containing 32 essays on the subject of sustainable development and environment in a broad sense, written by the same number of very diverse and outstanding people, mainly from the New World. There where so many wise ideas, that I decided to include some in this presentation. I apologise for the translation to English because they sound better in Spanish.

Concerning sustainable development (I don't have to tell you that it is the only option of development that we have today, if life on Earth is to be maintained), there are certain principles that can not be neglected if a sustainable society is to be built. There are nine in total, as can be seen in the document "Caring for the Earth: a Strategy for the future of live" publised by UICN, UNEP, and WWF in 1991. First, I will refer to them and afterwards, I will comment how botanic gardens, as public educational places, and as centers for scientific research, can help to increase the public concerns and to participate in designing local or national environmentally focused policies and decisions on environmental conservation and development.

The first of these principles is to respect and care for the comunity of living beings. It is an ethical principle, and means that present development cannot be afforded at the expense of other species, nor jeopardise the quality of life of future generations.

The second principle is to improve the quality of human life. To eliminate poverty, to provide all people with a long and healthy existence and to give all people access to education and culture. In few words, ensure the full dignity of human being.

However, 20% of humanity lives in poverty, and in Latin America this figure rises up to more than 40% of the whole population, as refered to by Patricio Alwin, ex president of Chile. According to UNESCO figures, more than 800 million of people are illiterate worldwide.

The third principle is to conserve the vitality and diversity of the Earth. For this, it is necesary to preserve the life-support systems, to conserve biodiversity at all its levels, and to look for the sustainable use of renewable resources. This all sounds very well but, in fact, the world environmental situation is getting worse every day. Enrique Leff, from UNEP, has said that whilst neoliberal politics took force in the last fifteen years in Latin America and the Caribbean, the environmental problems were intensified: global warming, air and water pollution, loss of biodiversity and loss of soil fertility by erosion and desertification.

The fourth principle is to reduce to a minimum the exhaustion of non renewable resources. The Vice-president of United States of America, Albert Gore, has said that "the new danger we are facing today is the threat to health and well-being of the planet, as well as the real risk that we will not be able to leave to the next generations enough resources to sustain them".

Maintaining the charge capacity of Earth is the fifth principle. It means to recognise finite limits on the impacts that the ecosystems and biosphere, as a whole, can tolerate without causing irreversible damage. Let me tell you that, in less than two hundred years, our planet has lost 200 million square Kilometers of forest, and that water consumption has increased from 100 to 3,600 cubic Km.per year. Albert Gore has also said that the air we are breathing today has six times more chloride than at the end of the second world war. He has also declared that eight out of the last ten years has had higher temperatures recorded than ever before (since 1980). I should add to those terrifying figures that in the last two hundred years, human activity has been responsible for a 50% increase of methane concentration in the air as well as an increase of 27% in carbon dioxide content.

When we take a look around the world climatic situation, we can easily believe that changes have begun, and that the planets capacity is already surpassed. Inmense floodings in China and in some African countries, extreme dryness in northeastern Brazil and in other Latin American countries, unexpected high temperatures in European summer, drastic variation in mesoclimatic patterns everywere. Sometimes I think of the Earth, as an inmense and wounded animal, trying to beat out the creatures that are constantly harming its skin, and that those annoying creatures are we, the humans.

The sixth principle is to modify personal attitudes and practices. This means, to change consumer-mentality people into citizens commited to a sustainable way of life. To have a numerical idea of what this actually means, Mrs. Gro Harlem Bruntland, formerly Prime Minister of Norway, said that if the 6000 million inhabitants of the planet are going to consume the same proportions of the earths resources as the people from developed Western countries, it would be necessary to have TEN planets the same as Earth in order to fulfill all of their necessities. So, the paradigm of well-being for the present and future cannot be the standards of the First World of today. She has also said that, if we are able to reach what she calls "sustainable consumption", then there will be some possibility of life for us and for future generations. She also advocates that products be long-lasting, and urges people to abandon the culture of "use and throw".

The seventh principle is to enable communities to take care of their own environment. Community awareness of the environment is the first, and the principal, step in achieving a sustainable society. Miguel de La Madrid, ex president of Mexico, in the forward to the book I have already mentioned, said "The sense of working for a healthy environment is built up in everyday practice, in personal and group relationships; because of that, the citizens environmental commitment can only be converted into an effective action when it is led by an organized and prepared population, able to know, to understand, to claim their rights and to accept their responsibilities."

In the words of Rigoberta Menchú, Nobel Prize of Peace in 1993, refering to the role of auctoctonous population, said: "Community is not a myth, nor a vestige from the past. It is full of vitality and has a projection, that is not incongruent with development. The wisdom and richness that emanate from communities could contribute to restore a true hope for the future... It is unavoidable that our millenary cultures participate in decisions on the environment and on a fair and equitative development based on respect for nature, for peoples and for the sons of the earth. Those who understand this relationship of harmony, are exalting the fight for human dignity".

The eighth principle is to provide a national framework for integrating development and conservation. In a very synthetic way, it is the aim of Agenda 21. As governments design the national programmes for the environment and for development, the process marks the beginning of a new global partnership for sustainable development.

And the ninth and last principle is to forge a world alliance. That is what governments and non governmental organizations tried to achieve at Rio de Janeiro in 1992. And that is what we, botanic gardens all over the world, are doing right here in Capetown.

Now the question this raises is: How are botanic gardens going to deal with such an enormous challenge? Is there any role to play in improving national development ?

Let me take a rapid view of the practical activities that botanic gardens can do in favour of the majority of the above mentioned principles.

First of all we have to address to the idea of "thinking globally, and acting locally". It means that we have to identify what our principal environmental problems (local or national) are, and how prepared we are to face them. An analysis of strenghts, opportunities, weakness and threats will help us to reach the correct action plan.

Concerning the respect and care of all living beings, botanic gardens are ideally prepared as places to demonstrate how diverse life is and how interdependent living systems are, including Man. By using all of the plant species diversity held in the garden, and relating it to wild fauna and soil organisms, we can prepare cheap, good and rather simple activities in our Environmental Education Programme.

The principle of improving the quality of life for people, is essencial in almost all gardens Mission Statements. Botanic gardens are places devoted to raising the spiritual values and ethical attitudes of people in relation to nature. They are mainly educational and cultural centers.

Botanic gardens should also be well prepared to act in support of conserving biodiversity in some, or all, of its levels (ecosystems, populations, species and genetic diversity).

Research planning should be related to floristic and taxonomic studies, species conservation strategies and methods for the restoration of wild populations, developing germplasm banking, assessing conservation status for threatened species and producing red data lists for localities or countries, monitoring the transformation of particular ecosystems facing some kind of impact.

Environmental education in botanic gardens should focus its work on changing personal attitudes by adopting lower-consumption patterns, by teaching where different products come from, how Nature is being depleted and how we can save natural resources by managing them. Education needs to present a picture of sustainability through recycling of waste and production of renewable products and teach about alternative sources of energy such as solar, or aeolic energy.

Although a large-scale recycling practice is essential for the Earth to maintain the thousand of millions of inhabitants of the future, environmental education programmes in botanic gardens can teach, in the short term or demonstrate activities such as how to recycle paper and save forests and trees, how to produce compost for soil amelioration, how to cook by using solar energy, how and why to save water or electricity or how to plant trees for re-forestation of degraded areas, and in general, raise the awareness of people about saving non renewable resources.

Environmental education should also focus on wildlife and plant habitat protection, showing people the importance of plants in biosphere cycles of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and water, and the interdependence of all the parts of the worlds living system.

Environmental education work for sustainable development in local communities is of tremendous importance. It means that the people of the community will recognize the garden as having a very important place in their every day life. The Community is indeed the scene where botanic garden's educational staff can share with other social entities such as schools, local organizations and community leaders, in order to convey common actions on behalf of the comunity, teaching them how to be environmentally literate citizens, actively working for their own environment.

For Botanic Gardens to be fully concerned with conservation and sustainable development, they have to be recognized as active centers in a national frame of action and, in the case of countries with several botanic gardens, it is better if they are linked together in a national network.

There are multiple areas of environmental action where botanic gardens can play important roles: participating as members of commissions to examine national environmental concerns, problems and action plans, to be consulted in cases where an proffessional opinion on nature conservation is needed, to participate in the evaluation of a proposition for a protected area, to participate in multidisciplinary studies of environmental content, to be or to participate in, CITES as scientific authorities, as consultants or as rescue centers, to take part in national reports on plant biodiversity or environmental issues, etc,etc.

Regarding my own experience at the Cuban National Botanic Gardens and the National Network, I will refer to the actions that we are taking at a national level on the subject of national sustainable development. I will recall to all of you that my country, CUBA, is a little insular system at the western limits of Caribbean Sea. It has a complex and rather ancient natural history, based at the middle of continental land masses and on many migratory routes, together with this insular position and its highly varied soils, there has been an evolution of rich and varied flora as well as vegetation. A total amount of about 6,700 vascular plant species with an endemism of about 50 % is present in the Cuban flora. Cuba has about 960 threatened species, 87% endemics. There is a rather high level of sampling and knowledge of the plant diversity, as well as a vast body of work on the cartography of the vegetation units. As in all Caribbean islands, Cuba's natural ecosystems have been influenced by man in such great intensity over the last two or three centuries, that today only 14 % of the territory is covered by primary vegetation, mainly in the mountains.

Cuba is a developing country, poor in natural resources, and suffering from an unfair economic embargo over the past 38 years, an embargo that has recently been reinforced, adding to the loss of its eastern European economic partners. Nevertheless, the country had been able to maintain rather high standards of social development in education, public health, social equity and security. But concerning environmental education, there is still much to be done.

I must mention that our National Network of Cuban Botanic Gardens was officially created by a decree of the President of the Academy of Sciences in 1990. This network embraces all active and planned gardens, irrespective of their administrative status and today, it covers over 10 of the 14 provinces (see map). The National Botanic Garden acts as coordinator.

Just before the Earth Summit, in July of 1992, the Cuban Constitution was reformed by the National Assembly (or Parliament) in several aspects, one of these concerns the environment (Art. 27).

Following the Rio Summit, in 1993, the National Programme for the Environment and Development (in accordance with Agenda 21) was established. Following a very rich and broad participative discussion it was implemented both at municipal, provincial and national level. The Botanic Gardens actively took part in the discussions, defining their commitment to sustainable development of the country.

In 1994, there was a reorganization of the Governmental apparatus, and in the place of the former Academy of Sciences, the Ministry for Science, Technology and Environment was established. Beneath this ministry, was created the Environmental Agency. This Agency deals with the national system for protected areas, information, dissemination , including environmental education, environmental management and control and some other important areas.

In 1996, Cuba presented the National Study on Biodiversity, a huge and comprehensive document that compiled, in a sympathetic way, all the available knowledge on Cuban biodiversity and related items. The Botanic Gardens National Network was asked to contribute, and a four page report on the situation and the perspective of botanic gardens all over the country regarding conservation of plant biodiversity, was presented.

In June 1997, the National Environmental Strategy was published. It contained the principles and the factors for consideration on sustainable social and economic development. It identified the main environmental problems of the country, and defined the actions needed and the responsibilities of, the parties involved.

In July 1997, the new Environmental Law was issued. It deregulated the former Law 33 and overcame many previous technical dificulties. Several resolutions and by-laws that complemented the main frame law are now being prepared.

In July 1998, the new Forest Law, based on the principles of sustainability, was aproved by our National Assembly. Once more, the National Network of Botanic Gardens was invited to give opinions on the several drafts presented, untill the final discussion for the aproval by the Assembly.

Cuban Botanic Gardens throughout the provinces are more and more, called in to participate in the evaluation of the human impact on natural ecosystems, in preparing floristic surveys of important territories for conservation, and of course in designing and developing environmental education programms.

Now, the National Strategy for Biological Diversity and the National Action Plan, is being prepared by the National Center for Biological Diversity (CENBIO). This is being done with the very broad participation in the form of provincial and national workshops, under the guidance of UNEP, and the botanic gardens are fully participating in this process, as important contributors.

The organization of national and regional scientific meetings on many aspects of Botany and conservation, is another field of action instigated by our botanic gardens. It is indeed a very important role in the development of national science.

The National Botanic Garden as a part of the University of Havana, offers Master Degree courses in Botany, that contribute to capacity building of the environmental sciences for graduate students from all over the country. An International course on Biodiversity Conservation had been organized with the collaboration of Cordoba Botanic Garden (Spain), BGCI and CITES. A second version of this course was prepared, together with the Juarez University of Tabasco, and the Mexican Association of Botanic Gardens at Mexico. Last year we organized with the Latin american Network of Botany, a postgraduate course, on Plant Anatomy and Morphology.

Training courses for gardeners are being developing in our NBG, and we are preparing for next year, a new course for Caribbean gardeners, as a part of the regional strategy.

Recently, the NBG together with Conservation Breeding Specialist Group of IUCN, undertook a CAMP workshop (Conservation Assessment and Managment Plan) for selected Cuban plant species. During three days, about 40 peoples were brought together, resulting in the analysis of about 100 species.

Dear friends: for national sustainable development to be achieved, it is a sine qua non condition to live in peace. And peace is disturbed or threatened everywere because of social and economic crisis in so many countries.

Poverty is dangerously increasing in the world, and it is a trigger for instability and war. The differences between rich and poor countries is getting greater and more overwhelming, and at the same time thes e differences occur within countries. Economic globalization is a fact that we cannot ignore. But let us do it in an environmentally sustainable and human way.

The Cuban leader and President, Fidel Castro, on the occasion of the recent Summit of Non-Aligned Countries, two weeks ago and from this beautiful city, Cape Town, said: “Neoliberal globalization accelerates the destruction of nature, the poisoning of air and water, the deforestation and desertification of lands, the erosion of soils, the depletion and waste of natural resources, the changes of climate. How and from what are we going to live on when, very soon, we reach ten billion human beings?

Let´s think about it.


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Copyright 1999 NBI