By Mike Maunder, Interim Director, The Kampong, National Tropical Botanical Garden
Two weeks ago I was in South Sudan working with East African and South Sudanese colleagues preparing a plant conservation project for the Imatong Mountains. Rivers spill out of these beautiful mountain forests providing water to huge areas of South Sudan. Yet the forests that catch and hold the rain are disappearing, felled by farmers intent on providing food for their families. The future of those forests, the threatened and endemic plant species in those forests, and the families of farmers, are all intertwined. The resolution of this challenge and many others throughout the world depends on professionals who have a passion for conservation and botany, have the cultural and scientific skills to navigate complex discussions and, importantly, possess a deep sense of compassion for the all communities involved. Yet I’m worried we are not adequately training our young professionals for these real world challenges.
At the very point in history when the increasing human demand for plant products is testing our ability to manage those resources we are not producing the botanists we need. In Europe and the U.S., botany schools are closing and globally important botanical institutions are contracting their programs. A 2009 study showed that during the past 20 years, 50 percent of the top funded U.S. universities had eliminated their botany programs.
In celebration of its 50th anniversary this fall, National Tropical Botanical Garden and its lead partner, the Botany Department of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, are hosting an international symposium in Washington, D.C., entitled Agents of Change — Botanic Gardens in the 21st Century. The one-day event will take place on October 7, 2014 at the Museum of Natural History. Click for details
The next generation of botanists will have access to tools and resources unanticipated by my generation but they will be charged with stewarding a natural world shredded by human demand. We need to start training botanists who have the cross disciplinary skills to document and classify plants, including the essential skills of plant identification, but also to restore and repair botanical resources whether they be traditional knowledge systems, populations of endangered species or ancient crops, or degraded habitats and their vital ecosystem services.
In a future of increased automation and mechanization we can prepare students for careers that are personally creative and rewarding and that rebuild the natural capital of the planet. These 21st Century botanical pioneers will be as trailblazing as Carl Linnaeus, Joseph Banks or David Fairchild because they are charting a new relationship with plant diversity, where restoration works in tandem with utilization.
With this in mind the National Tropical Botanic Garden (NTBG) and Florida International University (FIU) are jointly establishing the International Center for Tropical Botany (ICTB) adjacent to The Kampong, NTBG’s botanical garden in Coconut Grove, Miami, Florida. The ICTB brings together two world class teams of tropical botanists and ecologists along with NTBG’s extraordinary plant collections. Working with other botanical institutions in Florida and globally, the ICTB will help nurture the next generation of tropical botanists, garden leaders and directors, and conservationists.
Mike Maunder is Associate Dean for Research Engagement, College of Arts and Sciences, Florida International University, and Interim Director, The Kampong, National Tropical Botanical Garden. He will join other experts from the botanical world at an international symposium in Washington, DC entitled “Agents of Change-Botanic Gardens in the 21st Century”. The event is presented by the National Tropical Botanical Garden and the Department of Botany, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.