Kew agrees to safeguard wild plants for three African nations

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The Independent Online

Thousands of Africa's wild plants, many of them threatened with extinction by drought, development and the spread of deserts, will be secured for future generations by international agreements to be signed today at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Thousands of Africa's wild plants, many of them threatened with extinction by drought, development and the spread of deserts, will be secured for future generations by international agreements to be signed today at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Kenya, Burkina Faso and Madagascar are entering into official partnership with Kew's £80m Millennium Seed Bank project to collect and preserve the seeds of their endangered grasses, flowers, bushes and trees. The three African countries will give access to British botanists, who will collect the seeds with host nation scientists and bring some back to the Seed Bank's storage facility at Wakehurst Place, Kew's outstation in Sussex.

There they will be kept in very cold, very dry conditions, which will enable them to be germinated after long periods of time - in some cases, more than 100 years. In an ambitious programme, Kew aims to collect and store seeds from 24,000 species - 10 per cent of the world's flora - by 2010. It will concentrate first on the plants of the tropical drylands, which are among the most threatened.

Today's agreements are essential to enable the programme to go ahead, because developing countries are now only too aware of how scientists from the rich North can exploit newly discovered plants for medical and other purposes - making fortunes in the process - and are consequently wary of letting them in.

The accords have been drawn up in the spirit of theConvention on Biological Diversity, the world wildlife treaty signed at the Earth Summit in 1992, which insists on equity and no exploitation between North and South.

Under the agreements, ownership of all the seeds collected will remain with the host nations; the Royal Botanic Gardens will keep them only in trust. In return for sharing the material, Kew will provide funding and technical assistance to help the African countries establish or develop seed banks of their own.

"For us, this is a very urgent problem," said Dr Lambert Ouadraogo, head of the forest seed centre in Burkina Faso, whose country faces some of Africa's most intractable problems, with the desert spreading from the Sahara to the north. "Plants are of enormous importance to us - 95 per cent of the energy consumed in Burkina Faso comes from wood - and we have to act quickly to save them, otherwise we will arrive at a moment where we need something and that something isn't there."

Dr Ouadraogo said a typical plant threatened was Boscia senegalensis, a shrub of the caper family that was endangered by consumption - its fruits are prized by livestock as well as by the people.

Burkina Faso has about 3,000 native plants and, as part of the project, Kew will help to develop an inventory.

Madagascar, although an island, has 11,000 native plants and 80 per cent are found nowhere else on Earth. "With the growth of population there are enormous risks to these natural resources," said Rija Olivier Rajohnson, Madagascar's Minister of Forests. "These riches might disappear. We are signing an agreement with Kew because it is world-renowned, serious and objective. We do not fear exploitation."

* Kew has now succeeded in collecting the seeds of 92 per cent of the British flora - more than 1,330 native wild plants out of a total of 1,442. Rarities that remain uncollected include alpine rock-cress, nettle-leaved goosefoot and shaggy mouse-ear hawkweed.

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