How local knowledge can help us to protect our planet

Plants have been a huge passion of mine ever since I was a little girl, growing up in the Italian countryside at the foot of the Alps. Hunting for edible and medicinal plants with my father shaped my life-long love for plants and appreciation for their power to heal and protect. Over many years, I have worked on 28 different projects across 18 countries, mainly in Latin America and Africa, and the more of the natural world I see, the more I am desperate to conserve it, especially plants that are particularly beneficial to people’s health and wellbeing. Using this knowledge, I have been able to develop approaches to support communities living in pockets of the world where nature really does dictate life, from diets and income, to the air that surrounds them.

I have come to learn that protecting biodiversity from the dangers it faces should be considered as important as preventing the effects of climate change. By biodiversity I am talking about the huge number of species that make up the planet and the ecosystems and processes they are involved in. Our planet faces multiple threats as a result of our human footprint - deforestation, the spread of disease, the amount of land used for food production, to name just a few, and this is greatly impacting the levels of biodiversity we scientists are finding. Changes to the climate may still be reversible, but if a plant becomes extinct, it is gone forever, and its secrets go with it. It is therefore impossible to overestimate just what biodiversity loss could mean to humankind. The medicine we take when we’re sick, the food that nurtures and sustains us, and the clothes on our backs, are all entirely reliant on high levels of biodiversity and we should all try to value it as much as individual species.

Mexico: a botanist’s paradise

Mexico is a country very close to my heart. For a botanist, it is simply paradise. It is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet, possessing between 10% and 12% of the world's plant species. On top of that, Mexico is the centre of origin for at least 100 crop species, including maize, cacao, papaya, nopal, tomato, beans and tomatillo. However, due to rapid urban and agricultural growth, poor land use management, and a high demand for natural resources, this extraordinary biological wealth is under increasing threat. Consequently, so too are many people’s livelihoods, and the survival of wild species whose potential value is still unknown. Could they contain a cure for cancer? A food source that might provide nutrition to millions? We may never get the chance to find out if we don’t act now to protect it.

Back in November 2014, Kew celebrated more than 10 years of scientific partnership with Mexico and The Facultad de Estudios Superiores Iztacala at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (FESI-UNAM) under the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership. This is such an important relationship for the future conservation of Mexico’s great biodiversity.

The Millennium Seed Bank in Sussex, England, is a vast vault where seeds are stored long-term for research and conservation, as an insurance policy against extinction. It holds over 2.25 billion seeds today, and, thanks to partners like Mexico, is the largest ex-situ plant conservation programme in the world. It is an insurance policy against natural and manmade disasters, changes of land use, and the warming climate. Nearly 10% of all known Mexican plants are conserved as a back-up in the MSB but this of course is not the full story.

Local knowledge holds the key

As crucial as ex-situ seed conservation programmes are, protecting plants where they grow naturally, in the field alongside local communities, whose knowledge of these plants is unparalleled, is of equal importance. In this context, you see how incredibly strong the link between people and plants is.

One of the most significant projects that exists between Kew and Mexico is the Useful Plants Project which I lead and which allows me to work with local communities to conserve the native plants that are important to them. The new book I am presenting at Hay Festival Querétaro - Wild Plants for a Sustainable Future - is the result of years of work on the Useful Plants Project and includes a chapter for each of the five countries where we have been working, one of which includes Mexico. We would not have been able to complete this chapter without the invaluable knowledge from the Fes-I UNAM’s Dr Rafael Lira and Dr Cesar Flores who are also co-editors of this book. Dr Lira will also be joining me on stage for our conversation on the Kew Platform at Hay Festival.

Working with these incredible people is the highlight of my job. People imagine that, as a scientist, my work is solitary, but that is not the case. In order to solve the overwhelming challenges that the planet is facing, we must come together and combine scientific expertise with indigenous knowledge. And we must do so quickly, because time is running out.

Dr Tiziana Ulian is Plant Ecologist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. She will appear at the Kew Platform during Hay Festival Querétaro on Sunday 8 September. Visit here for tickets and find out more about the Kew Platform at Hay Festival here.