Changing Roles

Not so very long ago, the New World’s natural resources constituted an almost “free for all” opportunity for the bold and the brave to take whatever they could, with little if any worries of negative environmental impact. Forests were cut, mines were opened, and desirable plants and animals were hunted and exploited without any concern for sustainability. Today we are paying a heavy price for these actions. Irresponsible dumping of chemical waste poisons the soil in many places, rivers are polluted (and have actually caught fire), and many of the desirable plants and animals are either highly endangered or gone forever. What does the Everglades restoration project cost us now, as an example? Working for Selby Gardens and, more precisely, for the Center for Tropical Plant Science and Conservation, we cannot avoid getting involved in this process. Gradually and inevitably, the colonial attitude of “What can I take?” is replaced by a more philanthropic concern about how we can help.

The old style of “going and getting” is simply not possible anymore in many cases, and often not even necessary. Through our international network of colleagues, we can now participate in many types of projects without bringing a single plant back and yet have access to all the information we need through various channels.

One of our strongest groups of allies is our former interns, who upon their return to their native countries, often engage in floristic or conservation-related projects in which they can utilize their experiences from Selby Gardens. We often receive invitations to participate in their projects, as we did from Miguel Chocce from Lima, Peru. During his 2007 internship, he focused on identifying orchid specimens that he had collected. In order to justify the protection of botanically-sensitive or diverse areas, he needs to know what the plants are. Shortly after Miguel’s return to Peru, in October 2008, I received an invitation to participate in one of his projects located in a remote and little-explored region in the northern part of the country.

This area, covered by an unusually dense and species-rich cloud forest, is threatened by the possibility of a strip-mining operation. The remoteness of the place makes it very costly for the mining company to exploit, but due to the (until very recently) high world market prices for metals, it has been tempting to mine for copper. Miguel’s role is to develop a plan for collecting, cultivating, identifying, and eventually re-introducing orchid plants, should the mining operation become a reality. My task, partially funded by the mining company, was to inspect the area and later write a report analyzing both the mining project and the orchid conservation efforts. Thanks to degrees in civil engineering and horticulture and first-hand experience of open-pit copper mines in Sweden, I can certainly vouch for the devastating effect they can have on the environment. Not only is the soil likely to be loaded with all kinds of toxic waste and unpleasant heavy metals (copper is very toxic to plants in larger concentrations), but the crystal-clear river that runs through the valley in immediate proximity to the mining site will no doubt be polluted and unsuitable for the much-needed irrigation project that is planned. In addition, we have already found a number of orchid species not previously reported from Peru or which are new to science. This number is expected to increase because more plants will flower in cultivation and can then be properly identified. These factors, in combination with the sinking prices for copper, may well bolster the already intense local resistance to the mining project, as well as support an alternative idea to transform the forest into a considerable nature preserve.