Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Regreening China clay pits at the Eden Project

Pentawan, Cornwall, UK

Our Cornwallian trilogy was made complete by a visit to the Eden Project, a highly popular tourist attraction dedicated explaining the relationship between people and plants to the general public. It was my third visit, and I was impressed by the sustained vigor of the tropical forest and Mediterranean biomes. Cultivated under geodesic domes on a former clay pit, the lush vegetation is criss-crossed by sloping paths that guide a constant flow of visitors, including over 7,000 on the day of our visit. We were fortunate to have Sir Ghillean Prance, scientific director of the Eden Project, accompany us on a leisurely tour of the grounds outside the domes and into the tropical forest biome. He reckons the greatest achievement of the Eden is revegetation of the barren slopes of the abandoned clay pit, which is now green with hundreds of plants that have stories to tell about food, medicine, fuel and other botanical products that sustain our life and livelihoods.

Monday, 26 October 2009

China clay mining and the Cornwallian landscape

Pentawan, Cornwall, UK

Today we travelled to see the poverty and environmental destruction associated with china clay mining, a sharp contrast to the richness of the Heligan estate. Our first stop was the China Clay Country Park that features an abandoned clay pit surrounded by spoil heaps that together created an eerie landscape that would not be out of place in a Margaret Atwood dystopian novel. One interesting historical detail I gleaned from the museum’s exhibits concerns the workers who dried and loaded the extracted china clay. Able to earn enough money by early afternoon, they would spend the rest of their day cultivating gardens and tending animals, a pattern of work that allowed them to take advantage of Cornwall’s advantageous climate to produce much of their own food. This mixture of subsistence and commercial activity has been a common element that sustained communities over time. Today there is little evidence of backyard gardens, although Ian Martin of the Eden Project is considering working with the clay country communities to bring back household green spaces.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

A day at the Heligan Gardens

Pentawan, Cornwall, UK

Ian Martin of the Eden Project led us on a Saturday visit to the Lost Gardens of Heligan, which gave us a glimpse into horticulture in Cornwall. At the entrance, there was an autumn harvest of diverse varieties of food plants that reminded me of the ‘biodiversity fairs’ that we sponsor in southern Mexico, in which members of indigenous communities bring the food, medicinal and other useful plants for public display during holy day festivals in their villages. At Heligan, the vegetables come from carefully tended plots in the center of the gardens, each variety labelled with handsome, hand-printed wooden stakes. What most interested me is the successful creation of microclimates that allow Cornwall gardeners to grow many exotic species introduced by plant explorers from around the world. One example is the ‘pineapple pit’ – a slanting greenhouse with an underground heating system that produced the humidity and warmth needed to encourage this Amazonian species to produce fruit. This appreciation of microclimate extends to the valley of vegetation – unfortunately called the ‘Jungle’ – oriented obliquely from the gardens towards the sea. It contains a tangle of tropical and temperate plants transplanted from afar, a testimony to the creative horticultural knowledge and practice developed over centuries in this region.

Friday, 16 October 2009

A Global Strategy for Plant Conservation

Taking advantage of a delayed deadline to send ideas for sessions at the 2010 Congress of the International Society of Ethnobiology, I submitted a proposal on the role of local people in the policy and practice of plant conservation. Through a multi-media presentation, roundtable and open discussion, we plan to explore revised targets of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC) that address indigenous and local knowledge, innovations and practices. As reworded during a Liaison Group Meeting of the Global Partnership for Plant Conservation (GPPC) I attended in May 2009, the strategy argues that we must conserve the genetic diversity of crops and other socio-economically valuable plant species, and maintain associated indigenous and local knowledge. In addition, it calls for a halt in the decline of plant resources and associated indigenous and local knowledge, innovations and practices that support sustainable livelihoods, local food security and health care. Both of these targets are directly related to Convention on Biological Diversity articles 8j and 10c, which draw attention to the key role that indigenous people and local communities play in maintaining the world’s biodiversity.