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BIODIVERSITY: Watching Over the Future

Sabina Zaccaro

ROME, May 24 2010 (IPS) - Her husband died last year, but “he will be forever a guardian of biodiversity.”

'Guardian of Biodiversity' from Brazil, Rena Martins Farias.  Credit: Roberto Faidutti/IPS

'Guardian of Biodiversity' from Brazil, Rena Martins Farias. Credit: Roberto Faidutti/IPS

Prof. César Gómez-Campo, who passed away in September 2009, was one of the first people to use seed banking for the conservation of wild plant species.

“He was a pioneer in the conservation of wild plant genetic resources and he devoted his professional career to the efficient conservation of endemic seeds; but he was also an inspirational teacher and his legacy will continue to inspire botanists and scientists for the years to come,” his wife Maria Estrella Tortosa told IPS.

Gomez-Campo was considered the father of Spanish gene banks. In 1966 he established in Madrid the first ever gene bank devoted to the conservation of wild plant species.

On Saturday Gomez-Campo was posthumously made ‘Guardian of Diversity’ for the Mediterranean, a yearly award assigned by Bioversity International (BI) to farmers, scientists, and activists who have devoted their lives to safeguarding cultural and agricultural diversity.

BI organised in Rome, Biodiversity Week (20-23 May), to discuss the key role of biodiversity in agriculture.

Thanks to Gomez-Campo’s work the gene bank in Madrid preserves today seeds of 354 endangered species and subspecies, which represent almost 24 percent of the endangered wild plants in Spain. “Many of his historic collaborators have now opened new seed banks linked through a seed bank network all over Spain, and botanic gardens that follow his conservation method,” Tortosa said.

After his retirement in 2003, he continued travelling all over the world to talk about the importance of seed conservation and explain the use of the ultra-dry storage technology he had developed over 40 years. “The Food and Agriculture Organisation has strongly encouraged the adoption of this method in all the seed banks in the world. All this will keep his work alive,” Tortosa added.

Brazilian Rena Martins Farias is also a fellow ‘guardian’ who has been conserving and using plant genetic resources for the past 40 years.

In her childhood, she says, she was enchanted by the colours and flavours of foods. One of the first graduates of Birmingham University’s course on plant genetic resources, in the 1970s, Farias has been collecting cereals, beans and other legumes in the Mediterranean area and later in Portugal, where she worked for years on the conservation of Portugal’s native diversity.

“In the beginning very few women approached this profession,” Farias told IPS. “Over the years the number of women increased, although they used to work mainly as collectors in the gene banks.”

“This was not my path, I like to travel and work with people on the ground. Now that I am retired and dedicated to teaching at the senior university, I miss so much being in the field, collecting, working with the farmers, investigating why they conserve a particular crop in that way… you have so much to learn from farmers.”

The Third Global Biodiversity Outlook released earlier this month by the Convention on Biological Diversity states that basic services will be lost unless biodiversity is seriously conserved. The global rate of extinction is 1,000 times higher than it should be, the report says, and this confirms the failure of governments to reach a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010.

Governments, particularly those in developing countries, may fail farmers, but they, nevertheless, continue with their meticulous work of preserving biodiversity.

“I am a farmer’s son, and I learned about the characteristics of pasture plants and their use while herding sheep and goats with my father along the mountain paths,” Hrou Abouchrif from Morocco told IPS. As a young shepherd he learned about traditional grazing techniques which favour the natural regeneration of pasture plants.

Today he is the director of ADRAR, an association that promotes social development and protection of environment in the Eastern High Atlas and Ifrane regions of Morocco. In the two decades of fieldwork here, Abouchrif has contributed to conserving medicinal and aromatic plants.

“I am so delighted in joining the renowned researchers who have received the award today,” he told IPS. “This gives me new energy to come back to my mountains and keep on the work of biodiversity preservation with my fellow farmers, in my village. They are the population to which I belong and I think it is my duty to stay there, preserve their culture and not let it disappear.”

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