It is “extremely important” to conserve the diversity of plants which could hold solutions to diseases such as Covid-19 and other benefits to people, an expert has said.
Dr Mauricio Diazgranados, from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, said conserving nature-rich areas such as the forests of his native Colombia could provide sustainable livelihoods for local people and benefits for humankind.
But as Colombia develops, conservationists are in a “race against time” to protect nature in the face of threats such as deforestation for agriculture, mining, and providing local incomes, he said.
That includes unique and unknown plants in the country, whose rich natural diversity has been little explored amid decades of conflict before a peace agreement was signed with Farc guerrillas in 2016.
On a recent trip to the forests of Colombia’s Serrania de las Quinchas, Dr Diazgranados and his team collected more than 100 plant samples, among which he believes are at least two new species.
Dr Diazgranados leads Kew’s Colombia Bio Programme, which works with partners in the South American country – one of the most biodiverse in the world with 30,000 species of plants and lichen – to help it develop a green economy that uses its natural resources sustainably.
This ranges from eco-tourism to providing local communities with income by connecting them with start-ups that could use plants to develop new medicines, food and materials without damaging the forest.
In Serrania de las Quinchas, where little exploration of the diversity of plants has taken place, the team works with local partners to collect samples and seeds for Colombia’s institutes and seed banks, with duplicates provided to Kew for analysis.
In the field they use a mixture of methods used by explorers from 200 years ago and new techniques, collecting samples of plants they have not seen before or which the community has told them have special uses.
Collecting and learning about the flora of countries such as Colombia is important, Dr Diazgranados said, because: “We don’t conserve what we don’t love.
“And we don’t love what we don’t know so we need to know what’s around to appreciate it and conserve it.”
And he said: “We are in a race against time trying to protect this richness and trying to show we don’t need to destroy nature, we can keep it, preserve it and use it to boost the economy through the bio-economy.
“We want to know more about the biodiversity, because we are interested in protecting it and preserving the local livelihoods, as well as to know the benefits for humankind.
“These plants might be the solution to Covid-19 – we don’t know.”
Plants are chemically rich, with compounds that have properties which could play a role in cures for diseases such as coronavirus, he suggested.
“Every time a species disappears we lose all the richness in compounds and evolutionary history that produced that, which is unique or very difficult to replicate.
“That’s why preservation is extremely important.”
– Hay Festival will host a virtual panel discussion on Friday May 29, at 6.30pm, as part of the first Virtual Hay Festival 2020, with Dr Diazgranados and BBC correspondent Frank Gardner, who recently travelled to Colombia with the Kew scientist to explore the threatened rainforest.