Colombia is home to 26,000 wild plants, placing it in second worldwide in diversity of flora. Although this mega-diverse country boasts 74 natural ecosystems recognized by the Colombian Information System for Biodiversity (SIB), the páramo biome has become a conservation priority due to the high number of endemic plants that thrive in these high altitude Andean wetlands. Sadly though, these fragile ecosystems have suffered from the impact of climate change and habitat loss due to intensive agriculture and illegal mining.
With Colombia lacking national and regional seed banks to ensure conservation of genetic diversity, the Humboldt Institute sent the world-famous Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England, a collection of seeds from fifty wild plants endemic to the páramos of La Rusia, El Valle and Ocetá in the department of Boyacá. Nineteen percent of Colombia’s total area of alpine ecosystems are located in Boyacá, and the seeds were chosen for their priority as a threatened species. The collection forms part of the Humboldt Institute’s national seed bank in Villa de Leyva.
The initiative was designed by the Botanical Gardens as part of their Millennium Seed Bank Partnership (formerly known as the Millennium Seed Bank Project) which aims to collect seeds from 25% of the world’s plants, totaling 75,000 species by 2020. The project is also backed by Colciencias’ Colombia BIO, a government program established to ensure sustainable use and conservation of Colombia’s natural resources in order to support the country’s development of biodiversity economy.
The project began in July 2017, and over eight months, volunteers and scientists from the Richmond-based Botanic Garden, the Pedagogical University of Tunja and Humboldt Institute were trained in harvesting and protecting these seeds – with a particular emphasis on methods to maximize genetic variety. So far, research indicates that approximately 80% of Colombia’s flora have seeds that can withstand the drying and storage process – making seed banks a safe and viable long-term conservation strategy. Included in the seed bank are several species of the Espeletia genus, better known as frailejón, a furry-leaved plant that plays a key role in the regulation of the páramo watershed. These plants capture water vapor from mist and release the water into the soil through their roots, helping to feed lakes and underground reservoirs, which in turn, become Colombia’s majestic rivers.
Although Boyacá is the project’s pilot geographical region, this is only the beginning of what may eventually become a much larger national seed bank of Colombia’s high variety of wild plants. Future plans also include the recovery and reintroduction of threatened species back into their natural habitats as part of a greater ecological restoration venture by Humboldt Institute.