Wetenschap - 25 september 1997

International page

International page

International page
A flora for Benin
This week Dr Sinsin Brice, lecturer at the National University of Benin visited Wageningen. He came to see Professor Jos van der Maesen of the Department of Plant Taxonomy, who will collaborate with colleagues from Benin and international experts to compile a flora of the plant species in Benin. This initiative is the result of a cooperation agreement between Benin and the Netherlands
In Professor Jos van der Maesen's room there's every reason for a modest celebration: coffee with apple pie. This week the Dutch government will sign a cooperation agreement between the Department of Plant Taxonomy of the WAU and the Faculte des Sciences et Techniques of the National University of Benin to rebuild the herbarium in Cotonou and to produce a complete flora of plants in Benin. The budget for the project is 3.5 million guilders, which will be spread over five years
In March 1994 the Dutch government signed bilateral sustainable development treaties with Costa Rica, Bhutan and Benin. These were the outcome of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. The aim of the treaties is to improve sustainable development in all four countries involved. The organisation responsible for implementation in the Netherlands is Ecooperation. The counterpart in Benin is called the Centre Beninois pour le Developpement Rurale
Herbarium
We need a flora badly, Brice explains in broken English, So that we have a reliable basic document for training students. Brice, who gained his PhD in Brussels, first contacted Van der Maesen about the issue of a flora for Benin as long ago as December 1994. While Costa Rica has contacts with universities in the US and Bhutan is cooperating with the University of Edinburgh to produce florae, Benin has chosen the WAU. There is a long tradition of cooperation between the WAU and the agricultural faculty in Benin, Brice continues, And the tropical orientation and infrastructure here are a help.
At the moment there is no flora of Benin plants, and not much is known about the indigenous species. The herbarium in Cotonou is also due for an overhaul. It consists of two small rooms which house a small collection of 9000 specimens (not species). Apart from the fact that it's a very small collection, which is not that suprising given the size of the country, it is also in need of updating. This has not been done since 1972 when the only professor of plant taxonomy moved to France. With his departure all research on plant taxonomy in Benin came to an end
Now that the agreement has been signed and money allocated the herbarium can be renovated and a start made on collecting specimens for a new collection tells Van der Maesen. The old one suffers from salinity problems because it is located very near to the sea. The best place for a new herbarium would be a high hill in the dry savanna area of the North, says Van der Maesen, But the hills are too far away. he laughs. The first five years will be used to compile a three-volume condensed flora, where detail will be kept to a minimum. Work on an extended version will probably take up the following five years. Neighbouring country Togo already has a contemporary flora, which will be of some help. Other neighbours, such as Nigeria, have no flora themselves
Gridwise
A comprehensive flora will enable Benin to monitor species which are disappearing. It will also aid research on the effects of environmental changes and assessment of the effects of programmes set up to tackle environmental deterioration. Estimates suggest that there about 3000 different plant species in Benin. Botanists and taxonomists will search the whole country in a gridwise fashion and take at least 40,000 specimens. It is necessary to take such a large number of specimens, Van der Maesen explains, because there is a lot of local variation
Benin is three times the size of the Netherlands and has five million inhabitants. Brice: The main threats for the existing flora are human population growth, low-input agriculture which requires a lot of space, and livestock damage. Many cattle come across the border from neighbouring Burkina Faso in search of food in the dry season. Illegal hunting may also threaten biodiversity in the long run
A minor problem that needs to be overcome is the lack of taxonomists in Benin. Brice: There's a great shortage of taxonomists in the whole of Africa, because there's so little interest. The loss of experts is of great concern to us. However, that's not just a problem in Benin, as Van der Maesen points out: I rely on three volunteers who are all of retirement age to cover the lack of taxonomists here.
Religion and Conflict
And the Lord said to Abraham: Go forth from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. (Gen 12:1-3). Orthodox Jews have a special relation with the land of Israel: they believe that it is the holy land that God himself promised to them. Religion lies at the heart of one of the most violent conflicts of this century
Student Chaplain Reverend Hinne Wagenaar has organised a discussion series Crossroads on the theme of religion and conflict. In the first lecture the discussion was on the Jewish-Palestinian conflict. This time we decided to take special cases in our discussions. Last year I used more personal stories, but then emotions ran so high that people almost started grabbing their opponent on the other side of the table. By discussing cases Wagenaar hopes to clarify the issues that play a role in all religious conflicts
The Jews were driven out of Israel after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. From then until about 1900 the Jews didn't really miss the country of Israel, says Wagenaar. Around the beginning of this century the Zionist movement started to flourish, based on the idea of a Jewish state in the area now known as Israel. It is interesting to note that it was not the orthodox Jews that demanded their own state, but liberal Jews who formed the core of the Zionist movement
After the holocaust of the Second World War the Jewish demand for a home country grew stronger. Thousands of Jews emigrated to Palestine. The Palestinian population felt threatened and fifty years later the conflict still has not been resolved. Why is that although peace, shalom and salam are keywords for the three religions in the area the bishops, imams and rabbis are not pledging themselves for peace? Wagenaar wonders. The question remains open for the rest of the discussion series

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