Massimo Dragan, Michele Fernetti, Ernest Misomali, Mzoma Ngulube
Plant life with its flora constitutes one of the most important renewable resources for Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries. The region's plant resources are subject to heavy exploitation due to the population growth and alterations in local ecological equilibrium brought about by the changes of traditional production systems. The project, titled "Establishment of a Plant Resources Regional Network in the SADC Region: a service for environmental conservation of biodiversity and for sustainable development," aims at establishing an information network for the knowledge and management of plant resources in the SADC region. The main goal is to build up GIS-powered services capable of providing key information for plant species of economic interest. The specific objectives are to set up a network for the storage and distribution of information on plant resources, to train personnel in the design and implementation of digital inventories of natural resources, and to provide spatially enabled tools for biodiversity management and conservation.
Plant life with its flora constitutes one of the most important renewable
resources for SADC (Southern African Development Community) countries.
Nevertheless, the region’s plant resources are subject to heavy exploitation
due to the population growth and alterations in local ecological equilibrium
brought about by the changes of traditional production systems. All SADC
countries have signed the international Convention on Biological Diversity
(CBD) in order to show their commitment to the conservation and protection
of biodiversity in their respective countries. The recognition by
SADC to put in place mechanisms for the conservation of biodiversity stems
from the rich biodiversity of both flora and fauna that are an important
economic base of the SADC countries. In order to support the commitment
by SADC countries to implement the objectives of the CBD, the Italian Government
funded the Project titled “Establishment of a Plant Resources Regional
Network in the SADC Region: A Service for Environmental Conservation
of Biodiversity and for Sustainable Development” (SECOSUD).
The project proposal was formulated back in 1996 to the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs upon request from the SADC Forestry Sector Technical Unit based in Malawi to implement a conservation programme for biodiversity protection in Southern Africa.
The aim is to establish an information network for the knowledge and management of plant resources in the SADC region.
The project was formulated conforming to the spirit of the Rio Convention on Biodiversity particularly with regard to the role of scientific collections and is funded by the Development Cooperation programme of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The geographical region covered by the project is the so-called SADC region that includes Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and is one of the richest areas in biodiversity in the whole of Africa.
The region’s plant resources are subject to heavy exploitation due to the population growth and alterations in local ecological equilibrium brought about by the changes of traditional production systems.
Plant life with its flora constitutes one of the most important renewable resources for SADC countries. The population obtains about 80% of its income from plants (spontaneous or cultivated) both directly (agricultural products, timber, medicines etc.) and indirectly (meat, pelts etc.). For this reason the development of an instrument for the management of plant resources is of great interest not only to the SADC but also to similar economies throughout the world.
Despite the fact that within the region there are many natural parks
and reserves and scientific structures such as herbaria and botanical gardens,
parks and reserves, the biodiversity is in danger. Given the situation
in the region, it is necessary to compile urgently an inventory of plant
resources in danger of extinction and plan adequate measures for biodiversity
In developing countries (as in the rest of the world), there are structures for the gathering, inventory, and classification of taxonomic entities. For the plant “world” these structures are the herbaria, botanical gardens, natural parks, reserves and germoplasma banks.
The project, started back in 1998 and due to completion of Phase I by the end of this year, represents an effort to foster the growth of existing SADC herbaria and botanical collections by means of a reorganization programme aimed at converting them into a network which would form a new, efficient and self-sufficient structure with services implemented in a regional information system of plant resources distributed throughout the territory.
These institutions constitute a very important heritage that, if properly reinforced, could play a fundamental role not only in the conservation of species in danger of extinction but also and above all in the formulation of programmes for managing the region’s natural resources.
SECOSUD project: the road map
The project’s general objective is to help stopping the loss of biodiversity,
developing strategies for its conservation and, at the same time, facilitate
the utilization of economic and development opportunities deriving from
such conservation. The main goal of the project is to build up GIS powered
services capable of providing key information for plant species of economic
For this purpose the institutions involved in the programme concurred to set up a GIS network to gather information of the SADC ‘s plant resources that can provide services for the planning and enactment of sustainable development.
The specific objectives of the programme are:
- to set up a GIS network for the storage and distribution of information on plant resources within the SADC regionwhile the foreseen results of the project can be summarized as follows:
- to train personnel in the design, implementation and management of digital inventories of natural resources through technologies such as geographical information systems and database management systems.
- to design and implement GIS enabled services in support of decisions in the planning of biodiversity conservation and sustainable development
1) Establishment of an information service as support for planning nature conservation actions and exploitation of economically useful plant resources; the service will also facilitate the detection and prompt management of the risk of disappearance of floral entities;
2) Strengthening of national repositories of plant material via the creation and activation of national Geographic Information Systems for the gathering, analysis and representation of distribution of taxonomic entities of the flora of the SADC region;
3) Realization of national databases of dry specimens with information on the possible uses of plant species, methods of preparation, part used, date of collection and conservation status;
4) Establishment of a regional information centre based in Malawi for the knowledge and management of plant resources in the SADC region, which integrates data stored in the national institutions and facilitates the exchange between the centres.
5) Preservation of the traditional knowledge (in many cases owned only by healers) of the curative utilization of plant resources
6) Creation of models and procedures for the assessment of environmental value and vulnerability on the basis of geographical, ecological and economic information relative to individual species and updated lists of floral entities.
Strengthening of local institutions is addressed through employment of personnel in every SADC country. Technicians and researchers were appointed by the national centres to bring the GIS technology skills in the daily working practice of herbaria. People were hired locally and have been working full time for this project since its inception.
As regards capacity building, one of the key objectives of the programme, training in GIS and databases is one of the fundamental tasks the Department of Biology is responsible for.
Three main training courses are foreseen and at least 30 people will be repeatedly exposed to GIS, database, spatial analysis and geographic information management concepts. The National Botanical Institute of South Africa hosted the database course for all SECOSUD personnel while GIS courses are due in the next months.
GIS as a biodiversity conservation tool
- GIS powers natural resources management
GIS is the crucial and core component of SECOSUD, which aims at designing and implementing a GIS based service in the National Herbaria of the 11 countries.
The areas of intervention of the GIS system, developed by the Department of Biology of the University of Trieste and implemented in the SADC region, are targeted to address knowledge lacks in the following weak points of natural resources information management:
- inadequate knowledge of taxonomic entities and their geographical distribution;GIS can play a significant role in all the above-mentioned issues. The National Herbaria have huge repositories of plant specimens collected in the field in the last 50 years (hundreds of thousands paper sheets with dried plants). So far very little attention was paid to leveraging the immense potential of the geographic information that is recorded in the specimen (the location where the specimens were collected). GIS technology can easily fill this gap and the project aims at introducing the use of GIS tools to spatially enable the existing 'non-spatial' specimen databases.
- inadequate knowledge of their role in the ecosystems;
- inadequate knowledge of their possible utilization as economic resources;
- inadequate knowledge of the role of biodiversity at a territorial level;
- inadequate capability in the communication of information from scientific structures to local operative (technical and administrative) structures.
- GIS and databases: SECOSUD system architecture
SECOSUD has linked with another regional project involving the SADC contries (see below) that developed a relational database for herbaria information capturing and management (PRECIS). PRECIS is a relational database based on Microsoft Access with a Delphi front-end interface for data entry, queries and reporting.
Three main databases are connected through the front-end and represent the storage mechanism of herbaria collections. The databases store plant taxonomy (Taxon database), dry specimen information found on the labels (Specimen database) and the economical or medicinal uses of 300 regional species (Plant uses databases).
Leveraging the potential of GIS to gather information from networked databases, an integrated GIS-database system has been designed to allow dynamic mapping and analysis of herbaria collections.
The kind of applications that such a system allows span from classic GIS functionalty like mapping flora distribution at various hierarchical levels (species, genus, family), to advanced spatial integration and analysis for revealing biodiversity hot-spots, characterizing the niche of key plant species, sharing knowledge of plant uses and helping plan future field surveys.
Another example of data retrievable from the system is the list of Herbaria/Botanic gardens where the species is stored as dried specimen or in life and its conservation status to help in specimen determination.
- The GIS software choice
For several reasons, the software selected for the realization of SECOSUD GIS services is ArcView GIS 3.2a with the Spatial Analyst extension.
ArcView is widely used in Southern Africa and some of the centres already had some basic experience with this software; moreover, all of the centres expressed their preference for this package.
The learning curve, a primary concern, for this product was considered consistent with the objectives of the project and the resources available for training activities.
Much of the development (GIS interface, database connectivity, customization requirements) was provided by the Department of Biology were skilled personnel already matured experiences for this product.
The Spatial Analyst extension is also an important added component to the system. It is in fact extremely important to analyze point data (distribution of plant specimens) and combine them with raster data such as digital elevation and its derived data (slope, aspect) that can help define the ecological niche of species. Moreover the Model Builder can be a great and straightforward tool to teach the concepts of spatial data modeling.
- Geographic data
An underlying principle of SECOSUD is to build a co-operative network between the centres (and countries) involved. We aim at establishing an information network for the knowledge and management of plant resources acting at a regional level.
It is therefore crucial to provide the centres with a common set of geographic data for the whole Southern Africa that can be further enriched with national data that are available in each country. This shared geographic framework is fundamental to facilitate the exchange of information between the centres and create a common basis for the representation of specimen data that typically have a regional distribution.
According to this rationale, the common geodataset is based on the Digital Chart of the World and the topography is extracted from the Gtopo database. Both data sources have an accuracy level consistent with the geographic extent of the countries and the location information of plant specimen.
SECOSUD: a GIS network supported by Esri Conservation Programme
Esri has strongly supported SECOSUD project.
Since the project beginning several contacts were held with Esri staff and as of last year a grant request was submitted to Esri Conservation Programme (http://www.conservationgis.org) and later approved. All GIS software, digital data sets and publications were donated and delivered to each center, significantly contributing to the success and future sustainability of the programme.
Esri products are also powering the web site of SECOSUD (http://secosud.units.it) that acts as the networking facility for the communication, information exchange, technical support and knowledge base repository that connects the national centers, the regional coordination unit based in Malawi and the Italian institutions involved in the programme. ArcIMS services are in the final stage and they could be the future tools for the national centers to deliver plant biodiversity information and expose their services.
Regional linkages: integrating SECOSUD with local experiences
A key issue in SECOSUD project was to avoid overlaps with existing regional
programmes in the SADC region. In the past two years several contacts and
links have been links have been established with research and development
institutions and projects in the SADC Region and in Europe.
The most important connection has been established with SABONET project.
SABONET is the acronym for the Southern African Botanical Diversity Network, a regional capacity-building programme co-founded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF)/United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) (1998-2002) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)/World Conservation Union-Regional Office for Southern Africa (IUCN-ROSA) through the Networking and Capacity Building Initiative for Southern Africa (NETCAB, 1995-2001).
The main objective of SABONET is to develop a strong core of professional botanists, taxonomists, horticulturists and plant diversity specialists competent to inventory, monitor, evaluate and conserve the botanical diversity of the region in the face of specific development challenges, and to respond to the technical and scientific needs of the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Substantial emphasis is placed on training and the building of local capacity in plant systematics research, the documentation of plant diversity, and the expansion, improvement and computerization of herbarium collections.
At national level, the centres participating to the SECOSUD Project
are collaborating with other national or university institutions through
local steering committees. Other projects complementing the activities
of SECOSUD Project are the SADC Plant Genetic Resources Centre (SPGRC)
and the Southern Africa Biodiversity Support Program (SABSP). The SPGRC
is funded by the Nordic countries and is aimed at promoting and coordinating
a regional network of plant genetic resources management through the National
Plant Genetic Resources Centres. The SABSP is a GEF Project with much broader
objectives, involving all types of animal and plant diversity issues, and
aimed at improving the availability and accessibility of bio-diversity
information and its application to conservation planning and management.
SECOSUD has made arrangements to collaborate with all these projects to
promote synergy and minimize overlaps. SECOSUD will benefit from the ongoing
activities in the region, especially in terms of their biological aspects;
and at the same time, these projects expect to receive from SECOSUD a consistent
geographically oriented knowledge through GIS technology transfer and support.
In this regard, SECOSUD will play an important regional role and its future
sustainability will be justified.
The road ahead
SECOSUD is a SADC initative devoted to improve the scientific and technological
capacity of botanical institutions in offering services for sustainable
economic use and conservation management of plant resources. In order
to achieve this goal, the first phase of the Project introduced in 11 SADC
National Herbaria and Botanic Gardens the GIS technology for capturing
and analysing specimen distribution and species uses information within
One of the activities towards the end of this first phase was the preparation of the follow-up for the project in order to build on the successful achievements and introducing a new direction: ” from Geographic Information System (GIS) to Decision Support System (DSS)”. Three main reasons for extending the Project to Phase II were identified, namely:
- the need to consolidate the achievement of Phase I by developing the GIS that has been implemented at herbaria institutions into a Decision Support System (DSS) that will be used by administrators and policy decision makers;
- the need of such a Decision Support System to facilitate interaction between the botanical institutions and SADC Government agencies, NGOs and other related programmes;
- the need to accommodate expansion of SADC by involving those SADC countries that did not participate in the first Phase to also acquire the skills and expertise in GIS technology and start with DSS applications.
The authors would like to thank Charles Convis of Esri Conservation
Programme for the fundamental support given to the project. We deeply appreciate.
Massimo Dragan & Michele Fernetti - researchers
Department of Biology - University of Trieste
Via Weiss 2,
34127 Trieste, ITALY
phone: +39 040 676 2065
fax: +39 040 676 2011
e-mail: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Ernest Misomali & Mzoma Ngulube - Unit Directors
SADC Forestry Sector Technical Coordination Unit
Lilongwe - Malawi
e-mail: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Project web sites:
SECOSUD project web site - http://secosud.units.it
University of Trieste web site - http://www.units.it
SADC FSTCU web site - http://www.fstcu.org