PLANT-COLLECTING has long attracted mavericks with a thirst for adventure. In Borneo in the 1960s John Wood, now at Oxford University, had to shave leeches off his legs with a machete. In the 1970s, at the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war, Geoff Hawtin, now a trustee of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, drove a collection of legumes down a mined road to the Syrian border (and back again when he found it was closed). In the 1980s Daniel Debouck, a Belgian bean-collector based in Colombia, narrowly escaped capture by narcos in Mexico and guerrillas in Peru.

Botanists think there are up to 80,000 wild species of flowering plant left to discover. But a scarcity of funds hampers efforts to collect them. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity of 1992, ratified by 195 states and the European Union, made things more complicated. It recognised plants as part of countries’ national heritage and outlawed “biopiracy”—profiting from plants without compensating the countries in which they were found.

That made exploiting plants fairer but collecting them harder. Some officials saw a chance to get rich. “Suddenly everyone thought these plants were incredibly valuable,” says Mr Hawtin. Getting permission to go on a collecting trip became nearly impossible. “Anybody could say no to a collecting expedition and very few people could say yes.”

Permits became sine qua non, but in poorer countries the environment ministries that were expected to issue them did not always exist. Collectors might see their applications bounced from one department to another, each unwilling to wield its rubber stamp. “No one wanted to be accused in their local paper of helping the biopirates,” says Mr Hawtin.

Persistent botanists have since earned some governments’ trust. It is now much easier to get approval for expeditions than it was in the 1990s, though often with restrictions on what may be collected. “Things are much better now than they were ten years ago,” says Sandy Knapp, head of the plants division at the Natural History Museum in London. A three-year permit from the Peruvian government allows her to collect specimens of Solanaceae, the family that includes tomatoes, potatoes and aubergines.

Cutting through red tape can be easier with the help of locals. “When you’re talking to landowners trying to get permission to collect, it helps to have someone who can speak the language,” says Ruth Eastwood, who oversees the Crop Wild Relative Project at Britain’s Millennium Seed Bank. That is one reason institutions that once sent collectors to the tropics have started to train people who already live there. Another is that familiarity with the landscape means that they can often spot subtle differences between plants that outsiders miss.

The Millennium Seed Bank now holds workshops in many countries on collection and conservation techniques. It collaborates on expeditions and produces guidebooks to help locals locate and collect seeds for themselves. Yet some countries persist in imposing self-defeating restrictions. India’s biodiversity law, passed in 2002, makes exporting seeds very difficult and sits poorly with its international obligations. If governments fail to understand the urgency of preserving—and sharing—their biodiversity, there may soon be precious little left to collect.

from The Economist