Friday, April 20, 2007

Where are the plant breeders?

Horticulture thrives on novelty, and plant breeders are the people who create novelties, but breeders barely exist in Malaysia. I am a plant breeder; I breed cannas. I choose to breed cannas because cannas flower all year round and come in many colours and forms. Well-grown beds of cannas are like well-grown beds of tulips, but unlike tulips, they bloom all year round. My friend Gregori Hambali, breeds calatheas in Bogor. Gregori sends his plants to the US to be patented and marketed there by a big horticultural enterprise. None of his plants have ever been released in Indonesia. Having no US backer, I keep my new varieties of cannas to myself. Anybody who buys one canna (or calathea) can multiply it and soon it will be everywhere. I have no wish to spend money taking out patents and then spend more to enforce my patents. Our society is a long way from accepting the concept of plant varieties as intellectual property. I do not believe the newly enacted plant patent laws will encourage plant breeding in Malaysia.

I am trying to get funding by selling varieties for MR 2000 (USD 570) each. Ideally, the buyer should be a local government agency, which has a horticultural use for the plants and would not mind if the plants leak out to the public, as they eventually will. The money they spend is public money after all. I think cannas in Malaysia could be as popular as tulips in the Netherlands and become the flower of the people. New varieties should be bred and distributed freely but the breeder deserves to be compensated, like any public servant except that he is compensated not by salary in advance but by results upon delivery. If only the whole of the public service could be run that way . . .

Friday, April 06, 2007

New ethnobotanic garden in Kuching, Sarawak

I have just been in Kuching to oversee the expansion of the ethnobotanic garden at the Sarawak Biodiversity Centre (SBC). The garden was designed according to my specifications and after one year, the results are terrific!

The garden was designed to display the plants used by the many different native communities of Sarawak. To obtain the plants, expeditions were made to the interior of Sarawak over the past three years. In one particularly tough expedition, I trekked 5 hours in wet weather and fading light to a village called Pa Lungan near the Indonesian border in the Bario Highlands to document and bring out a new species of banana, which we named Musa lokok. Musa lokok is now flowering and multiplying in the ethnobotanic garden, together with some tw0 hundred species of other plants, many of which will be new to science, including begonias, hoyas, orchids, aroids and ferns. Having the plants close at hand and concentrated in one location will allow comparative studies on the biology (growth and reproduction) of Bornean plants on an unprecedented scale. Eventually I expect to have over 500 species within a half-hectare area.

Already, conducted tours have been arranged for schoolchildren. Eventually tourists will be able to visit. The garden is close to the Orang Utan Centre at Semengok.