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This story, Tropical Custodian, written by Damien Ryan, was published in The Age.

Tropical Custodians

The Age

By Damien Ryan

Any student of the Old Testament will be familiar with the story of Noah. He’s the one who built the ark and, along with his wife and family, plus birds and animals “two by two”, escaped the wrath of God – a wrath that came in the form of the deluge. So it could be said that God entrusted the future of the planet to Noah. 

It’s worth noting too, that according to Genesis, God particularly wanted the birds preserved, in order to keep seed alive upon the face of the earth.

The rest is history, or myth, depending on your credo.

What we do know for sure is that the earth’s welfare depends on the survival of plant life.

Now meet American born Alan Carle and his wife Susan. Like Noah, they have built an ark – a botanical ark.

For the past decade they’ve dedicated their lives to developing their own rainforest botanical garden. For them, the approaching disaster is a massive loss of plant species, especially rainforest species.

As the Carles see it, that’s a threat of global proportions, hence the Botanical Ark – a 12-hectare tropical garden in the wilderness of Far North Queensland.

The Carles grow more than 3000 plant species, including 400 species of tropical fruits that they have collected from rainforests all over the world. 

Unlike Noah, the Carles received no heavenly directive to construct their ark. Their zeal to save exotic plants from extinction was the result of a much more gradual process over 30 years.

It began when Alan arrived in Australia from the United States to study marine biology at James Cook University in Townsville. That was in the ‘70s and Alan attributes the birth of his interest in conservation issues to the Queensland premier at the time, Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

“He wanted to drill for oil on the Barrier Reef and chop down the rainforest for woodchips, so I ended up working for a conservation group in Townsville and then with the Cape York Conservation Council,” says Alan.

The next step came when Alan decided to settle down with Susan.

“I guess we lived in this belief that the economic system could collapse at any moment. So we wanted to set up a sustainable, self-reliant farm where we could look after ourselves, feed ourselves and not have to depend on the outside if the crunch ever came.”

The crunch did’t come, but in those early years Alan and Susan developed a deep appreciation of the environment and the importance of nature to human survival.

They started by planting such locally available species as avocados, papayas and mangoes.

The next step came naturally. “It seemed to us,” says Alan, “to find out what other fruits were suited to tropical North Queensland. What worked in other tropical countries? We started to look at what was growing in South-East Asia, and we found there was an incredible range of tropical fruits.

“Through correspondence, and from like-minded friends, we ended up with around 25 new species.”

Over the next few years the Carles continued their search, bringing back seeds from all over the world – such things as rollinia and abiu from the Amazon, different durian and salak species from Malaysia, black sapotes from Central America, and ingas or icecream beans from Brazil.

Now they are still introducing new fruits and nuts to tropical Australia.

As they travelled, the Carles made friends with local people and learnt that much of what they were collecting was taken directly from the jungle and much of it was under threat. There are plants in the Carles’ garden today that are now extinct in the wild.

They would return to a village after a few years’ absence to find that the forests had been cleared to provide grassland for cattle and, as a consequence, a food source was lost.

But the Carles saw an even greater loss. It hit us that the people were no longer able to teach their children about plants that we had learnt about only a few years earlier, because the forest was either too far away or it was gone altogether. We began to realise that we were losing not just some plants and animals here, we were losing a tremendous amount of knowledge,” says Alan.

That realisation was brought home to the Carles even more starkly with the visit to Australia in 1990 of one of the world’s leading botanists, Dr Peter Raven. Dubbed by Time magazine as “a hero for the planet”, Raven is the director of the Missouri Botanical Gardens and his message was grim.

He warned that if the decline of species, both plant and animal, was not halted within the next 25 years, one fifth of life on earth would disappear forever. 

For the Carles there seemed no choice. They felt they must do something to help stem the tide.

But what could they do? Stand in front of a bulldozer in Bolivia? The would simply be run over and the destruction would continue. They realised that there was one answer to the challenge, not in the rainforest of South America, but on their own doorstep.

“We thought at that time that maybe we could turn our garden into a facility where people could come and learn how important plants really are right now,” says Alan.

“The next step was to come up with a way of getting the message across so that people would understand the urgency of the problem.

“There are so many interconnections in nature. If you start breaking these interconnections, when have you broken the critical one, the one that causes the whole system fail? No one knows.”

But that was the big picture, a picture the Carles realised that most people didn’t see. People weren’t conscious of the changes because they were so gradual. The Carles had to approach the problem from another angle.

“We thought, ‘OK, hit ‘em where it hurts’. Tell people about the economic loss to them as individuals. We decided to design our garden around what we called the economic rainforest plants. It’s a science called ethno-botany,” says Alan.

Ethno-botany – the study of how people of a particular region and culture use the plants around them – has attracted considerable interest since the beginning  of the ‘90s. It focuses not only on plants, which produce food and medicine, but also those that are used for shelter, clothing, fibres, dyes, cosmetics, resins and waxes.

The pharmaceutical industry in particular is now concentrating more and more on plants as a resource.

As they continued to develop their garden, the Carles learned more about the uses of plants from around the world. 

“We’ve studied what the local people do,” says Alan. “The pygmies in the Congo, the Penans and the Dyaks in Borneo, the Indians from the Amazon and so on. We’ve shared information and plants with them. We’ve brought some of those back to Australia and we use them as a resource to teach people how important rainforests are to them, important economically.

“Hopefully, they’ll think about it and realise that rainforests really are worth saving.”

Because the Botanical Ark is essentially a scientific project it isn’t designed to handle a mass influx of tourists. So it’s hardly surprising that the garden is not open to the pubic en masse.

But that’s part of Alan’s strategy. “We try to target people who have contacts and can pass on their impressions to others. We’re after the people attending incentive conventions and conferences, the sort of people who come to Far North Queensland because they are industry leaders or outstanding, influential members of their communities.

Visiting groups see the garden and the abundance of species preserved there, and they receive the rainforest conservation message over a meal that incorporates the flavours and fruits of the garden.

“Gradually,” Alan says, “We’re reaching more and more people and we keep in touch through our website, through a mailing list and newsletters.”

As well, the Botanical Ark is part of a worldwide organisation called Botanic Gardens Conservation International, which has its headquarters at the famous Kew Gardens in London. Through that association, the Carles share their knowledge and their plant resources with other gardens around the world.

And those who have the opportunity to visit the Botanical Ark and share an exotic meal with Alan and Susan Carle, will receive a miracle fruit.

It’s a small red berry from Nigeria. When chewed, it has an extraordinary effect on the taste buds, so that everything acid and sour suddenly tastes deliciously sweet.

 Of course, it doesn’t last forever, which perhaps sums up the message of the Botanical Ark: while most of the world enjoys the illusion of a sweet life for the moment, unless its treatment of the rainforest changes dramatically, the future could become very sour indeed. 

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