Director of science at Kew: it’s time to decolonise botanical collections

Photo: Pauline Mongarny / Pixabay

Director of science at Kew: it’s time to decolonise botanical collections

Having spent two decades studying biodiversity, Focali member Alexandre Antonelli is now the Director of Science at The Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. There, he is responsible for the world's largest collections of plants and fungi and means that there are important lessons to learn from botanical colonial past to truly understand the power dynamics of the present, and pave the way for a better future.

I’ve often struggled to answer the simple question, “Where are you from?” As I was born and raised in Brazil, like many people my origin is mixed – comprising indigenous, African and Mediterranean ancestors – and I dislike pre-defined labels.

Having lived outside my birth country most of my life, I have experienced discrimination on multiple occasions. I have learned the history of imperialism from the perspective of a former colony.

At school, I was taught that Brazil was “discovered” in 1500 by the Portuguese. The fact that several million people lived there prior to that was barely mentioned in our books. We were told of a long history of brutal exploitation of our natural resources, including vast amounts of gold, rubber and timber. All this was achieved through the exploitation of our native people and African slaves – including my own ancestors.

Despite this, I am proud that Brazil is widely known also as the world’s most biodiverse country. It astounded colonial botanists. Charles Darwin was astonished at our “lands teeming with life”, as was Alfred Russel Wallace, who spent years in the Amazon. It is not lost on me that these were both white British men.

And Britain is also where I ended up professionally. After two decades studying biodiversity across the world, I’m now head of science at Kew, responsible for the world’s largest collections of plants and fungi.

This article was originally published by The Conversation. Continue reading the full text.

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