Guarding the grain - Crop wild relatives in protected areas

Conserving together: the challenges of establishing Protected Areas for the in situ conservation of Crop Wild Relatives in five mega-diverse countries

Teresa Borelli, Biodiversity International

Girl with Peanuts

In 2004, five countries - Armenia, Bolivia, Madagascar, Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan - working together under the global project “In situ Conservation of Crop Wild Relatives through Enhanced Information Management and Field Application”, supported by the GEF and UNEP and coordinated by Bioversity International, embarked upon an arduous task: the in situ conservation of crop wild relatives or CWR for short.

In simple terms, crop wild relatives are the ancestors of modern cultivated crop varieties. They have provided breeders throughout the ages with the genetic material to enhance the nutritional quality and productivity of crops, or supplied useful traits to counteract extreme weather conditions and provide resistance to pests and diseases. However, due to habitat loss, over-exploitation and global changes many of these species are now threatened with extinction. Already, bioclimatic models are predicting that climate change will be responsible for a 50% loss in the distribution range of wild populations of peanut (Arachis sp.), potato (Solanum sp.) and cowpea (Vigna sp.), and that, due to its effects, 16-22% of these species will go extinct by 2055 . Evidence also suggests that many protected areas will suffer moderate to substantial species loss, questioning the ability of protected areas in their present form to secure species in a climate-change scenario .

To try and reverse this trend, these five mega-diverse countries, which are centres of origin of important cultivated crops, as well as home to significant numbers of economically important crop wild relatives, worked hard to promote the conservation of these species in the wild (in situ), where they can continue to evolve along with their surrounding environment and maintain the adaptive traits that make them so important for current and future food production.

A major focus of the project’s in situ conservation strategy was to work closely with protected area authorities to identify priority protected areas for the conservation of these important genetic resources. This included the modification of existing protected area management plans to target the effective conservation of CWR, as well as the development of stand-alone CWR species management plans.

What became obvious from the project’s outset was that the in situ conservation of CWR is not an easy task and cannot be achieved alone. Most protected areas do not include the conservation of agrobiodiversity in their main objectives, so getting amendments to management plans approved and implemented may prove a challenging task. This required substantial and sustained effort on the part of project partners, who worked in close collaboration with protected area managers to make things happen. Effective partnerships had to be established among national agencies and individuals working in the Agriculture and Environment sectors, who, more often that not, had little history of working together. Across the five countries, the partnership included almost 60 national and international agencies essential to the complex and multidisciplinary nature of CWR in situ conservation.

Below is a detailed description of the protected areas and the species that were targeted for management plans by the project: wild cereals in Armenia, wild cacao in Bolivia, wild yams in Madagascar, wild cinnamon in Sri Lanka and wild almond in Uzbekistan. It is hoped that these examples and the lessons learned will provide a catalyst to scale-up similar efforts and initiatives in other protected areas not only in the five project countries but in other countries and regions.


Occupying an area of approximately 89 ha, Erebuni State Reserve is Armenia’s smallest protected area managed by the Reserve-Park Complex of the Ministry of Nature Protection of the Republic of Armenia. It was established in 1981 in the vicinity of Yerevan specifically to protect wild cereal species such as wheat (Triticum araraticum, T. urartu, T. boeticum), goatgrasses (Aegilops spp.), barley (Hordeum glaucum) and rye (Secale vavilovii). The Reserve is also home to 292 species of vascular plants, representing 196 genera from 46 families. Erebuni is one of the very few reserves that was specifically established for the conservation of wild relatives and it will be interesting to observe if it is possible to conserve more than one CWR in the reserve without creating a separate management regime for each of the species. Participatory work carried out with local communities living in close proximity to the park has raised the profile of CWR and helped raise awareness on the need to conserve them.


Ranging in altitude from 180-3000m and extending for 1,372,180 ha between the northern part of the Cochabamba Department and the southern part of the Beni Department, the Parque Nacional y Territorio Indigena Isiboro-Secure (TIPNIS)[IUCN Category II – NP] is home to high species and ecosystem diversity. Its range of habitats includes montane cloud forests, sub-Andean Amazonian forests, mid- to lowland evergreen rainforests and flooded savannas, each harbouring a unique flora and fauna. The protected area, established in 1965, is also an Indigenous Territory, property of the Chimán, Yuracaré, and Moxeño tribes. Thanks to efforts led by the Viceministerio de Medio Ambiente, Biodiversidad y Cambios Climaticos through the UNEP/GEF CWR Project team in Bolivia, the Servicio Nacional de Áreas Protegidas (SERNAP) who manages the Park and the local organization of the indigenous people living in the Park (Sub Central Indígena del TIPNIS), has agreed to develop and establish a specific “Programme for the in situ conservation of crop wild relatives existing within the Park” and formulate a “Management Plan for the protection of wild relatives of cocoa” to be included in the Park’s Management Plan. The wild cacao (Theobroma sp.) existing inside the Park is currently threatened by habitat destruction and deforestation.


Ankarafantsika National Park Madagascar is home to more than 150 crop wild relatives which are distributed among 30 genera. One of the most important genera is Dioscorea which counts over 40 species. Of high economic value as a staple food crop, several species of yams are now threatened due to overexploitation and are listed as critically endangered. A conservation programme has been initiated with local communities in the framework of the management plan for Ankarafantsika National Park trying to reduce the pressure on wild species by convincing communities to grow cultivated yams. Located in the north western part of Madagascar, the National Park [IUCN Category II] was established in 2002, covers an area of 130,026 km² and is managed by the Madagascar National Parks Association (PNM-ANGAP).

Sri Lanka

Located in the Southern Province, near Galle, Kanneliya-Dediyagala-Nakiyadeniya (KDN) is the last large remaining rainforest in Sri Lanka, covering an area of 10,139 ha. Its importance in terms of biodiversity and ecosystem services is such that it was designated as a biosphere reserve in 2004 by UNESCO. This protected area harbours many plants and animal species endemic to Sri Lanka. The Sri Lanka component of the UNEP/GEF CWR Project has worked hand in hand with the Park’s governing body – the Department of Forest Conservation – to modify the existing management plan for the area, which now includes a species management plan for the important endemic Cinnamomum capparu-coronde Blume, which is normally harvested for medicinal and commercial purposes. Awareness-raising activities have also been carried out to educate local communities on the importance of preserving these species.


The prominent Russian botanist Vavilov identified Uzbekistan as one of the centres of origin of many modern crops. The country forms part of a global centre of plant diversity in the mountains of Central Asia and is home to some of the closest wild relatives of many wild fruit and nut species. To help conserve these species in the wild, species management and monitoring plans have been developed for a number of plants that are threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation due to severe deforestation and over-grazing. One of these is the wild almond Amygdalus bucharica, classified as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (2008), for which a species management plan has been developed in the Chatkal Nature Reserve. Established in 1992 as a IUCN category Ia protected area, the park extends for 3,570 ha and is managed by the State Forest Fund. Support is also being provided to the conservation of CWR in the form of capacity building, community awareness and education.

In general, the idea that the conservation of agrobiodiversity is a potentially valuable function of a protected area is as yet little recognized. … Indeed, a study by WWF found that the degree of protection in places with the highest levels of crop genetic diversity is significantly lower than the global average; and even where protected areas did overlap with areas important for crop genetic diversity (i.e. landraces and crop wild relatives) little attention was given to these values in the management of the area’ (Amend et al. 2008)

With support from the UNEP/GEF and guidance from Bioversity International, in collaboration with the international organizations Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC), the project “In situ Conservation of Crop Wild Relatives through Enhanced Information Management and Field Application” set out to improve the conservation and sustainable utilization of CWR species occurring in Armenia, Bolivia, Madagascar, Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan by maximizing the use of existing information and conservation resources of these important species.

Examples of CWR conserved in protected areas in Armenia, Bolivia, Madagascar, Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan.

Crop Gene Pool CWR Protected Area Country
Yam Dioscorea maciba, D. bemandry, D. antaly, D. ovinala and D. bemarivensis Ankarafantsika National Park Madagascar
Cinnamon-tree Cinnamomum capparu-coronde Kanneliya Forest Reserve Sri Lanka
Almond Amygdalus bucharica Chatkal Biosphere Reserve Uzbekistan
Wheat Triticum araraticum, T. boeoticum, T. urartu and Aegilops tauschii Erebuni State Reserve Armenia
Cacao Theobroma spp. Parque Nacional y Territorio Indigena Isiboro-Secure Bolivia
Work area: 
Protected Areas
Protected Areas
Protected Areas
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