24 April 2017

Conservation of trees in Mesoamerica and the Caribbean

Kew scientists Efisio Mattana and Tiziana Ulian discuss how Kew’s Global Tree Seed Bank project aims to preserve seeds from tree species across the world, including Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

Interior of the Palm House at Kew

The Caribbean and Mesoamerica are two biodiversity hotspots where human activity has had a profound impact on the ecosystems and many plant species, including trees, are currently under threat. 

Global Tree Seed Bank projects in Mexico and the Dominican Republic

The Global Tree Seed Bank project is one of Kew's major science-based plant conservation programmes. It is funded by the Garfield Weston Foundation and aims to secure seeds of at least 3,000 tree species from across the world, in safe, long term storage.

In Latin America the programme started in 2015 through two dedicated collaborative projects with the F.E.S. Iztacala, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in Mexico, and the Jardín Botánico Nacional Dr. Rafael Ma. Moscoso (JBN) in the Dominican Republic.

The project ‘Science-based conservation of tree species in Mexico’ aims to implement an integrated conservation programme of endemic, protected and useful plants, important for the livelihoods of rural communities. The main expected results are: 

  • A list of priority Mexican tree species with information on distribution, conservation status and uses, and a distribution map showing where the most important tree species occur.
  • Long term seed conservation of 300 tree species.
  • Seed germination and plant propagation protocols for at least 25 priority useful tree species.
  • Research on their seed biology and ecology.

The project ‘Saving threatened forests of Hispaniola’ aims to protect the forest diversity of the island by: 

  • Ensuring the seed conservation of at least 200 tree species.
  • Screening seed desiccation tolerance for at least 100 tree species.
  • Propagating 25 priority useful tree species.

Promoting the conservation and sustainable use of tree seeds in the Caribbean region

The IX Congress on Caribbean Biodiversity, organised by the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo (UASD) was held in Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic) from 31 January to 3 February 2017. Together with our collaborators from JBN in the Dominican Republic and the University of Puerto Rico, we organised a scientific symposium on the conservation and sustainable use of seeds of native trees in Mesoamerica and the Caribbean region.

The main objective of this symposium was to share project experiences and research results with institutions working in different countries of the Caribbean and Mesoamerican regions. This included Kew’s partners from Puerto Rico and the British Virgin Islands who are also involved in the Global Tree Seed Bank project. With a total of eight scientific papers, the symposium allowed us to gain a better understanding of scientific advances in the fields of ex situ conservation, seed germination and seedling establishment of tropical tree species in the regions.

While we were in the Dominican Republic we participated in the launch of the new seed bank of the Jardín Botánico Nacional Dr. Rafael Ma. Moscoso in Santo Domingo: the most complete seed bank for the conservation and research of wild species in the Caribbean region. This is the result of our long term collaboration with the JBN, which started in 2007 under Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank Partnership and it is now developing through the Global Tree Seed Bank project: 'Saving threatened forests of Hispaniola'. The launch was an excellent opportunity to promote the partnership between the JBN and Kew, which had impressive press coverage, and consolidated our role and visibility in the Caribbean region.

Mexico: a matter of scale

Compared to the island of Hispaniola, which is around 76,000 km2, in Mexico we are working on an area of almost 2 million km2. It is also considered among the most biodiverse areas on Earth and therefore ‘megadiverse’ containing around 10% of the world's plant species. In this context, one of the main tasks of the project is to prioritise the most important tree species of the country. The main focus of our trip to Mexico was to discuss the best way to prioritise the conservation of tree species with our partners from F.E.S. Iztacala (UNAM). In light of the recommendations of Grammont and Cuarón (2006), we have developed our species list to include species of conservation priority, considering information relative to threats to the species, the level of endemism, taxonomic singularity, and cultural or scientific importance.

Next steps and acknowledgments

The information generated through these projects ranging from botanical knowledge, seed biology and ecology, to plant propagation and traditional uses will contribute towards better conservation and sustainable management of native tree species.

Thanks to the involvement of our projects partners JBN and F.E.S. Iztacala in Dominican Republic and Mexico, respectively, we are able to support reforestation programmes and enhance the capacity of decision-makers to determine adequate conservation and development actions in both countries. 


de Grammont, P. C. & Cuarón, A. D. (2006). An evaluation of threatened species categorization systems used on the American continent. Conservation Biology 20: 14–27. DOI:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2006.00352.x. Available online