Botanic Garden's appeal to Pakistan for stuck books

By Huw Williams
BBC Scotland reporter

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image captionExpeditions to Afghanistan in the 1960s recorded dozens of new plant species

The Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh is appealing to the government of Pakistan to release 4,000 botany text books, which have been held-up at Karachi customs for 12 months.

The books are supposed to be distributed to schools, universities and environmental groups across Afghanistan.

Ian Hedge, from the Botanic Garden, told BBC Radio Scotland's Good Morning Scotland programme that the consignment of 10 tonnes of books arrived safely in Pakistan in February 2011.

He said: "But it's been stuck there since then, because of bureaucratic/political difficulties between Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Mr Hedge said this was frustrating. He added: "The book is really intended to help re-vivify academic life in Afghanistan.

"But also for people in Afghanistan to know about the background geography, the ecology, the climate and the need for conservation.

"So this book is obviously for the future."

And, he said, the impasse which was keeping the books stuck at the port was "terrible" and "very sad".

"There've been high-level attempts to get it sorted out, at ambassadorial level, but we're still waiting to get these books through," he said.

media captionKarachi customs delay for botany books

Mr Hedge has been studying the plants of south-west Asia - Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan - since the 1950s.

While working on reference books of plants from the region, he said, it became clear that Afghanistan was under-represented in collections such as the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Garden.

"So, together with a Norwegian friend, I travelled there two times, in 1962 and 1969," he said.

"There was a window of opportunity between the late 50s and the early 70s, when it was possible to travel everywhere in Afghanistan."

During the two expeditions, the team photographed and collected dozens of species which were new to science.

And it was that experience and expertise which equipped Mr Hedge to be one of the major contributors to the new guide to Afghanistan's flora and vegetation.

He said central Asia was particularly interesting to plant scientists such as himself.

"It's got very old geology and a lot of plants that are restricted to that area, so-called endemics," he said.

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image captionMr Hedge collected, and named, this plant from the Sage family

"It also has a big flora (group of plants growing in the region)."

In fact, he said, it is home to about 4,400 plants - three or four-times as many as the British Isles.

And he believes we need to lose our preconceptions about Afghanistan.

"I think people have this vision of Afghanistan as everything being like Helmand. Rather desert-y looking, and uninviting, and no plants," he said.

"But in actual fact it's a country of huge variety. There are mountains up in the north-east of the country going up to almost 7,000m. Huge mountains.

"Then it drops away down to the deserts in the Helmand area, where you're talking about 500m."

That range of altitude produces a "huge range" of different ecologies.

And, Mr Hedge admits, although he went to Afghanistan to study the plants, he ended up falling in love with the country and its people.

He added: "I had travelled in Turkey and a little in Iran (before going to Afghanistan), but for me Afghanistan was the really beautiful country."

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