Threats to types, & UNIDROIT

Bob Makinson rom at ANBG.GOV.AU
Wed Jul 12 17:11:04 CDT 1995


So far I have counted only three reasonably constructive primary
contributions (plus a couple of secondaries) to this discussion -
those of Joseph Laferriere, Arthur Chapman, Peter Linder.  Bravo.
I might say I also support Alberto's riposte re the relative
insecurity of biological collections _wherever_ they are housed.

Theirs are useful suggestions, but only Peter has come close to one
of the main problems with mass-scale repatriation, when he said:
>> I think that the critical issue for science and systematics is
accessibility to material, not where it is housed.

Apart from this reference, no-one has yet addressed the question of
stability of location of types (and other specimens cited in the
literature) as an analogue to nomenclatural stability.  One of the
main arguments against mass-scale (as opposed to limited and
selective) repatriation of material is: How is _anyone_
going to find material, cited in the past literature as being at a
particular institution, if it is subject to a chain of repatriation,
legal suits, etc.?

Which museum or herbarium in the world, rich or poor, could afford to
cross-reference its records and collections to reliably point to
where large amounts of repatriated material has gone?

Taxonomists are often accused only semi-jokingly of splitting taxa in
order to sustain employment in their industry.  The effect of
mass-scale repatriation would be to force us all to spend more time
chasing curatorial problems ("Where's the type?  It was in Kew last
year ...") rather than working on taxonomy.

Just as we now spend too much time chasing nomenclatural problems
caused by massive lack of communication and common approach in the
past, so we would add another layer of scientifically useless
difficulty if repatriation were to become the norm.

We in Australia actually have the potential for repatriation
problems _within_ the country, where internal wildlife protection
 is under control of States of the Federation.  There have been a
 couple of recent instances where ill-informed State bureaucrats have
drafted new collection-permit legislation that has included poorly
 worded inter-State repatriation clauses.  Taxonomists and others then
 have to waste more time lobbying for better wording.

I do not particularly _like_ the fact that so many of Australia's
plant types (and other crucial) collections are held in British and
other European herbaria, but it is probably a necessary evil for the
foreseeable future.  Australian taxonomy still receives healthy
enough government support to afford to send an Australian botanist
every year to Britain to help with retrieval and documentation of
such material.  This is a luxury most countries could not afford.

The problem obviously goes well beyond UNIDROIT, and will
resurface periodically as an equity issue.  The call has been made in
this discussion for biologists themselves to come up with a
reasonable system on which we can present a unified front.  (One
might ask, where are the IAPT and other purportedly representative
bodies in this debate?).  Let us take repatriation of illegally
collected material as necessary, assuming for the moment adequate
starting dates or grandfather clauses.

Then the following points (drawing on the few constructive postings
so far) might provide elements of a common approach:

1.  Rejection of across-the-board repatriation of types.

2.  Better-off and better-curated collections (whether North or
South), to set some degree of real priority on _pro-actively_
 sending images of types (photographic initially, digital as
 capabilities become  available) to agreed herbaria in the country
 of original collection.

3.  Tougher internal codes of conduct to ensure adequate collection
and distribution (including to country of origin) of duplicates,
especially where this not already provided for by local permit

4.  Cases may still exist for selective repatriation of past
collections; this should be by bilateral negotiation, preferrably
involving national bodies representing institutions as well as
 single institutions (this would perhaps expose the current
 custodians to a more critical appraisal at home of their arguments
 for non-repatriation).

5.  More active pursuit by the "North" institutions and organisations
of funding and infrastructural support for collections management and
taxonomy in the "South" countries; twinning programs for exchange of
support and personnel training, etc, especially where a formerly
colonial relationship is involved (e.g. Australia and Papua New
Guinea ... tough luck for Britain and France).

6.  Journal editors and referee panels can play a role by calling
 prospective authors to account over selection of types not
represented by duplicates in the country of collection (at least
 where a new-ish collection is cited).

I realise some of this could be seen as motherhood statements, but
the fact is that many major institutions and representative bodies do
not yet have policies (let alone practice) on 2, 3, 5 and 6.

There must be other elements of a common approach.  If we accept that
chauvinistic policies and attitudes will both compromise our science
and be administratively unworkable, then the onus is on us to assert
and in part establish a workable system with as much equity as

Bob Makinson
Australian National Herbarium
Canberra, Australia
rom at

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