Do they lose the plot? Backlash as Royal Botanic Garden workers forced to undergo mandatory training to recognize ‘historical links’ to racial inequality and colonialism

By Georgia Edkins for the Scottish Mail on Sunday

23:38 16 September 2023, updated 23:39 16 September 2023

  • Critics say this is a waste of taxpayer money

For more than 300 years, horticulturists and scientists at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RGBE) have quietly continued their work of preserving and studying plants from around the world.

But bosses in the Scottish Government have now announced that all RBGE staff must undergo mandatory “racism” training to recognize the park’s “historical links” with racial inequality and colonialism.

They will be told how the plants they care for are actually grown from cuttings stolen from indigenous people and that the garden itself is guilty of “structural racism” and destroying the planet.

The garden – famous for its botanical greenhouses – is the latest Scottish institution to publicly condemn itself after Glasgow’s Burrell Group updated its offerings to be more “transparent” about links to the slave trade.

But critics last night hit back at RBGE’s plans to train its staff on racism – claiming it was a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Growing concern: The Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, says many plants bear the names of white Europeans
A Pacific dance troupe performs in the park to highlight the threat of climate change

Botanists whose legacy lives on in their ‘discoveries’

Hala Fruit (Pandanus tictorius)
Dwarf rhododendron (Rhododendron forestii ‘Carmen’)
David Douglas, the man after whom the Douglas fir tree is named

Traditionally it has been Western institutions that give scientific names to plants, which means that many are named after the botanists who brought them back to Europe.

But the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh believes this “silences” indigenous people who may have known about the plants long before explorers “discovered” them.

Plant hunter George Forrest, known as “the Scottish Jones of the botanical world.”

According to the 2022 Racial Justice Report, more than a quarter of new plants between 2000 and 2016 were named after people outside the species’ country of origin – mostly after white Britons.

Many plants were also named after European explorers of the 18th and 19th centuries. For example, Scottish botanist David Douglas had several Hawaiian plants named after him, including a tropical fruit tree known to Western science as Pandanus douglasii—but which was actually known as Hala to islanders.

The North American horned frog, Phrynosoma douglasii, is also one of more than 80 species of plants and animals that bear douglasii in their scientific names in its honor.

Fellow Scottish botanist George Forrest also made his name by exploring the world and bringing plants home.

He is believed to have collected 31,000 specimens from the Yunnan region of China, including Rhododendron forestii (right), Pieris formosa var forestii, Primula forestii, Iris forestii, and Hypericum forestii. Many of his “discoveries” are on display in the RBGE herbarium.

Free Expression Union director Toby Young said: Why waste money on this nonsense? Perhaps a Witch Finder General may also be announced to search for the witches hiding in the Botanical Garden.’

The controversial move comes after RBGE pledged to stop naming plants after white Europeans and start adding trigger warnings to its archive papers.

Its report on racial justice – commissioned in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests – stated: “Historical documents in our archives may contain disturbingly colonial, offensive and/or racist language.”

“We must develop appropriate content warning statements to inform readers where this appears.

“The scientific names of plants celebrate their white European discoverers, effectively silencing indigenous people.

“Our naming conventions must be examined to avoid perpetuating colonial power structures. The movement of plants around the world during this period of history was fundamentally linked to slavery, exploitation, and racism.

“Historical colonization is linked to current environmental degradation through forced movement of plants and people.

“Historical plant specimens collected without permits, permissions, or adherence to access and benefit-sharing agreements may be considered stolen from indigenous people.”

A public contract uploaded to the Scottish Government portal states that all this information will be passed on to staff, including scientists, gardeners, researchers and tour guides, through a £2,000 “racial justice awareness” training course.

“This racial awareness initiative has two main goals: to enrich RBGE employees’ understanding and enhance their racial awareness,” the note says. RBGE was founded in 1670 and has a collection of 273,000 plants. It employs 240 people.

Royal Park ranger Simon Milne said: “The conversation around ethnic diversity is not new. The decision to implement the training is simply the final stage of our journey.

“As an institute operating in over 40 countries, it is essential that we provide the best support available to all our staff and students in working fairly and equitably.”

    (Marks for translation) Do you 

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