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date: 25 September 2017

REFLORA: A Virtual Way to Share Information about Brazilian Plants

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Please check back later for the full article.

Brazilian flora, the richest in the world, has long been the subject of scholarly study. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, plant samples collected in Brazil were sent to European herbaria, where botanists documented the little-known flora and its potential uses. From the twentieth century onward, Brazil created research centers to house its biological collections, facilitating study by Brazilian professionals of their native biodiversity. However, many early specimens deposited in European collections have yet to be examined by taxonomists.

In the early twenty-first century, cost-effective digitization techniques enabled large-scale repatriation of herbarium data. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supported herbaria worldwide to digitize their collections, especially type-specimens, through the African, Latin American, and Global Plants Initiatives.

A party to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Brazil responds to global challenges, such as the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC), which set sixteen targets for understanding and conserving plant diversity. In 2008, Brazil’s Environment Ministry tasked the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden (JBRJ) to coordinate a compilation of the Brazilian List of Plants, Algae, and Fungi (Brazilian List) by 2010, to meet GSPC Target 1. JBRJ tapped the expertise of more than 500 Brazilian and foreign taxonomists to develop and maintain a dynamic list that rapidly became the reference for Brazil's flora.

In 2011, Brazil’s Science and Technology Ministry, recognizing the need to link knowledge from digitized plant specimens and the Brazilian List, funded the amalgamation of the Brazilian List with a new Virtual Herbarium dubbed “REFLORA.” Founded as a partnership among JBRJ, Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle (Paris), and the Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew, UK), REFLORA includes two components: (1) digitization of herbarium specimens and maintenance and update of the Brazilian List, and (2) capacity-building, including visits by Brazilian researchers to European collections to improve specimen identification and foster baseline research that directly impacts plant conservation.

Both the Brazilian List and the Virtual Herbarium are interactive platforms incorporating feedback from scientists involved in the project. Changes to these databases appear immediately, making current taxonomic views regarding a specimen or a plant name available online worldwide. Their success has stimulated Brazilian zoologists to prepare a similar list, while the botanical community is already responding to GSPC’s 2020 target to build a digital World Flora. The Brazilian Flora project will be founded on the platforms and scientific community created by the Brazilian List.