Saint Lucia botanist crowned as Disney Conservation Hero

Posted on by Sarah Pocock


Every year, the Disney Conservation Fund select a handful of Conservation Heroes from around the world to highlight the conservation efforts of local citizens and their actions to save wildlife, protect habitats, and inspire communities to engage in conservation. Since 2004, Disney has honoured more than 160 Conservation Heroes from around the world, with each recipient and their partner organisation sharing a US $1,500 award.

This year, Melvin Smith was awarded for his work to protect native plants in Saint Lucia. Since 2017, Melvin has been a vital member of the GTC team conserving the Critically Endangered Juniperus barbadensis var. barbadensis, known locally as the pencil cedar. The wild population has plummeted to fewer than 100 individuals due to deforestation, but Melvin has regularly visited Petit Piton – the species’ single remaining stronghold – to collect wild material to discover the best techniques to grow the trees. To date, he has reared 300 new pencil cedar trees – three times the original population in the wild.

Melvin has also made outstanding contributions to the study and conservation of endangered plants. Since 1994, he has added 400 new species to the list of wild plants confirmed to occur in Saint Lucia, increasing the country’s known flora to over 1,400 species.

Botanists Melvin Smith and Roger Graveson examining an unusual mistletoe. Credit: Jenny Daltry/FFI

Botanists Melvin Smith and Roger Graveson examining an unusual mistletoe. Credit: Jenny Daltry/FFI

We caught up with Melvin to understand more about his amazing work and his thoughts on the future for Saint Lucia’s native flora.

Some responses have been edited for brevity.

You’ve discovered, studied and grown hundreds of different native plants over the years. What’s your favourite species to work with?

The species I most like growing are all from different families, and tend to be difficult to grow. People don’t worry about a lot of the common plants because they’re easy to grow. So the difficult species I take on are a challenge and succeeding is of great importance to me. Euphorbia species are very difficult; my favourite is maybe Euphorbia dussii. I tried to grow it and it was very difficult, but it’s possible.

What inspires you and keeps you motivated to study and conserve plants each day?

When I studied the relationship between human beings and plants, I realised we are deeply connected – we depend on each other – from the carbon dioxide taken in by plants, to the oxygen we breathe. The importance of this connection made me realise that I have to take plant work very seriously.

What’s been the most challenging species you’ve worked with so far, and why?

The pencil cedar is one of them. It’s a species that hasn’t been looked into widely, so no one really knew how to grow them. There were a lot of challenges and new things to learn because it’s a conifer, which doesn’t have the same system as a “normal” [angiosperm] tree. One of the main challenges has been the location and the season – learning around the wet season and the dry season, what the plants might need or not need.

You have played a crucial role in the recovery and protection of pencil cedar trees. Why is it so important that we conserve this species?

I took an interest in the pencil cedar for several reasons: it is an endemic species, found only here on Saint Lucia; and it is very rare. It was on its way towards extinction, and I felt that needed to be reversed. It’s a beautiful plant; they’re used as Christmas trees, and the fruits are used to flavour alcohol. It’s important to conserve them as a part of the ecosystem. To lose them would be like taking out a link from a chain and could have a ripple effect onto other species. I had to make sure that link stayed in place, because you never know what contribution it is making for the ecosystem.

Melvin Smith with the first pencil cedars growing in his nursery. Credit: Jenny Daltry/FFI

Melvin Smith with the first pencil cedars growing in his nursery. Credit: Jenny Daltry/FFI

What have you found to be the best way to engage your local community in plant conservation?

Tours are a good way to do this – I would talk to people about lots of plant-related topics, and even just in everyday conversation outside of tours. I have friends from where I live who now love plants from having deep discussions about them. They realised that there was a lot they didn’t know about our plants – and with that knowledge they have discovered species they did not know, especially the pencil cedar. They now understand its importance and rarity.

What do you think are the biggest challenges to threatened tree conservation in the Caribbean, and how do you think we best conserve them?

Human beings are the biggest factor. Other factors are minimal – every so often there will be a natural disaster, or a particular pest will infest a particular species, but those things are minor. Human development is one of the main challenges – we cut everything down to build. But if we did this in a harmonious way, we could build and still have plants. One of the best ways to conserve them is to have meetings with local people and teach them the importance of trees and wildlife. We need to be able to engage with all stakeholders in all areas of life and show them the importance of trees and plants, so that human beings have a lesser impact.  

Is there hope for the threatened species in St Lucia?

Yes, there is hope for all threatened species. We need island-wide education, so that everyone understands that threatened species need help. People who do not understand the need to protect threatened species need to learn about the dependency between humans and plants. Bringing that knowledge to people’s doorsteps is one of the key ways we can help to save any species.

What advice would you give to others who want to protect the plants and trees in their local environment?

I would tell them that plant conservation is very important, and that they should continue to do this, and deepen their knowledge about the plant world. They must realise that what they are already doing is of the utmost importance, and to push it even further.

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