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An institution that has become a model

Unicamp's herbarium changes its appearance

In 1975, when it was set up, the Herbarium of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) had only a couple of cabinets to keep a few duplicates donated by the Institute of Botany of São Paulo, with which it started its collection. This modest beginning, today, is no more than a distant recollection. The herbarium was given a boost with the creation of the post-graduate courses in Plant Biology, in 1976, and with the ever more pressing need to gather and to preserve samples of the flora of the state, particularly from the Atlantic Rain Forest, before their habitats are completely destroyed.

Unicamp’s Herbarium is nowadays among the most important in Brazil. Its has a collection of 116,000 species. Every year, it receives another 7,000, the fruit of the collections made by teams from Unicamp itself, of donations, and of swaps with museums from various parts of the world. That is not all: it is recognized as one of the most important research institutions of its area in the world, and a frequent stopping point for researchers coming from various regions of the planet. Its modern and well-equipped structure served as a model for the refurbishment of other herbariums, including the renovation carried out at the respected Botanical Garden of Rio de Janeiro.

“Foreign researchers are amazed to find such a well structured and equipped organization in Brazil, says Luiza Sumiko Konoshita, Assistant Professor of Unicamp’s Department of Biology. This good impression is not without reason. Unicamp’s Herbarium is a model of organization and efficiency. The collection is all compacted into sliding cabinets that are placed in two rooms on the ground floor of the Department of Botany. There is a good air-conditioning system, which is fundamental to preserving the material. It also has equipment for the material to be observed, such as magnifying glasses with a capacity to augment 40 times, and for the preparation of the plants, like greenhouse and freezers.

It was not, however, always like that. Not long ago, there was not even a long bench for the students and researchers to work at. The old air-conditioning worked precariously and served only one of the two rooms. When it rained, the water would enter through it and run down the walls. With the high level of humidity, fungi proliferated to such an extent that the environment not only became dangerous for the collections and even unhealthy for people.

“Nobody could stand more than an hour in there, and it was not uncommon for a student or teacher to suffer from a crisis of asthma” Luiza recalls. “Some teachers and students went as far as to give up their careers in order not to worsen their health problems”, she adds. Fungi were not the only problem. Two applications of DDT a year became useless to solve the problems of the insects found the environment propitious, with its heat and humidity.

This was just one of other issues. The cabinets were not sufficient. Precious material was heaped up on the floor. The point was reached where there was not even room on the floor for the material that arrived. “This gave such an impression of disorganization that we were ashamed when foreign researchers arrived”, says Professor Luiza.

Floors and walls
In other words: a complete reform was needed. It came with the investment of R$ 416,900 from FAPESP’s Investment Program. The money was enough to renovate the floors and walls, to install a new air-conditioning system, to buy sliding cabinets, suitable for keeping species of plants, and even to purchase two special magnifying glasses for rapid examinations of material.

The old cabinets, replaced by the sliding ones, were still in good order. Over 200 of them, worth an estimated R$ 600 each, were donated to institutions like the Herbarium of the Institute of Botany, the Unesp Herbarium, the Agronomic Institute of Campinas, USP in Ribeirão Preto, the Luiz de Queiroz Senior School of Agriculture (Esalq) in Piracicaba, and even to institutions outside the state, like the Federal University of Londrina, in Paraná.

New initiatives were taken. For example, the museum began to sponsor a project for environmental education, run by Luiza, with pupils taking part from primary and secondary schools, not only from Campinas, but also from São Paulo, Santos and São Carlos. In this program, a team from Unicamp visits public schools and fosters activities in the classroom and hikes in the countryside. “The community is a fundamental agent for conservation”, says the professor. “The result is very gratifying, as the students begin to have more respect for plants”, she adds.

The reform came at the right moment. The Flora project, which is mapping all the plants that exist in the state of São Paulo, has the active participation of Unicamp’s researchers, and the herbarium receives samples of practically all the collections carried out under the project. “This means that the collection will still grow a lot”, says the curator of the Herbarium, Washington Marcondes Ferreira Neto”. Today, the museum houses 140 nomenclative types, that is, new species discovered by São Paulo researcher, whose samples are kept on the premises. Few herbariums, not even the most traditional, can aspire to this. Not bad for an institution with a little over a quarter of a century’s existence.