Mongabay Features

Amazon botanist Sir Ghillean Prance: ‘The environmental crisis is a moral one’

The second half of the 20th century was a time of unprecedented change in the Amazon rainforest. The ecosystem was opened up by government road-building and colonization schemes in the 1970s and 1980s, unleashing a spasm of large-scale deforestation unlike anything seen in human history. But that period was also characterized by a great expansion in scientific research in the region, which greatly improved our understanding of the ecosystem and helped usher in an era that enabled the creation of numerous protected areas.

One of the foremost Amazon botanists to emerge during that period was Sir Ghillean Prance, a British scientist who first visited the region in 1963 when he joined a plant-collecting expedition to the Wilhelmina Mountains in Suriname as a postdoc at the New York Botanical Garden. Prance would eventually go on to become a leading expert on the flora of Earth’s largest rainforest, describing more than 200 species of plants. Along the way, the focus of his work shifted from documenting the flora of Amazonia to understanding its importance to the ecosystem as a whole.

“I set out as a botanist only interested in the plants, their interactions and ecology,” Prance told Mongabay. “Midway through my career the serious destruction of the Amazon began so I changed my emphasis much more towards economic botany, ethnobotany and conservation to help provide data towards sustainable living.”

Sir Ghillean Prance in 2006.
Sir Ghillean Prance in 2006. Image courtesy of Sir Ghillean Prance

After more than two decades at the New York Botanical Garden, Prance went on to serve as director of the prominent Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, from 1988 to 1999. Prance received many accolades for his contributions to science, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1993, being knighted in 1995, winning the Victoria Medal of Honor in 1999, securing a Commander of the Order of the Southern Cross from the president of Brazil in 2000, and being awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays and Neck Ribbon by the government of Japan in 2012, among other honors.

Prance also has been actively involved in a range of conservation and philanthropic endeavors, including serving on boards and in leadership roles at the Eden Project in the U.K., the Amazon Charitable Trust, the Linnean Society of London, the U.S. National Tropical Botanical Garden, and the U.K. Wild Flower Society, among others.

Gleasonia prancei on Serra do Aracá. © Sir Ghillean Prance
Gleasonia prancei on Serra do Aracá. This species was named in honor of Prance. © Sir Ghillean Prance

A devout Christian who was formerly chair of A Rocha, “an international network of environmental organizations with a Christian ethos,” Prance has been outspoken about Christians’ responsibility to protect biodiversity.

“The environmental crisis is a moral, religious and ethical one and so it [is] extremely important to have the church standing up for this,” Prance said. “One of my current goals is to increase the involvement of Christians in care of the creation on which our future depends.”


By Rhett Ayers Butler

Rhett Ayers Butler is the Founder and CEO of Mongabay, a non-profit conservation and environmental science news platform. He started Mongabay in 1999 with the mission of raising interest in and appreciation of wild lands and wildlife.