According to France’s national inventory of natural heritage, there are 35 times more endemic plants in France’s overseas territories than in mainland France, without even counting marine species. Such richness is increasingly the subject of attention of French public authorities. Apart from traditional valuations, new perspectives are taking shape with bioeconomy: energy, biofertilizers, biofuels, and new materials, among others.
In the French territories of the Caribbean, Reunion, and Mayotte, due to history, biodiversity is important, with a high degree of variation among species. One can find endogenous flora, but also plants that came in the 19th century from the coasts of Africa and Asia. To these are added imported crops, which include around 200 species that one can find in all of the tropics: sugarcane, bananas, medicinal plants, vanilla, coffee, or tea. In French Guiana, Amazonian biodiversity is exceptional and very well preserved up to today.
This biodiversity is a resource for inhabitants: in the Caribbean and Reunion, 60 to 80% of the population uses plants on daily basis. Backyard gardens (the traditional medicinal gardens) are still very frequently used as a food source, but also for cosmetic uses or for traditional popular medicine.
Culturally anchored in the collective imagination and playing an integral role in the lifestyles of inhabitants in overseas territories, “the use of plants is passed down from generation to generation, without us having really looked into their uses,” explained Patrick Garnon of France Agri Mer (French agency for agricultural market development). But this state of mind is starting to evolve. We are becoming increasingly aware on the one hand of the insufficiently exploited potential of these plants, and on the other of the threat that a loss of biodiversity plays for the world and for the need to store carbon to fight against climate change. Scientific and technological progress is opening new perspectives: next to traditional uses, like in food, herbs, medicines or cosmetic products, it is now possible to enhance the value of all of the local resources in biomass, including trash, to make energy, biofuels, fertilizers or biosourced materials in construction or other industries.
Biodiversity in overseas territories is a source of ecosystemic services and also represents an opportunity for development and for creating jobs within overseas territories. In these territories, biodiversity is an essential resource, with an enormous variation in naturally occurring species. The tenth edition of an international conference taking place later this month in French Polynesia will allow to provide an update on this exceptionally important issue.