The Mercury (South Africa),November 22, 2007 Thursday, e1 Edition

The great acacia debacle;

Australian botanists are set on poaching the name of Africa's most famous thorn tree family


AFRICA is fighting a last-minute battle to prevent a bunch of Australian botanists from hijacking the name of one of the continent's most famous tree families.

Who can conceive of an African savannah without an acacia (thorn tree)? Some would say it's a bit like France without cheese and wine, Russia with no vodka or Australia with no sheep farmers or wallabies. Yet if the Australians get their way, the acacia family is doomed to slide away into the African sunset for good, unless there is dramatic change of heart at the next meeting of the International Botanical Congress.

The move to wipe out Africa's right to the acacia name has proved to be one of the most hotly contested debates in botanical circles for more than a century. The proposal has been described as a "debacle" and also sparked claims of abuse of procedure, "minority rule", bureaucratic bungling and underhanded lobbying tactics.

The nomenclature of the acacia family stretches back to 1754 when the English naturalist Philip Miller described and named the first such specimen as Acacia nilotica, growing on the banks of Africa's longest river.

Since then, well over a thousand similar trees have been grouped into the acacia family, yet more recent scientific research and molecular tests have shown marked differences that necessitate a reordering of this tree family into three main groups and two smaller groups.

According to the original reclassification proposals, most of the African acacia species could retain the name, whereas some would have to be renamed Senegalia or Vachellia. Most of the Australian acacias, however, would have to be renamed Racosperma.

But then two prominent Australian plant experts, Tony Orchard and Bruce Maslin, upset the apple cart by publishing an article in a major scientific journal in 2003. They pointed out that Australia had more than 1 000 acacia species while Africa had only about 150, the Americas about 185 and the Asia-Pacific region had just 95.

In a nutshell, they argued that it made more sense for Australia to retain the name acacia for its trees, since this would lead to the least inconvenience in reprinting plant handbooks, labels or technical manuals.

Aside from the hassle of changing names, they also argued that acacias (commonly known Down Under as wattles) were an iconic species. For example, they noted that the golden acacia was Australia's national flower, and also gave rise to the much-loved "green and gold" colours worn by most Australian national sporting teams. Australians were so proud of acacias that the continent observed Wattle Day on September 1 every year, while the Order of Australia medals for extraordinary Aussies also incorporated the golden acacia. In short, Australians were deeply in love with acacias/wattles, and changing the name to Racosperma was not just disruptive but was simply out of the question.

At this point of the debate, the suggestion (now known as Proposal 1584) was referred to a committee of specialists in 2003, which then voted by a narrow margin to ratify the proposal to retain the acacia name (only in Australia). According to committee chairman Richard Brummitt, the proposal involved a vast volume of correspondence and was "one of the most high-profile and vigorously debated cases in the history of the committee". While it was inevitable that some people would be unhappy about the final decision, he said there was nothing the committee could do to avoid this.

Proposal 1584 then passed through a separate committee of the International Association for Plant Taxonomy, and arrived for final decision at the International Botanical Congress meeting in Vienna in July 2005. Ironically, the name acacia is derived from the Greek word for thorns, which are typical in most African acacias - whereas most of Australia's acacias (wattles) have no thorns. "Apparently this plan to change the name makes a lot of sense to the Australians, but not to me," commented Hugh Glen, a Durban- based specialist scientist who represented the KwaZulu-Natal Herbarium during the fateful voting at the Vienna congress two years ago.

"It was a very unpleasant meeting. Unfortunately the African camp didn't really get its act together properly, while there was tremendous lobbying by the Australians."

It was reported, for example, that committee chairman Brummitt and Australian proponent Tony Orchard stuck up several letters from angry Australian citizens on the Vienna congress noticeboards - but failed to stick up letters of opposition signed by African botanists.

One such letter noted that very few botanists - let alone the wider community in Africa or Latin America - had been consulted about the proposal. A group of 38 botanists from several parts of the world also pointed out that there were political implications to the renaming controversy if Australia was allowed to keep the name at the expense of developing countries. They noted that Australia was but one country of 20 million people, whereas Africa contained 47 countries with 874 million people.

"In effect we are changing the (acacia name) to accommodate one country of 20 million people at the expense of approximately 90 countries worldwide.

"Although Africa does indeed have no more claim to the name acacia than Australia, the global community has more of a right to the name than any one country can have." It made no sense, they said, to burden Africa and other developing nations with the cost of the name changes when Australia was unquestionably in the best financial position to make the necessary nomenclature changes.Finally, they noted that Australian acacias were generally referred to as "wattles". "The average person would probably not even connect them with name 'acacia', whereas the common name acacia was used widely throughout Africa and Latin America."

When the proposal finally came before congress, the "pro-Africa" group defeated the Australian faction by a majority of 55% of the votes. Remarkably, however, it was held that a 60% majority decision was needed to overturn the original Australian victory.

In theory, the Vienna decision sets the scene for the gradual and inevitable demise of Africa's right to the acacia name - yet local botanists and authors are in no hurry to change things.

And according to a recent article in the local plant journal Bothalia, more verbal fisticuffs can be expected at the next meeting of the International Botanical Congress, in Melbourne in 2012 - which gives the Australians a home-ground advantage to defend their prized acacia title. Gerry Moore of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens in New York, argued in the Bothalia article t hat the Vienna decision was a"debacle" that had violated the fundamentals of democratic procedure. He argued that it was still possible to challenge the Vienna decision at the Melbourne congress.

"It is never too late to point out that the procedure used (to change the name) was invalid."