Preserving is loving - memoirs of a workshop in Brazil

Our journey this time was bit further. I was not travelling to a natural site or a forest. With Planta!’s support, I was able to assist the XIV Workshop on Conservation Genetics in the city of Natal, Brazil. Every year this event is organized by the Network of Genetics for Conservation. The main goal of the workshop is to provide Latin American students with the skills to apply genetics to conservation. I presented the theme that centers my master degree research: the genetic variability of natural populations of
Phyllanthus orbicularis.


Dat: 05/05/2020


Project: Planta!’s Capacity Building program: supporting the conservation of threatened trees.


Phyllanthus orbicularis is an exclusive Cuban shrub. It is very abundant in thickets, a type of vegetation that grows on a soil poor in nutrients. This soil, however, manage to support a unique and very interesting flora, one impossible to see anywhere else. The leaves of Phyllanthus orbicularis are very small but its pink flowers are enough to claim all the attention. This was the species I focused on during my undergraduate studies, specifically on its morphological variation. Since the plant does not always look the same, we want to know if all the known populations of the species are in fact a single species. Genetics is the way to solve this puzzle.

Phyllanthus orbicularis is an exclusive Cuban shrub, very abundant in thickets. Photo by JLG.

Similar but different

Natal is located in the northeast end of Brazil. Impressive sand dunes extend several meters from the coast. Its weather is much alike to the Cuban one, but the beaches are different. There are much bigger waves and a darker sand. The workshop was hosted at the hotel Praia Bonita and there were students from many countries: Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and the Dominican Republic.

Natal has impressive beaches like the one by the hotel where this workshop took place. Attendees came from 10 different countries.

Our first task was a self-analysis of our conservation projects. We shared with the group how far along were we in the project, our goals and methods to achieve them. It was very useful to introduce us but also to understand that, according to its objectives, a research could be conducted using different methodologies and point of views. The same applies to the data collected, they can be analyzed in several ways.

The projects presented were very interesting. I was surprised to find out that most of the projects were about protecting animals, all except three, mine included. This showed me that the role of plants protecting life on Earth is still underestimated. According to the event organizers, I was the first Cuban student presenting a project about plant conservation.

Dennys de Vales presents its research about the genetic variability of Phyllanthus orbicularis.

Broadening our minds

The workshop was like an avalanche of themes with an application on conservation: genetics, species definition, phylogeny, forensics, phylogeography, among others. Species definition, for instance, is used to determine if different groups are in fact different species. Phylogeny is a genetic-based analysis of the possible relationships between individuals (similar to a paternity test in humans). 

Forensics, on the other hand, helps to determine if commercial species come directly from Nature or if they were propagated from collections. This could be very useful in Cuba to identify, genetically, illegal commercial species.

“Genetics let us know if two populations from the same species have a common origin. This will allow to know if these populations evolved independently so we can design conservation strategies according to each population conditions and life histories.”

Dennys de Vales Fernández

Professor at the Biology Faculty, University of Havana

The workshop was like an avalanche of themes with an application on conservation.

Trying a new path

The feedback received after every project’s presentation contributed to many positive changes. My study was outlined as “Phytogeography of natural populations of Phyllanthus orbicularis in Cuba”. This approach will include all the Cuban populations and the design of a conservation action plan considering specific natural conditions and life histories. This way we will know how to allocate our conservation efforts more efficiently.

Discussions and feedbacks during the workshop were very enriching.

The workshop increased my knowledge on many research tools and continued the training started with Planta!’s Capacity building program. Even though we all had different educational backgrounds, we all supported each other since the beginning and we all learned from one another.

We also went to the beach. There was scuba diving, parties and gatherings that lasted until dawn. We made friends and we agreed to meet again at the II Latin American Congress of Genetics for Conservation that will be held in Brazil. At the closing ceremony, we were all inspired by the reason that took us there in the first place. We remembered what a professor told us when we arrived: “The main reason we decided to study conservation is love”.

«The main reason we decided to study conservation is love.»

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