The challenge is how to go about this process of plant collection in light of the international arrangements that have been put into place. In particular, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity of 1992, ratified by nearly 200 jurisdictions, has given recognition to plants as part of a country’s national heritage. It has also put into place measures to prevent “biopiracy”, which prevents one from gaining pecuniary advantage from such plants without reaching agreement to compensate the country in which the plants are found. Not surprisingly, following the recognition of national rights in the plants found within a given jurisdiction, the process of regulation and bargaining over the terms of removing plants has sometimes complicated efforts to enhance biodiversity. Access by botanists and the like to such plants is uneven, bureaucracy can impede, and over-strict interpretation of the Convention, such as in India, restricts the ability to share plants and seeds.
As for Wickham himself, opinions differed, as reported on Bouncing-balls.com:
“One view was expressed by Henry Ridley, Director of the Botanic gardens in Singapore and the person who, more than any other, persuaded the country know known as Malaysia to develop rubber plantations: ‘I looked on him as a failed planter who was lucky in that for merely travelling home with a lot of seeds had received a knighthood and enough money to live comfortably in his old age…. He ordered natives to bring him in the seeds and to pack them in crates and put them on board ship. One cannot help feeling he was jolly well paid for a little job. He was no agriculturalist, he knew nothing about rubber and cared not for it…. As for his abilities in planting I should say he had none’.Whatever the facts were, the Southeast Asia rubber tree industry developed as a result of the removal of the seeds from the Amazon and Wickham played some role in this removal.
Edward Lane, one of the very few people to have studied Wickham’s life in detail, wrote of him in 1953 as an ardent imperialist with little business acumen with an autocratic manner which made him difficult to get on with yet he was a staunch and loyal friend to those he really liked. Fordyce Jones, a close friend in Wickham’s later years called him: ‘a great man … whom to know was to love and whom all those in the rubber industry who have its interests at heart have affectionately called its ‘father’”.
Wickham’s story brings us back to the complexity involving biodiversity. It is reported that the removal of the seeds and the rise of plantations in Southeast Asia broke the dominant (monopolistic?) position enjoyed by Brazil. In principle, breaking down monopolies is a good thing for competition and presumably it aids the goal of biodiversity. Also, talking about national interests in the context of the 19th century Amazon region, as well as the imperialistic overtone to the industry in Southeast Asia, muddies the analytical waters. Still, it would seem that the international community was better off as a result, even if there were winners and losers at the national and regional levels. Today, the international community has taken the position that biopiracy of the Wickham kind is no longer tolerable, strengthening the bargaining position of countries fortunate to have plants of potential value within their borders. The aggregate benefit to biodiversity, at least in the short run, may be less certain.