Some of the weird and wonderful plants from the Juan Fernandez Islands. (Photo: Fundación Jardín Botánico Nacional de Viña del Mar/Flickr)

The Sala America in Chile’s National Library feels like an important room. Its high ceiling is supported by imposing stone columns and the side walls are hidden behind a pair of ugly but expensive-looking velvety, brown drapes. The wooden floor, recently polished, is as slippery as an ice rink but it looks magnificent. In the middle of the room is a tiered platform with rows of chairs that are pointed towards a large stage on which sit a lectern, a screen, a table and two chairs.

Most of the seats are occupied, either by middle aged people in elegant dresses, tailored suits, blazers and cravats, or Gen Yers with uncombed hair, wearing jeans and T-shirts. Despite the differences, the two tribes mingle with ease. Sitting side by side, they shake each other’s hands, kiss each other’s cheeks, and catch up on each other’s gossip. The buzz of genteel conversations fills the room as they wait for the book launch to begin.

It’s five past eleven on a warm October morning and although the event should already have started, nobody seems to mind. Perhaps it’s because this is Chile and nothing starts on time. Or perhaps it’s just the book that’s being launched. Written by a pair of French botanists, it is an in-depth catalogue of the plants that can be found on Chile’s Juan Fernandez Islands.

According to the breathless press release, with over 200 endemic plant species, this small archipelago in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has one of the most unique ecosystems on the planet and if that’s not enough, it also served as the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s 18th century novel, Robinson Crusoe. On their own, these facts are quite interesting but the book we’re here to hear about seems anything but. Its title? Green Jewels in the Ocean: Study for a Monograph of the Vascular Flora of the Juan Fernández Archipelago. And no, nothing got lost in translation – the Spanish title is just as dull.

Sitting up in the back row, I’m feeling hot and sweaty after running to to avoid getting here late. Looking around, I realise that I should have taken my time and joined the stragglers standing over on the side of the room. The air is stuffy and there’s not a lot of space. To my left is a group of trendy 20-somethings and on my right is a trendy older guy who’s furiously scribbling notes into a dog-eared book even though there’s nothing happening. Like me, he probably has a news story to write. But he’s the exception. Everyone else continues with their conversations.

Some time after ten past eleven but before a quarter past, a gentlemen in a dark blue suit materialises at the lectern. He clears his throat, waits for the hush to descend, and then launches into his carefully rehearsed introduction.

“Damas y caballeros (ladies and gentlemen), distinguished guests…” he begins, rattling off a list of government ministers, ambassadors and consular officials who are gracing the room with their presence. “It is my pleasure to welcome you to the National Library this morning for this very special occasion…” The man in the suit continues his typical introduction and when he finishes, the room applauds politely.

Next up is a blonde woman in a sky blue skirt suit. She speaks briefly about the uniqueness of the flora of the Juan Fernandez Islands but I don’t catch who she is. We applaud politely. The man in the suit pops up again to introduce the president of the foundation responsible for preserving the unique island habitat who says a few words about the project before receiving his applause. Back at the lectern the anonymous suit man makes another introduction but this time its for a video, not a person.

The lights dim, a projector whirs and all eyes in the room fix themselves on the screen. As well as being home to lots of very rare plants, the Juan Fernandez Islands are truly beautiful. Striking even. Jutting out of the sea, their steep peaks are covered in dense vegetation like gigantic green castles. We follow the camera as it soars above the islands and then zooms in, offering a tantalising glimpse of a secluded valley before cutting away to a close up of the two French botanists, sketching flowers on while squatting in the tangled undergrowth. One of them is small and thin and the other, as well as being fatter and taller, sports a scraggly beard and long mane of hair. An archetypal mad scientist, he blends in well with the exotic plants.

When the credits finish rolling, it’s back to the man in the suit who introduces another person with an official title, who, in turn, announces the first of the French boffins. It’s the smaller one and his name is Philippe. Dressed in a woollen jumper and sensible slacks with a pair of wire glasses gleaming underneath his neatly trimmed hair, he seems anything but mad. In a soft voice he speaks ordinary Spanish with a thick French accent.

“Ah, dohn spihk Spuhníss verhy ouel,” Philippe says, “buh ah wil doo mah bes.” Everybody else laughs politely.

It turns out that Philippe and Christophe, as his mad-looking colleague is called, have been investigating the trees and flowers of the Juan Fernandez Islands since the mid-1990s and Philippe thinks it’s a good idea to give us a blow by blow account of the events of the past 15 years. In 1997 the pair wrote their first book, giving an overview of some of the island’s more interesting plants, and the following year they had their first major breakthrough. Hidden deep in the forest on one of the most inaccessible parts of the islands, they discovered a rare orchid that hadn’t been seen for 70 years. Excitedly, he points to a picture of a large, white flower. It’s a nice flower but there’s nothing especially beautiful about it. But to Philippe, it’s truly amazing.

“You ‘ave noh ideah ‘ow ‘appy wee werh wen wee foun zat,” he says in his garbled Spanish. “You cannoh imazhin.” He’s right, I can’t.

As they churned out dozens more books and academic articles, Philippe and Christophe also came across several other fascinating plants, like the small flowering bush that produces tiny potatoes, smaller than a human thumb. Philippe points enthusiastically at the screen. He’s right again. The potatoes are very small.

After another 20 minutes of thick accented Spanish, Philippe hands over to Christophe who ambles across the stage, a big grin spread across his face. He picks up the microphone and even though he is still smiling, Christophe’s message is serious: over the past hundred years, hundreds of plant and animal species have been introduced to the Juan Fernandez Islands putting much of the unique vegetation at risk. The worst offenders? “Yumahns,” he says, his voice rising with an air of accusation.

In 2000, the French botanists set out on a project to conserve the archipelago’s endangered flora and despite their best efforts, they are losing the fight. To highlight the seriousness of the situation, the larger of the two boffins shares an anecdote. His accent is even thicker than Philippe’s but with a bit of concentration it’s manageable.

A couple of years back, Christophe received a call in the middle of the night at his home in Paris, from the Juan Fernandez Islands. It was an emergency. The last specimen of an extremely rare flowering plant had taken ill in its greenhouse and the local attendant wasn’t sure what to do. Christpohe provided the best advice possible but it was to no avail – the plant died and the species was lost…probably forever.

“Oo neaus wat ze cos uv loossing zis pluhn wass?” he asks with a furrowed brow before answering his own question. “Eess imposeeble tooh sey…” his voice trailing off.

And sitting in this stuffy room in downtown Santiago on a beautiful spring morning, it’s just as difficult to care. Chances are, I was never going to see it anyway. It’s not that I think the loss of this plant species doesn’t matter – it’s just that compared to real issues like global poverty and bad water supply, it doesn’t seem so important. And apart from the French botanists, no-one else in the room seems particularly perturbed either. Eyes glazed, they continue to stare at the stage, occasionally twiddling their thumbs or scratching their noses.

But that all changes when Christophe clicks his remote control and a pair of brightly coloured honey eaters appear on the screen. They are beautiful creatures, with vibrant but fragile bodies and long, slender beaks, and everyone in the room leans forward to get a better look. Christophe explains that even though they are botanists, in 2002, he and Philippe branched out to study the islands’ fauna. The fruit of their labour was a wildlife catalogue filled with breathtaking photos like the one in front of us now.

“But uv coarse, ze burdeess ah noht uhss prittee uhss the pluhnts,” Christophe says, interrupting our honey eater-induced daydreams.

With another click of his remote control, the image on the screen changes to an exotic vascular plant, producing a mixed reaction. Up on, the other side of the stage, Christophe and Philippe nod enthusiastically. The rest of us slump back into our chairs.

Eventually, Christophe finishes his speech and sits back down. The hearty applause that follows seems completely out of proportion but I join in anyway. The man in the suit materialises at the lectern again and it’s oddly reassuring. He introduces a bureaucratically laden speech from Chile’s Environment Minister which is followed by an equally unappealing address from the ambassador to France. And then he says the best words I’ve heard all day.

“Ladies and gentlemen, that brings today’s proceedings to an end…”

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