Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world. More than 56,000 species have been recorded in the Colombian Amazon – 9,000 of which are unique to the region. But for more than 50 years, insurgencies and violence have crippled scientific study in this cradle of biodiversity. Now, four years after a landmark peace deal between Colombia’s government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the nation’s rich biodiversity may have found an unlikely force of forest guardianship.
During the long decades of internal conflict in Colombia, guerrilla fighters belonging to FARC occupied vast regions of forest. Founded in 1964, FARC’s belligerent support of wealth redistribution across Colombia has seen the guerrilla group organise bombings, assassinations, hijackings and other armed attacks against political and economic targets. During FARC’s occupation, scientific study into biodiversity was repressed; researchers who wanted to study ecosystems in FARC’s areas would have to get permission from the fighters. In 1998, the kidnapping of US herpetologist John Lynch discouraged research further. Scientific discovery was also stymied by the 2004 abduction of a team of biologists led by ornithologist Diego Calderón.
Times are now changing. On June 23, 2016, FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño and Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, signed a permanent cease-fire agreement, stipulating that FARC fighters turn in their weapons and end their occupation of forest regions within 180 days. Following the peace agreement, the Colombian government conducted censuses of 10,000 FARC ex-combatants to identify skills and suitable avenues for employment. They found that around 40 per cent have experience in forest conservation; 74 per cent have agricultural skills; and 84 per cent would like to work for the environment.
A new programme called Peace With Nature is empowering FARC’s ex-combatants to become conservationists. An off shoot of a £6.5 million-backed GROW Colombia project, directed by Federica de Palma, the scheme cultivates soldiers’ traditional knowledge of forest ecosystems, uses their large numbers to gather vital field data and encourages ecotourism enterprises.
Peace with Nature started in 2017 with a national workshop programme enrolling FARC’s ex-combatants. Ecosystems of the local areas were mapped; attendees shared cultural experiences of nature; and future ecotourism projects were planned. ‘Ex-combatants are using their affinity with Colombia’s fauna and flora to build informational resources for eco-friendly tourists,’ says Peace with Nature’s founder, Jaime Góngora, of the University of Sydney. ‘They work with scientists to undertake biodiversity inventories. They are also encouraging citizen science through the app iNaturalist, which allows ex-combatants and tourists alike to upload inventory data of the plants and wildlife they encounter, growing scientific knowledge.’
The reform of FARC’s ex-fighters is already proving a boon for wildlife. Since the 2016 peace agreement, 21 ecological expeditions have been carried out, leading to the discovery of more than 150 new animal and plant species in ex-combat zones. ‘Science should have a social incentive. Biodiversity- inventory assessments benefit science, but they also give ex- combatants a new and natural purpose,’ says Góngora.