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Story Publication logo October 25, 2017

With New Peace, Colombia Finds Hope for Saving Its Wild Lands


Dissident FARC militants continue to operate in the Guaviare district of Colombia. Like many in the region, farmer Luis Vergara of El Retorno, pictured, is still forced to pay taxes to the guerillas each month. "It's a nuisance but you do it," he said. He is reforesting some of his land that borders patches of Amazon forest with Colombian Amazon hardwood trees that grow quickly. The farm was previously a coca plantation. He now raises cattle on the rest of his land, which is now large open fields that were…

Much is riding on the race to identify and distribute the biological diversity of areas occupied by...

Ornithologist Andrés Cuervo, head of collections at the Humboldt Institute. Image by Lisa Palmer. Colombia, 2017.
Ornithologist Andrés Cuervo, head of collections at the Humboldt Institute. Image by Lisa Palmer. Colombia, 2017.

Brandishing automatic rifles, the guerilla fighters ordered Andrés Cuervo to leave his camping gear and research notes at the abandoned wooden house where he had been staying. One of the insurgents wrote “Do Not Touch: ELN” — the initials for the National Liberation Army — on a piece of paper and pinned it to the door with a fork as a warning.

The ornithology student, who had been doing field research deep in the Colombian jungle, had just been kidnapped.

This was 2001, and it was the third time in roughly as many years that Cuervo had been detained while studying birds. For decades, militant groups — most notably the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC — had been based in Colombia’s remote regions while fighting the government. Cuervo had hoped he could avoid the conflict and inventory bird species on the upper slopes of Serranía de San Lucas, an isolated, mountainous area in northern Colombia known for its exquisite biodiversity. In other territories, Cuervo usually asked local guerilla commanders for permission to conduct field research, and more often than not the strategy worked. But this time permission never came, and he was held captive for 15 days.

A crimson-rumped Toucanet, spotted by scientists during a survey of Colombia's Magdalena River Valley in December 2016. Image courtesy Felipe Villegas / Colciencias / Humboldt Institute. Colombia, 2016.
A crimson-rumped Toucanet, spotted by scientists during a survey of Colombia's Magdalena River Valley in December 2016. Image by Felipe Villegas/Colciencias/Humboldt Institute. Colombia, 2016.

Now, after 52 years of war, Colombia is regaining control of large tracts of land — many of them rich in biodiversity — that previously had been war zones. Last June, FARC disarmed after signing a historic peace agreement with the Colombian government. The National Liberation Army, the last active rebel force, is still negotiating. And as peace returns, scientists such as Cuervo are fanning out to far-flung regions to conduct research and launch conservation initiatives.

Much is riding on the post-conflict efforts to protect Colombia’s forests and wild lands while sustainably developing its natural resources. (Fights over land use were a main driver of the war.) Scientists collaborating with Colombia’s major research institutions, universities, and environment ministry are working quickly to inventory and protect these areas for conservation and sustainable development that could benefit the rural poor, before a rush of illegal loggers and miners inundates these recently opened regions.

Over the past 18 months, nine major biological monitoring expeditions have taken place in key areas across the country — some of them unexplored — as part of the Colombia BIO project. Another 11 expeditions are planned next year. The goal is to study and inventory birds, mammals, insects, plants, and even soil microbes in these poorly studied regions, as well as establish genomic libraries. Scientists say that the conflict’s end has highlighted an environmental paradox in Colombia: Although the guerillas caused environmental damage by destroying forests for drug production and blowing up oil and gas pipelines, their presence also protected large swaths of Colombia from development.

“Coming back to the field helps us send a message to society that we still have healthy biodiversity,” said Brigitte Baptiste, director of the Humboldt Institute, a Bogotá-based research foundation. “We can create change from scratch. We also have the opportunity to eliminate practices that were clearly unsustainable, but that we couldn’t approach because of the conflict.”

Identifying the biological richness of Colombia’s hugely diverse regions — from its tropical coastlines, to Amazon forests, to high Andean ecosystems — is essential for helping the country’s leaders make informed decisions about conservation and sustainable development. Scientists estimate that about one-third of Colombia’s plants have economic value — mainly in development of pharmaceuticals — which could benefit rural economies as researchers take their discoveries to the lab. Conservationists say Colombia also has huge ecotourism potential.

Cuervo — now head of biological collections at the Humboldt Institute — spent 10 days in April 2017 with 30 other scientists and local residents on a biodiversity expedition in Vichada, a flat grassland in Colombia’s eastern Orinoco basin. In Santander — a mountainous area of northeastern Colombia that was once a thoroughfare used by anti-government fighters — Humboldt biologist Mailyn Gonzalez said she felt safe when she met local residents during a 2016 Colombia BIO expedition. “You could see it in their eyes,” she said, remarking on the welcome she received from cattle ranchers and agricultural producers who now work as guides.

In a survey of Santander in northeastern Colombia, scientists explore one of the mountainous region's many caves. Image by Felipe Villegas / Colciencias / Humboldt Institute. Colombia, 2017. 
In a survey of Santander in northeastern Colombia, scientists explore one of the mountainous region's many caves. Image by Felipe Villegas/Colciencias/Humboldt Institute. Colombia, 2017. 

Gonzalez left Colombia when she was 16 because of the guerilla conflict. She pursued her Ph.D. in Europe and returned a few years ago. “We are not afraid anymore,” she said. “We would like to generate a new identity [for Colombia], to be seen in another way and not a way of violence. So we have to let local people know they have other opportunities.”

Preliminary results from recent research expeditions have documented many new and endemic species. During a 10-day expedition to a unique canyon ecosystem along the Melcocho River in Antioquia in north-central Colombia, a team of 37 scientists and locals found six species that had not been previously described, including a frog and a forest mouse; two rediscovered species; and 16 endemic species. In Caquetá, in a transition zone between the mountains and the Amazon forest, investigators from the Amazon Research Institute of Colombia - Sinchi recorded 41 endemic species and 47 possible new species.

The new findings go a long way in filling the gaps in knowledge. Colombia has just 4.4 million total records in the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, but the number is going up every day. By contrast, Mexico, which ranks fifth in the world for its biodiversity, behind Colombia, has 13 million records in the GBIF — an indication of how the Colombian civil war affected research. Surveying the blind spots is important because Colombia is second in the world in biodiversity (after Brazil), with an astonishing 10 percent of all of the species of animals and plants on the planet. Colombia has 311 different ecological zones, and half of its natural habitats remain intact.

In the former conflict zones, armed groups caused significant environmental damage, mainly through deforestation for illicit drug production, gold mining and the resulting mercury pollution, and pipeline bombings. But the presence of the rebels also limited human encroachment. In some areas, guerillas — often violently and with strict codes of conduct —managed forests and protected rivers.

Today, many conservationists fear that the race for environmental assessments and preservation of natural areas may lose out to the drive to extract natural resources. Deforestation and illegal gold mining are surging throughout the country, and the road-building that accompanies such activities will likely trigger further development. According to Colombia’s Institute for Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM), deforestation rose 44 percent in 2016 after FARC stopped controlling forests, especially in the Amazon region.

In Guaviare, a sparsely settled province that spans the eastern plains and parts of the Amazon jungle, deforestation has been rampant as renegade FARC factions, powerful economic interests, and narco-traffickers have filled the vacuum left by the rebels. Forests are being cleared for coca cultivation and vast cattle ranches, according to the Amazon Research Institute of Colombia - Sinchi. New laws to protect the jungle exist on paper but are not being enforced.

“We believe in stopping deforestation for cattle ranching and in stopping the agricultural frontier from advancing further into the jungle,” said Guaviare’s post-conflict government advisor Marco Antonio Fonseca, who is trying to provide alternative incomes for coca farmers. “But cattle are not the jungle’s enemy, crops are not the jungle’s enemy. It’s all about how we organize people in productive projects in this area. You don’t just do it with government decrees, but by changing the social mindset. We need to empower people.”

Despite new and existing protections, degradation has occurred in some of the most vulnerable areas. In Chocó, on Colombia’s Pacific coast, small-scale miners pan for precious metals alongside industrial excavators, at least 60 percent of them operating illegally. The miners have destroyed 4,200 acres of rainforest along the Quito River since 2014, polluting waters with sediment and mercury, according to an international team of scientists and NGOs. In Putumayo, in southwestern Colombia, deforestation contributed to mudslides that killed 254 people in April. And in the forest reserve of Serranía de San Lucas, where as many as 30,000 people make a living from mining, national police last year shut down illegal gold and emerald mines, destroying bulldozers and confiscating AK-47s.

One of the challenges in conducting research or attempting to protect conservation areas, such as national parks, is the growing human presence. During a half-century of conflict in Colombia, an estimated 220,000 people were killed, 35,000 were kidnapped, and 5 million people were forced to flee their homes. The country has the second-largest internally displaced population after Syria, and many people eke out a living in rural areas by whatever means possible. Half of the parks are in post-conflict lands, and many are still not secured because they remain refuges for those displaced by war. Local residents living in the parks still grow coca and graze cattle. Relocating them is a key goal of the government.

“We are still not at peace,” said Julia Miranda, director of Colombia’s National Park System, which has just 1,000 employees. “We are having problems with the guerillas and dissident members of the FARC who were not a part of the agreement. We are having trouble with the guerillas that haven’t agreed, the ELN, the narco-terrorists.” In mid-September, park cabins in Tinigua National Natural Park were burned and the ranger staff received death threats, apparently from renegade members of FARC, Miranda said.

Since 2010, the government has doubled the area of national park lands to nearly 110,000 square miles. It plans to protect Serranía de San Lucas by January and expand the Chiribiquete National Park in southern Colombia by the end of the year. Chiribiquete, roughly the size of Belgium, is already the largest national park in Colombia; it is known for its rugged landscape, bird and butterfly species, pre-Colombian art, and indigenous people. The proposed increase will coincide with an expansion of an indigenous reserve that will improve biological connectivity in the Amazon.

Baptiste, the director of the Humboldt Institute, is working to integrate science and conservation into rural reform. “Conservation in Colombia during the conflict time was based on the very classic idea of protected areas without people, of pristine landscapes where all the wildlife can thrive,” she said. “We have an interesting and well-designed system of protected areas, but we have a huge amount of wild lands full of people. These people are living there because of the conflict and are bypassed by development. So what you need to do is create an alliance, an agreement with local people to provide them with basic income and basic livelihoods.”

Results from the Colombia BIO findings are expected to be completed in two years. International donors working with the national parks are now creating a fund called Heritage Colombia to support the development of tourism, ensure sound land management, and promote long-term conservation.

Miranda, the national parks director, disagrees with those who suggest hiring former FARC fighters to protect parks and forest reserves until rural development plans are complete. “I am not completely convinced that ex-combatants will be the best people to work with park ranger staff,” she said. “If I think of the best people to hire and be part of the national parks, I think of the peasants in the park, to have them abandon or change their activities and work toward conservation.”


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