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Plant biologist Dairon Cárdenas López from the Sinchi Amazonic Institute of Scientific Research teaches ex-combatants how to collect samples from plants.

Liliana Heredia

A conservation scientist enlists Colombia’s ex-guerrillas in a new cause: preserving their country’s biodiversity

For more than 50 years, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) fought a civil war sparked partly by social inequities from the remote jungles of Colombia. In 2016, FARC and the Colombian government signed a peace agreement. Suddenly, a question loomed: How to reincorporate 14,000 former combatants back into society?

Jaime Góngora, a wildlife geneticist at the University of Sydney, saw an opportunity. A native of Colombia, “I saw how many people were being impacted directly and indirectly by the conflict,” he says. But he also believed in the potential of conservation to give the ex‑combatants a new purpose. After all, they had spent years in the jungle and knew it better than anyone.

Colombia is considered one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, but its jungles and forests remain largely unexplored by scientists, thanks in part to FARC’s occupancy. Since the peace agreement, surveys in these regions have found close to 100 new species. Góngora now leads a group of researchers from the United Kingdom, Australia, and 10 Colombian institutions who are working with ex‑combatants to study Colombia’s native plants and animals.

Since 2017, Góngora has gone back to Colombia three or four times a year to organize workshops with more than 100 ex‑combatants and train them in conservation science skills. Science sat down with Góngora in Washington, D.C., in early March, before the coronavirus pandemic slowed his project, which has suspended in-person training but plans to continue virtually.

This interview, translated from Spanish, has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: How did this project start and how did you establish the relationships with the ex-combatants?

A: Federica Di Palma, an evolutionary genomicist at the Earlham Institute invited me to partner in a capacity-building project called GROW Colombia. Supported by the Global Challenges Research Fund with £6.5 million, it aims to build bioscience and biodiversity conservation both in Colombia and the United Kingdom.

However, I identified that the project was missing something important for Colombia’s post‑conflict situation: the ex-combatants. So, I proposed training programs, which I named Peace with Nature, that seek to empower these ex-combatants with citizen science skills.

The initial contact through the Colombian embassies in the United Kingdom and Australia, and the consultation with stakeholders, including FARC, took 15 to 18 months—it’s been a lot of work.

Jaime Góngora leads a citizen science workshop in March. 

Courtesy of Jaime Góngora

Q: What are the main goals of Peace with Nature?

A: It aims to drive sustainable development and empower former members of FARC to become conservationists. This is a vital step to enable them to contribute to environmental projects, improve their livelihoods, and reincorporate into society. We teach them to undertake inventories of biodiversity and protect it, as well as come up with sustainable environment-based business ideas.

These workshops have also increased awareness of potential ecotourism projects where they live. We are providing opportunities to develop connections with regional and national institutions to implement their projects.

Q: Training ex-combatants to do citizen science is not something you hear about every day. What has been their response so far?

A: Very positive. We built on their traditional knowledge, interest in environmental aspects, and connection to nature as they spent many years in the most remote parts of the jungle, forest, savannas, and mountains.

They engaged in designing the methodologies, identifying the routes where the inventories would take place and could be used for ecotourism purposes. They shared with us their traditional knowledge, how they live in the jungle, what medicinal plants they used and bush food they consumed. Along with this, they explained the ecological aspect embedded in their stories.

In the workshops, which last three to five days in remote areas of Colombia, they learn techniques for biodiversity inventories. They now have excellent skills—they obtain samples and walk in the bushes without making noises so they can see birds, monkeys, and other animals. They also learn to use iNaturalist—and app and online repository for biodiversity used by citizen scientists around the globe—to document part of the inventories and inform potential ecotourists of attractions in their communities.

The response of Colombia’s government agencies, research institutes and academia has also been very positive.

Q: Right after the peace deal was announced, researchers started to venture into previously unexplored territories to study them. Why include ex-combatants in research and not, for example, undergraduate students?

A: If we are talking about biodiversity as part of the post-conflict situation, this is not only for academics and researchers. The main participants there are ex-combatants. A socioeconomic survey of more than 10,000 FARC ex-combatants showed that their ages range between their 20 to 60 years, with 77% men. Most of them know how to read and write and half of them have a primary education. When asked about what jobs they wanted to do now that there’s peace, 84% of them were interested in terrestrial and river environmental restoration.

Q: What kind of workshops and inventories have you carried out so far? 

A: I led a major Peace with Nature workshop in a former guerrilla village in the Caquetá province. Thirty ex-combatants, 20 men and 10 women, took part, representing 16 villages. As a result, we did the first inventory, but the main goal was to do a nationwide training so we could build on these skills and knowledge for subsequent workshops at the regional level.

We did the first regional workshop last March in a remote ex-combatant village named Charras in the province of Guaviare at the interface of three major ecosystems in Colombia: Andes, Orinoquia, and Amazon. There, we did a more comprehensive workshop and inventory of an ecotourism trail identifying more than 120 plant and animal species, which were uploaded to iNaturalist.

Q: What has surprised you the most working with the ex-combatants?

A: In some of the workshops, we have the presence of the police and military forces along with the ex-combatants. I think what has surprised me most is the opportunity that biodiversity offers for reconciliation and healing after an armed conflict. These workshops have been spaces for a respectful dialogue about biodiversity and nature.

Ex-combatants and soldiers were fighting each other some years ago, and now they work together and learn together—it’s all-around biodiversity.

(Watch a video about Peace with Nature here.)