A very dif­fer­ent fight

A pro­gramme to em­ploy ex-guer­rilla fight­ers as con­ser­va­tion­ists is start­ing to take off in Colom­bia

Geographical - - WORLD­WATCH -

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. 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 off­shoot of a £6.5 mil­lion-backed GROW Colom­bia project, 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. ‘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. Bio­di­ver­si­ty­in­ven­tory assess­ments ben­e­fit sci­ence, but they also give ex­com­bat­ants a new and nat­u­ral pur­pose,’ says Gón­gora.

Colom­bia’s FARC sol­diers are be­ing re­de­ployed as con­ser­va­tion­ists

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