BOGOTA, COLOMBIA – In 2004, scientist Diego Alarcón ventured into the Colombian mountains to study bird species in a place most scientists wouldn’t dare go: territory controlled by FARC rebels. His risk had consequences. Alarcón was kidnapped, held captive for months and eventually set free.
But the experience also opened his eyes to the myriad of undocumented bird species in the South American country.
Scientists studying Colombia’s rich biodiversity are among many celebrating the August announcement of a permanent ceasefire between the Colombian government and FARC rebels. After decades of limited access to Colombia’s most biodiverse areas, researchers can finally explore and document the plants, animals and microorganisms that make Colombia the second most biodiverse country in the world. One expedition by the Humboldt Institute has already uncovered more than 100 new species in conflict zones.
“It’s an important political moment for us [as scientists] to be able to enter into these territories and document them,” said Felipe García, director of Colombia Bio, a government program to promote the study of biodiversity in the country. “It’s an opportunity that is connected to what is going on in the country at this moment.”
The cease-fire agreement means that studying Colombia’s biodiversity will no longer be a life-threatening task as it has been for many before. One of the most emblematic cases of the dangers scientists faced in conflict areas happened in 2011. Two biology students Margarita Gómez and Mateo Matamala were killed in northern Colombia while researching manatees.
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The inability to explore these areas because of the conflict has been a loss for the scientific community worldwide, according to García. Colombia is second only to neighboring Brazil in biodiversity and only about one-quarter of its size.
García adds that as much as 50 percent of Colombian territory does not have an adequate registry of biodiversity, meaning that it is largely unknown to the scientific community which organisms live there, their genetic makeup and how they interact with each other.
Studying biodiversity can lead to advances in medicine, economic development and innovative responses to global challenges, according to the Convention on Biological Diversity.
The 52-year armed conflict limited scientists’ access to many regions of Colombia and hindered their ability to document and learn about the country’s biodiversity, added García.
“[The biodiversity of Colombia] is something that the world has not known,” he said. “Unfortunately, the world has known Colombia for the conflict, violence and drug trafficking.”
With peace in sight, scientists, anthropologists and marine biologists now head full force into the jungles, mountains and coasts of Colombia. Their work is already showing positive results. More than 100 new species, mainly insects, were discovered in conflict zones in Antioquia in an expedition led by the Humboldt Institute.
Humboldt Institute is one of the many organizations leading expeditions under Colombia Bio, a government program that began funding science expeditions in December 2015. Just this year, Colombia Bio organized one land and two marine fact-finding missions. The organization expects to complete five other expeditions by the end of this year.
Surprisingly, scientists exploring these areas often find they are well-preserved. This is because the most damaging activities for biodiversity have not necessarily taken place in conflict areas. Livestock farming, coca and marijuana cultivation and illegal mining are some of the biggest threats to biodiversity, according to García.
However, some problems will remain for scientists despite the peace agreement. Land mines will continue to endanger Colombia’s biodiversity and those who study it for up to a decade, García estimates.
But the expeditions will continue with Colombia Bio planning 10 just for next year. The focus is two-fold. At the same time Colombia Bio is leading new explorations, it is also compiling the data gathered on previous missions, which can then be compared to worldwide biodiversity databases. As scientists continue to discover new species and ecosystems in Colombia, the next step will be coming up with a conservation plan.
These expeditions represent the opening of Colombia to the global scientific community and to the world.
“[We hope that] more people come to get to know Colombia, especially to see these territories and find the richness that unfortunately was hidden from the world,” García said. “Now there is the opportunity for this image to change.”
Anna-Cat Brigida is a freelance journalist based in Colombia.