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Former Colombian guerrillas turn into citizen scientists to protect the country's biodiversity

Three to four times a year, Jaime Góngora—a wildlife geneticist at the University of Sydney—organizes workshops with more than 100 ex‑combatants to train them conservation science skills.

Former Colombian guerrillas turn into citizen scientists to protect the country's biodiversity
Cover Image Source: Getty Images (representative)

When the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a peace agreement with the Columbian government in 2016, the question arose as to how 14,000 former combatants would be transitioned back into society. The group had spent over half a century waging a civil war from the remote jungles of Colombia and now found themselves without a purpose. That was when Jaime Góngora—a wildlife geneticist at the University of Sydney—came up with a solution that would help these ex-guerrillas use their knowledge of the rainforests to benefit not only them but also the country's stunning biodiversity.



"I saw how many people were being impacted directly and indirectly by the conflict," Góngora told Science Magazine in a recent interview. He believed the former combatants would find new purpose in wildlife conservation as they had spent years in the jungle and knew it better than anyone else. Considered one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, up until the 2016 signing of the peace agreement, Columbia's forests remained largely unexplored by scientists. In the years since, however, scientists have discovered close to 100 new species in the rainforests. With the help of the ex‑combatants, a group of researchers from the United Kingdom, Australia, and 10 Colombian institutions now explore the country's rich biodiversity under Góngora's lead.



Three to four times a year, Góngora organizes workshops with more than 100 ex‑combatants to train them conservation science skills. Although the pandemic has suspended in-person training at the moment, the geneticist still plans to continue virtually. Speaking of how he managed to establish a relationship with the former combatants, he explained, "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," he added. Góngora explained that the 'Peace with Nature' program "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," he stated. "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."



Although the idea of training former combatants might sound intimidating to some, Góngora revealed that his experience working with them has been 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," he said. "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," he continued. "The response of Colombia’s government agencies, research institutes, and academia has also been very positive. In some of the workshops, we have the presence of the police and military forces along with the ex-combatants," he added. "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."

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