News Release 

Protecting biodiversity in Colombia: Former guerrilla fighters becoming citizen scientists

Earlham Institute

Researchers from the Earlham Institute and the University of Sydney are working with ex-combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (People's Army FARC-EP*) to grow their capability to protect the country's valuable biodiversity.

The initiative - part of the GROW Colombia research programme at Earlham Institute (EI) led by Professor Federica Di Palma - will use the power of nature to drive sustainable development and empower former members of the FARC-EP to become conservationists. A vital step to enable them to contribute to environmental projects, improve their livelihoods and reincorporate into society.

Colombia ranks second in the world in terms of biodiversity, which is not only important for the country's natural heritage and preservation of unique species but also to improve social equity and economic development.

Colombia has been through almost 55 years of internal conflict which has resulted in more than 200,000 people killed and millions of displaced people and victims. The peace agreement signed in 2016, has created a new sociopolitical environment providing an opportunity to link biodiversity to the reincorporation of more than 10,000 FARC-EP ex-members into Colombian civil society.

A recent survey of FARC-EP members by the Colombian Agency for the Reincorporation and Normalisation indicates that more than 4,000 have environmental conservation skills, more than 7,000 have skills in agriculture, with 10% interested in veterinary science, aquaculture and animal production and 60% interested in agriculture.

The recent peace agreement between the rebels (FARC-EP) and the Colombian government has opened opportunities to access geographical areas that were not possible to study before.

A unique environmental and socioeconomic initiative, the GROW Colombia capacity-building programme involves training workshops in areas of biodiversity for ex-combatants to contribute their experience and acquire new skills for conservation and sustainable biodiversity.

Project lead Jaime Gongora, Associate Professor of Conservation Biology at the University of Sydney, said: "This is the first step for the ex-combatants to contribute to inventories of biodiversity in their communities, participate in expeditions organised by the central government and local universities, and develop ecotourism projects. As a result they will be better informed when considering biodiversity, conservation and environmental sciences. These skills have the potential to generate sustainable activities based on green markets, enhance their tertiary education and professional futures and help with the reincorporation process"

"We are providing a pathway for the former guerrillas to become citizen scientists and protect biodiversity in Colombia," said Professor Gongora, a dual national with Australian and Colombian citizenship.

By establishing their own national committee, the participants were given the tools such as cataloguing of species and sampling skills, to coordinate and promote their own biodiversity and scientific tourism initiatives. Strengthened by a cross-institutional working group (government, academic, scientific institutions and agencies) to support and initiate biodiversity and scientific tourism as part of the reincorporation process. There was also an increasing interest in 'integral ecotourism' within the cooperatives created in the local areas.

'Juan Camilo' a former FARC-EP ex-combatant and member of the Social Economies of the Common Council which looks after more than 120 economic and social organisations towards the reincorporation of FARC ex-combatants, commented: "FARC-EP contributed to the conservation and maintenance of important ecosystems in this country. The current training by GROW Colombia is the first initiative at the national level that enables ex-combatants to put their local knowledge of nature in a context of science and establish a national body to coordinate their biodiversity and ecotourism initiatives. This is just the beginning in exploring the potential that biodiversity can have for the reincorporation of FARC-EP including for the establishment of ecotourism initiatives."

Professor Federica Di Palma, Director of BRIDGE-Colombia and Director of Science at EI, added: "The development and delivery of our ex-combatant training is a great achievement. Our GROW Colombia programme aims to strengthen biodiversity characterisation, conservation and management to sustainably grow the bioeconomy in one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, while ensuring social inclusion through equitable partnership.

"The latter is exemplified by this achievement and it comes at a crucial time for Colombia as it seeks to give root to the fragile shoots of peace, secure political stability and socially integrate post-conflict communities."

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To achieve this project a range of institutions were brought together, including the Social Economies of the Common ECOMUN and the Agency for Reincorporation and Normalisation ARN among others. GROW-Colombia is supported by a Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF-RCUK) grant led by the Earlham Institute (United Kingdom) and in partnership with the University of Sydney (Australia), other UK and Colombian institutions.

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