How a Group of Former Colombian Guerrilla Fighters Became Citizen Scientists

This tale was at first published in our March/April 2022 difficulty as “From Battle to Conservation.” Click here to subscribe to read far more tales like this a person.


Deep in the Colombian Amazon rainforest, dozens of sweat-soaked adult men and women weave through a maze of ceiba and rubber trees. Armed with machetes, they hack as a result of vines as thick as saplings. They move in utter silence, eyes squinting in the dim mild. They strategy their mission — cataloging and safeguarding endangered species — with intent target. A handful of several years back, these previous members of the guerilla team FARC may well have been tracking enemy troopers or getting ready to kidnap a political prisoner. Now their targets are far much more elusive: huge river otters, nimble brown spider monkeys, Dracula orchids with black petals and fanglike protrusions, the riotously colored Flor de Mayo.

Socratea exhorriza, or the strolling palm, is indigenous to tropical
rainforests in Central and South The united states. (Credit history: Jaime Gongora)

In 2016, soon after 50 % a century of armed conflict, the Groundbreaking Armed Forces of Colombia (in Spanish, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC) signed a peace treaty with the Colombian govt. Rising from the rainforest they experienced occupied for decades, the previous guerrilla fighters were suddenly confronted with the query: “What now?” Part of the peace agreement stipulated that the Colombian federal government assist the 14,000 ex-FARC members financially for a number of several years just after that, they will have to live independently.

So considerably, former combatants have faced huge hardship on the highway again to civilian lifestyle, and COVID hasn’t assisted. In mid-2020, Colombia’s urban unemployment charge surged to 15.4 per cent. It is hard for anybody to discover a position, but for previous guerillas, it is specifically challenging. Colombian citizens typically nevertheless regard them with suspicion, and numerous have been out of the workforce for a long time.

“It’s hard,” claims Hugo Ramirez, who joined FARC in 2001 at the age of 17. “There is an abysmal quantity of absolute poverty, and we nevertheless witness little ones dying of starvation.”

But in which so several saw a issue, Jaime Gongora, a wildlife geneticist at the University of Sydney, observed an option. Colombia is the second most biodiverse country on the earth rainforests play an integral portion in this, with extra than 56,000 species that call it dwelling. But, until eventually a short while ago, researchers have not been in a position to analyze it in human being because of to FARC’s occupation. Teeming with unusual specimens, from the pink river dolphin to the critically endangered Magdalena River turtle, alongside countless undiscovered crops, the Colombian rainforest is a naturalist’s desire. Who better to explore that terrain than the persons who experienced after lived there?

So, in 2017, Gongora designed Peace With Nature, a series of workshops in the Guaviare region of Colombia to practice past combatants in conservation science. The hope is that they’ll afterwards use these competencies to ecotourism initiatives, like creating new character trails, and grow to be citizen researchers them selves. The workshops are led by a multidisciplinary team of teachers, which include conservationists and biologists. These industry experts have guided around 100 former soldiers via brainstorming sessions on combining their lived understanding of the jungle with the rigors of the scientific strategy. They understand how to choose plant samples, how to deal with binoculars and the very best tactics for observing wildlife. For the members, the software aims to provide equally a new purpose and a promising path forward. “The strategy was to empower these combatants with knowledge [of] biodiversity,” points out Gongora. “This [work] could be integrated into routines that will make it possible for them to incorporate into culture.”

Now, he returns to Colombia in between a few and four situations a yr to hold these sessions, which every last about a week. The homecomings are a joy for Gongora, who grew up in the Colombian countryside. He speaks of a youth expended actively playing in character, developing makeshift huts with buddies and observing the jungle’s wonderful wildlife. Gongora carried that passion for wildlife into adulthood in 1999, he left Colombia to pursue a doctorate in animal genetics in Australia. Having said that, the war continually loomed in the background of his childhood — a conflict with a intricate record spanning nearly 70 several years ahead of the peace accord.

Wildlife geneticist Jaime Gongora reveals off an armadillo identified throughout a biodiversity study. (Credit rating: Jaime Gongora)

A Extended Conflict 

FARC was established in 1964, six several years following Colombia’s bloody civil war — identified as La Violencia — arrived to a close. The conflict erupted in 1948, when Jorge Gaitán, a well known presidential candidate for the country’s heart-remaining Liberal bash, was assassinated. His demise ignited riots and, inevitably, a ten years of armed conflict involving the Liberals and the country’s Conservative social gathering. After 10 decades and 200,000 deaths, the two get-togethers agreed to the institution of a bipartisan political procedure, recognised as the National Entrance, in 1957. However it put an end to La Violencia, the process was overwhelmingly bipartisan and excluded participation by political leaders discovered as heads of guerrilla groups.

One particular such team was the Colombian Communist Celebration, or Partido Comunista Colombiano (PCC). Communists initial became energetic in Colombia following Planet War I, a response versus the enormous prosperity disparities in between the performing lessons and huge landowners. Several of these people founded communes throughout rural Colombia that the governing administration at first ignored. The guerrillas known as for land reform and far better conditions for peasants, and vowed to defend the defenseless against the government’s intrusions. But in 1964, the Colombian armed service began invading and destroying the communes. Associates had been pressured to flee into the jungles, finally regrouping to kind FARC.

In the decades that adopted, FARC’s numbers grew and shrank just before settling at 15,000 users at the dawn of the 21st century. It was in the course of this period that Ramirez, a latest participant in Gongora’s plan, joined FARC. At the time, FARC was an extremely powerful business. The group’s customers were being even now fighting for communist brings about, but the corporation was also intensely associated in drug-trafficking, unlawful gold-mining, kidnapping and extortion. The guerilla fighters caught the consideration of other international locations whose political and economical passions the group threatened, which include the U.S. Between 2000 and 2015, the U.S. furnished 10 billion dollars in navy help to assist the Colombian authorities struggle the drug-trafficking and terrorism that had been FARC’s hard cash cow.

Ramirez’s description of his time residing with the guerillas is two-pronged: a time of understanding in the splendor of the Colombian rainforest, but also a period of profound loss and trauma. Living below the continuous risk of enemy fire can take its toll, no make any difference the attractiveness of one’s surroundings. Ramirez states he watched mates die in horrific ways, torn aside by aviation bombs or shot out of trees by the Colombian army. He was also taught to eliminate — an element of his time in FARC that he speaks about only in vague, easy phrases.

Former guerrillas use binoculars to location birds in the Colombian jungle. (Credit rating: Jaime Gongora)

Nonetheless, Ramirez insists that bloodshed composed only a little fraction of his existence in FARC. When not patrolling, he and his comrades would study the will work of communist scholars and find out new techniques like drugs and cartography. In rare, non-regimented times, they’d delight in a person another’s corporation.

Over all, Ramirez remembers the moments that he shared with area individuals, together with Indigenous communities. Due to the fact his regiment remained frequently on the go to stay clear of government surveillance, he usually encountered neglected pockets of the Colombian diaspora. Ramirez states the guerillas would share sustainable means of residing with the locals, such as educating them medicinal tactics, as nicely as how to live in an ecologically accountable manner. Numerous of these methods have been taught to the former FARC associates by the Indigenous communities they encountered, who have a very long record of guarding biodiversity and countering deforestation via common, sustainable farming practices. “The true goal of FARC was to make a beneficial social transform,” provides Ramirez.

Soldiers to Scientists


A member of the Colombian law enforcement accompanies a single of the group’s fieldwork pursuits. (Credit score: Jaime Gongora)

When the combating last but not least ceased, Gongora, the wildlife geneticist at the University of Sydney, was halfway across the world in Australia. But shortly just after the signing of the peace accord, Federica Di Palma, an evolutionary genomicist at the University of East Anglia and director of Mature Colombia, invited him to companion in the plan, funded by the U.K. governing administration, alongside many Colombian exploration, tutorial and federal government establishments. The initiative fosters bioscience and biodiversity in Colombia, whilst a sister business, ECOMUN, encourages ecotourism. One of Develop Colombia’s main plans is setting up a “bioeconomy” for citizens by developing new corporations involved in checking and conserving nearby flora and fauna.

Gongora agreed, but recognized a lacking factor: the former FARC members. The Colombian government’s reincorporation initiative discovered that around 40 p.c of the previous guerillas experienced previous experience in environmental conservation. Gongora believed that this inhabitants could be crucial to making a bioeconomy in Colombia. As a naturalist, he’d extensive yearned to review the jungles of his dwelling place. Now, there was a veritable military of folks ready to enable.

Peace With Mother nature offers members a crash program in an array of conservation tactics. They understand direct observation techniques, how to conduct oblique surveys and track animals employing footprints and feces, as well as techniques to acquire specimens in a non-invasive manner. They’re also taught how to established up and use tracking cameras and can access taxonomic identification resources. Several are specially fascinated in discovering how to make inventories of plants and animals, claims Gongora.

Identified as pusui, this plant is sometimes made use of to make fences and animal shelters. (Credit score: Jaime Gongora)

By learning these skills, the former combatants can help researchers in their canvassing efforts while brainstorming their have ecotourism initiatives. In a person session, the contributors speculated about how considerably an avid birdwatcher may possibly pay back to location just one of the Colombian rainforest’s countless unusual species. In a further, they determined spots where by new character trails, on which they could provide as specialised guides, could be created.

And right after many years dwelling in the jungle, previous FARC users can share their own information, like how to easily detect medicinal plants. Acquire the yoco, for occasion, a tropical vine whose sap can be employed in opposition to fever, nausea and vomiting. Previous FARC customers also advise researchers on the habits of seldom noticed wildlife. “Some of them also realized animal tracking from Indigenous communities,” claims Gongora, describing how several contributors taught him how to observe animals undetected.

Developing on this now in depth knowledge of the jungle, Gongora immerses his learners in the intricate science of biodiversity: They study technical phrases and scientific names for the diverse species they came to know in the wild, although unraveling the refined, pure connections integral to trying to keep ecosystems alive. In other terms, the previous guerillas are presented the resources to review and analyze, scientifically, what they basically observed during the yrs they invested in the Amazon. “I have discovered to have a deeper knowledge,” claims Ramirez, “to value and really like [the jungle] a lot more.”

Preserving the Forest

With that appreciate, however, will come anxiety — precisely, of dropping the rainforest they when knew intimately. When FARC occupied the Colombian Amazon, those spots have been however safeguarded from unsustainable farming tactics and modern growth initiatives like oil drilling and palm oil plantations. “We maintained the ecosystem with the mentality that the jungle was our dwelling, our protector,” suggests Ramirez. If their corporation had to fell a tree, they planted 10 additional. Beyond that, he says, they responsibly eradicated all waste, and the bush they camped in was tamed with machetes as non-invasively as possible.

The Amazonian umbrellabird, named for its umbrella-shaped crest, can be discovered foraging in the rainforest canopy. (Credit rating: Cesar Arredondo)

These days, just 4 several years after the peace treaty, the at the time-occupied regions of the jungle have previously witnessed considerable deforestation. FARC’s fast exit from the location has still left a lawless vacuum in its wake, which the Colombian government has accomplished little to fill. Loggers slice down trees en masse, although other locations are razed to make room for unsustainable cattle ranching. Meanwhile, unlawful gold miners ravage when-pristine habitats. In 2017, deforestation in Colombia rose 65 percent compared to the earlier calendar year by 2018, nearly 500,000 acres of jungle experienced disappeared. Beforehand lush hubs of biodiversity now resemble ashen planes littered with the skeletal white stays of ancient trees. Ramirez aptly phone calls these spots tumbas, or graves.

But Gongora hopes that Peace With Nature’s efforts will assist safeguard the quickly dwindling Colombian rainforest. For case in point, individuals can existing their ecotourism ideas to major Colombian study institutions and agencies. At these message boards, the program’s users utilize for job funding, probably offering them with a new livelihood — and pathway to reintegrate into modern society — though determining which parts of the significantly threatened jungle to protect.

In the extensive phrase, Gongora aims to increase his system beyond supporting previous FARC soldiers get back again on their feet. He hopes members will also share the methods they’ve acquired with community communities so that, jointly, they can operate to defend the at-risk locations they connect with household —and extend the initiatives of Indigenous groups already preventing to maintain the Colombian Amazon. “They can use these techniques and collaborate with regional and countrywide establishments in Colombia to protect biodiversity,” suggests Gongora.

There are more than 60 species of cicada in the Colombian rainforest. (Credit history: Jaime Gongora)

Participants in Gongora’s method will with any luck , go on to turn into component of the Amazon’s army of citizen researchers, spreading curiosity in conservation efforts all over Colombia and to guests by their ecotourism initiatives. For Ramirez, the only way to help you save the rainforest is to inspire the very same deep adore he feels for it in other individuals. “We need to instill it in people today from childhood,” he claims. “That care [and] really like that 1 must have to biodiversity.”  


Addison Nugent is a freelance author dependent in Paris.

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