Colombia’s ex-guerillas learn biodiversity and business models
Andrew J Wight joins an Australian scientist who is helping develop ecotourism in his homeland.
Smiles abound as about 30 men and women receive a certificate and key-chain koala for completing a two-day workshop. But this is no ordinary workshop.
These ex-guerillas have travelled from across Colombia to the edge of the Amazon rainforest to learn about how they can use the latest technology and scientific knowledge to help them launch or improve ecotourism businesses.
In 2016, after more than half a century of conflict, the Colombian government concluded a peace treaty with the FARC, which was then Colombia's largest guerilla group. But this left the country with two major quandaries.
First, the forest areas once off-limits because the presence of armed FARC were now more likely to be cut down by encroaching cattle-ranching. In the years following the treaty, an area equal to 40 soccer fields are being lost every day in Colombia.
Secondly, the former FARC, who had largely spent most of their adult lives in the jungles and savannahs, now needed a way to earn a living and reintegrating into mainstream life.
This is where animal geneticist Jaime Gongora, an associate professor at the University of Sydney, Australia, comes into the picture. "When the peace treaty was completed, this was an opportunity,” he told Cosmos during the workshop.
It took three years of feverish efforts for Gongora and a small team of scientists, ex-combatants and other supporters to put the workshop together, using their spare time and resources.
Jaime Erazo, an environmental economist at the Earlham Institute and GROW Colombia, ran one of the most popular sessions at the two-day workshop held in a small settlement in Caqueta, about 400 kilometres from the Colombian capital, Bogotá.
“I think this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for all the scientists involved in this training workshop to share some knowledge that can help these new businesses to be successful,” he says.
The session involved a game in which teams had to decide how much they would charge for their tours and accommodation.
Many of the participants, once schooled in Marxist philosophy, were shocked to learn that there are wealthy birdwatchers who would pay 2.5 million Colombian pesos (over $1000 Australian dollars) a day to find the right bird. That’s over three times Colombia’s minimum monthly wage.
“It’s clear there’s a need for the ex-combatants to know the demand side of ecotourism, as there are visitors that are willing to pay higher prices for specialised ecotourism, like birdwatching, and if they identify these differentiating factors, they will be able to attract these visitors,” Erazo says.
There is an active role for ex-combatants to play in protecting key biodiversity hotspots that were once some of the most intensive conflict zones, he adds, while helping to minimise the environmental impact of tourism.
Colombia has more than 1900 different species of birds, but to help catalogue exactly what species there are, the participants went for a hike in the nearby jungle.
They also took along Carolina Soto, leader of the participatory science research group at Colombia's Humboldt Institute, and durable tablets loaded with iNaturalist, an online social network where users share biodiversity information like photos and location data of the species they find.
The hope is that other users (usually scientists) can help the ex-combatants to identify what unique species they have, so they can find tourists who would pay top dollar to stay and hike in Colombia’s remotest regions to find those species – while also helping science.
“People were very motivated about learning new things regarding technology in conservation,” Soto says.
Although some of the ex-guerilla are already “pretty cool photographers”, he adds, the lack of IT infrastructure in their home regions, lack of equipment and, unfortunately, a lack of basic reading skills are challenges for the future.
One of the hikers was Hugo Ramirez, who once fought in the remote jungles of Vichada, but now works as an advocate for ex-guerillas at Economías Sociales del Común (Ecomun) in Bogotá.
He says the ex-guerillas spent many years in the jungle and saw it as home, but really “only looked at it as a natural landscape”.
“But now we are looking at them in scientific terms; we are seeing it with much more added value,” he says.
Ramirez saw the workshops as valuable not just for the technical knowledge that will allow them to create businesses and catalogue biodiversity, but also for the ability to bring together what had previously been disparate, dispersed efforts, including birdwatching, cultural tourism and guided rafting.
“Now we’ve made contacts – and friends,” he says with a smile, “For us, it was a crucial workshop and we have a deep gratitude, especially for Australia and Professor Jaime that made this possible.”
Gongora says the point of the workshop was to bring the ex-combatants together with scientific organisations and with each other, so they could share their stories and experiences.
"This isn't just about capacity building, it’s about capacity development, which means that in the future these groups will be able to find and manage their own funding," he says.
But for him, there was also an element of giving back.
"I grew up in the countryside in Cundinamarca department in Colombia, and in the late 90s I had already earned my undergraduate degree and was looking for somewhere to continue my studies in genetics,” he says. "Violence was wracking Colombia at that time and I decided to take up an opportunity in Australia."
He has now been based in Australia for over 20 years and has studied everything from crocodiles to camel beauty standards.
"My mother always said it was important to give back and after 20 years in Australia, I wanted to find a way to give back to Colombia,” he says.
Sitting with him as he watches Hugo and the other ex-combatants go back to their home regions, with fresh ideas and a new support network of peers and scientists, there was a sense that he may have just found a way to do that.