From soldier to scientist

The Amazon rainforest spans 8 countries – Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana and Suriname. It occupies half of the world’s rainforest area and is the largest and most species-rich tropical rainforest in the world.

  Deep in the Colombian Amazon rainforest, dozens of sweaty workers navigate a maze of kapok and rubber trees. Armed with machetes, they hacked back and forth through the thick vines, accomplishing their mission with purpose — cataloging and protecting endangered species. Years ago, the guerrillas might have been tracking enemy soldiers, or preparing to kidnap a political prisoner. Now, their targets are even more elusive: giant otters, nimble brown spider monkeys, very eerie Dracula orchids, colorful mayflowers, and more.
best fighter ever

  The conflict erupted in 1948 when a popular presidential candidate from Colombia’s left-wing Liberal Party was assassinated. His death sparked riots that culminated in a decade-long armed conflict between the Liberals and Conservatives. After 10 years and 200,000 deaths, the two parties agreed in 1957 to create a two-party political system called the National Front. Although it ended “violent organisations”, the system was overwhelmingly bipartisan and political leaders identified as guerrilla ringleaders were excluded.

The walking palm, native to the rainforests of Central and South America.

Ex-combatants learn how to use cameras

The brown spider monkey is one of the rarest primates in the world

Wildlife geneticist Jamie Gongora, presenting an armadillo found in a biodiversity survey.

The side-necked turtle, also known as the South American river turtle, is at risk of extinction due to overhunting.

  One such organization is the Communist Party of Colombia. Communism first became active in Colombia after World War I, a result of the huge wealth gap between the working class and the big landowners. Many of these people established communes in rural Colombia that the government initially ignored. Commune officials demanded land reform, better conditions for farmers, and said they wanted to protect the unarmed from government intrusion. But in 1964, Colombian troops began to invade and destroy the communes. Manuel Maruranda was forced to flee the government’s raids on the country’s communist organizations into the jungle, eventually reorganizing the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC or FARC-EP for short). In 1966, FARC was incorporated by the Colombian Communist Party as its armed force. It used to be the largest, most well-organized, best-equipped, and best-fighting guerrilla in Colombia.
  In the following decades, the number of FARC has increased and decreased. According to reports, the organization had about 8,000 to 10,000 members in May 2000, divided into 7 groups and 63 fronts, each with about 40 to 150 partisans. It was not until the beginning of the 21st century that the number of members of the organization was fixed at 15,000. It was during this time that Ramirez joined FARC, where he is currently a participant in Project Gongora. At the time, FARC was a very powerful organization. Members of the group still fought for the communist cause, but the group was also heavily involved in drug trafficking, illegal gold mining, kidnapping and extortion. These guerrilla fighters later attracted the attention of other countries whose political and economic interests were threatened by the group, including the United States. From 2000 to 2015, the United States provided $10 billion in military aid to help the Colombian government fight drug smuggling and terrorism. On May 16, 2014 FARC agreed to “End the Drug Trade”.
  In 2016, after half a century of armed conflict, FARC signed a peace treaty with the Colombian government.

FARC founder Manuel Maruranda

What can we do now that there is no war?

  Emerging from decades of occupation, these erstwhile guerrilla fighters are suddenly faced with the question: “What now?” Part of the peace agreement stipulates that the Colombian government will provide financial support to former FARC members for several years . Afterwards, they must live independently.
  So far, ex-combatants have faced enormous difficulties on their way back to civilian life. In mid-2020, Colombia’s urban unemployment rate soared to 15.4%. Finding work is difficult for many, and it can be especially challenging for former partisans. Colombian citizens are still skeptical of them, and many have been unemployed for decades.

  ”It’s hard,” said Hugo Ramírez, who joined FARC in 2001 at the age of 17. “There are so many people in absolute poverty, and we still see children dying of hunger.”
  Wildlife Genetics at the University of Sydney But journalist Jamie Gongola saw an opportunity. The rainforest plays an integral role in Colombia, the second most biodiverse country on Earth, with more than 56,000 species calling it home. Home to rare species, from pink dolphins to the critically endangered Magdalena River turtle, and countless undiscovered plants, it’s a naturalist’s dream paradise. However, previously, due to the occupation of FARC, researchers could not enter, resulting in the natural resources here being “isolated” for decades. Now, after peace negotiations, who better to explore and protect the biodiversity here than the guerrillas who once lived here?
Bush life plus learning makes conservationists

  In 2017, Gongola founded the “Peace with Nature” series of workshops in Guaviare, Colombia, where ex-combatants learn about conservation. Hopefully they can apply these skills to ecotourism projects in the future, such as creating new nature trails. Hopefully they will become citizen scientists. Workshops are led by a multidisciplinary team of teachers, including conservationists and biologists. These experts mentored more than 100 ex-guerrillas through brainstorming, combining their knowledge of life in the jungle with a rigorous scientific method. Teach them how to take plant samples, how to use binoculars, and the best techniques for observing wildlife. “The idea is to equip these fighters with biodiversity knowledge. This work can help them integrate into social activities,” Gongola explained.
  Today, Gongola returns to Colombia for training three or four times a year. Lasts about a week. For Gongola, who grew up in rural Colombia, returning home is a joy. He talks about his childhood playing in nature, building makeshift huts with friends, and observing the majestic wildlife of the jungle. Gongora’s love of wildlife continued into adulthood. In 1999, he left Colombia to study in Australia for a PhD in animal genetics. Images of the war, however, often come to mind – a conflict whose complex history spanned nearly 70 years before a peace deal was struck.
  Ramirez’s account of his time living with the guerrillas is twofold: a time spent studying in the majestic Colombian rainforest, and a time of great loss and trauma. There is a price to be paid for living under the constant threat of enemy fire, no matter how beautiful the surroundings may be. Ramirez recalls witnessing friends die in horrific ways, some blown up by aerial bombs and others shot from trees by Colombian troops.

Brown Flycatcher? Perched on a bare branch to catch prey

Dracula orchid that looks like a monkey face.

Ex-guerrilla uses binoculars to spot birds in Colombian jungle

Owl butterflies are known for their large eye spots, which are similar to those of owls.

During mating rituals, male rhinoceros beetles use their horn-like protrusions to drive away rivals.

The plant is called pusy and is sometimes used to make fences and animal shelters.

A Colombian police officer accompanied the group on field investigations

The Umbrella Bird of the Amazon, named for its umbrella-like crest, forages in the rainforest canopy

Gongola and his collaborator Jaime Eraso observe their surroundings from a lake near the Guaviare River

More than 60 species of cicadas live in the Colombian rainforest

  Still, Ramirez insisted the bloodshed was only a small part of his life at FARC. When he wasn’t patrolling, he and his comrades would study the writings of communist scholars and learn skills such as medicine and cartography.

  Most importantly, Ramirez remembers the moments he spent with the local people. Because his team is constantly on the move to avoid government surveillance, he often encounters neglected members of the Colombian diaspora. Ramirez said the guerrillas would share with locals sustainable ways of living, such as the practice of medicine, and how to live in an ecologically responsible way. Former FARC members were taught a lot by the Aboriginal people they encountered, who had a long history and experience in conserving biodiversity and forest trees through traditional sustainable agricultural practices. “The real purpose of FARC is to drive positive social change,” Ramirez added.
From soldier to citizen scientist

  Gongora, a wildlife geneticist at the University of Sydney, was halfway around the world in Australia when the fighting stopped. Shortly after the peace agreement was signed, Federica di Palma, an evolutionary genomicist at the University of East Anglia and program director of the Columbia Grow Project, invited him to join a variety of research, academic and government institutions across Colombia in this initiative. UK government funded project. The project aims to promote bioscience and biodiversity in Colombia, and another sister organization, ECOMUN, promotes ecotourism. One of the main goals of the Colombian Growth Plan is to create a “bioeconomy” for citizens by creating new businesses that participate in the monitoring and conservation of local flora and fauna.
  Gongola agreed, but he found that the project was missing something important: former FARC members. The Colombian government’s restructuring plan found that about 40 percent of former guerrillas had previous experience in environmental protection. According to Gongora, these people are crucial to creating a bioeconomy in Colombia. As a naturalist, he had always aspired to study the jungles of his home country. Now, there is a real army ready to help.
  He then provided participants with a series of crash courses in conservation practices, such as: learning how to observe directly; how to conduct indirect surveys; how to track animals based on footprints and feces; and how to collect specimens in a non-invasive manner. They also learn how to set up and use tracking cameras and have access to taxonomy identification resources. According to Gongola, many people are particularly interested in learning how to count flora and fauna.
  By learning these skills, ex-combatants can help researchers conduct research while customizing their own ecotourism programmes. For example: in one study, they estimated how much it would cost an avid bird watcher to spot one of the countless rare species in the Colombian rainforest; They can serve as dedicated guides on building new nature trails.
  After decades living in the jungle, former FARC members can now share what they’ve learned. Like how to easily identify medicinal plants. Take “yoco,” a tropical vine whose sap is used to treat fever, nausea, and vomiting. Former FARC members also introduced researchers to rarely observed wildlife behaviors. “Some of them also learned to track animals from indigenous people,” Gongora said.
  Building on this wealth of jungle knowledge, Gongora immerses his students in the complex science of biodiversity: learning the technical terms and scientific names of the different species they learn about in the wild, while unraveling the subtle natural connections to maintain ecosystems . In other words, these former guerrillas were given the tools and methods to scientifically study and analyze what they observed during their years living in the Amazon rainforest. Ramirez said: “I have a deeper understanding of the jungle, and I cherish and love it more.”
save the forest

  However, with this love comes fear of losing the rainforest they once knew. When the FARC occupied the Colombian Amazon, the areas remained protected from unsustainable agricultural activities and development initiatives such as oil drilling and palm oil cultivation. “We approach ecosystems with a forester mentality, we have a conservationist mentality,” Ramirez said. If development has to cut down one tree, plant 10 more. Besides that, they responsibly remove all trash and try to be as environmentally friendly as possible while camping.
  The swift withdrawal of the former FARC from the area left an unregulated vacuum that the Colombian government has done little to fill. Just four years after the peace treaty was signed, the once-occupied jungle area has experienced severe deforestation. Loggers cut down trees and some areas were razed to make room for unsustainable cattle ranching. Meanwhile, illegal gold diggers are destroying once pristine habitats. In 2017, Colombia saw a 65 percent increase in deforestation from the previous year; by 2018, nearly half a million acres of jungle had been lost. What was once a lush center of biodiversity is now like a pale plane littered with the dead skeletons of ancient trees. Ramirez refers to these areas as cemeteries.

Colombia sends special forces to fight illegal mining

  But Gongora hopes that the efforts of the Peaceful Living with Nature project will help protect the rapidly shrinking Colombian rainforest. For example, participants could present their ecotourism programs to leading research institutions in Colombia. In these forums, project members can apply for funding for projects that may provide them with new livelihoods and avenues for reintegration, while identifying areas in the increasingly threatened jungle that need protection.
  In the long run, Gongora’s goal is not just to help former FARC soldiers reintegrate into society. He hopes that participants will also share the techniques they have learned with local communities, join forces to protect their common home and expand the number of people fighting to protect the Colombian Amazon rainforest.
  Participants in the Gongola project are expected to become part of an army of Amazonian citizen scientists, fostering interest in the environment across Colombia through their ecotourism programs. For Ramirez, the only way to save the rainforest is to inspire the same deep love for the rainforest in others. “We need to instill a love for the rainforest in people from an early age. It’s the care and love a person should have for biodiversity,” he said.

Comments Off on From soldier to scientist
error: Content is protected !!