From Conflict To Conservation: Colombia’s Ex-Combatants Become Citizen Scientists


Civil unrest has ravaged Colombia for over half a century, with the prolonged conflict between the far-left guerrilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government. A peace agreement was negotiated between them in 2016, ending 52 years of war. Land is political in Colombia, and it is the power struggle for land rights that has driven conflict, mortality, displacement, and environmental destruction.

Throughout the conflict, FARC held authority over more than 30 percent of Colombia’s territory, with a heavy presence in the country’s remote forested regions, including the Colombian Amazon. As a guerrilla group they financed their activities primarily through the illegal trade of cocaine and gold. To conceal the movement of soldiers and illicit trading, they coexisted with local rural and Indigenous communities. Offsetting the humanitarian crisis that the civil war created and serving their own vested interests, FARC imposed rules against deforestation within its territory.

During warfare, Colombia’s ecosystems were well preserved and remained relatively untouched from development. Due in part to conflict, as well as lack of infrastructure and remote geography, 53% of land is still covered by tropical rainforest. Colombia is described as a mega biodiversity hotspot, supporting 10 percent of all known species worldwide. It is home to more than 56,000 recorded species, in which at least 9,000 are endemic, making Colombia the world’s second-most biodiverse country after Brazil.

Biodiversity remained largely unknown during FARC’s occupancy. As a result, Colombia’s natural environment is not as well documented in comparison to other South American countries. As ongoing conflict prevented scientists from monitoring and protecting biodiversity, it is now a race against time to document the nation’s rich biodiversity before some species face extinction.

The nation’s newly discovered peace and stability risks exposing ecosystems and resources to exploitation.  Peace has come at a price with previously inaccessible, preserved ecosystems now susceptible to deforestation for illegal logging, mining, and cattle grazing. Since the peace agreement deforestation has increased in 79% of protected areas.

To ensure environmental protection, it is crucial to engage and empower local communities. Conflict emerged conservation opportunities and resources have been redirected to the latter. More than 14,000 former combatants needed to be reintegrated back into society, and as they hold local ecological knowledge having spent many years in forested areas, the former-fighters now work alongside researchers studying Colombia’s wildlife.

Promoting the protection of biodiversity contributes to peacebuilding with ex-combatants playing an active role. Peace with Nature is a training programme led by Jaime Gongora, a Colombian wildlife geneticist from the University of Sydney. He believes conservation seeks to empower by giving ex-combatants a new purpose, providing them with citizen science skills. The workshops are designed to equip participants with basic conservation skills and sustainable business practices, such as ecotourism. The project aims to promote sustainable development and improve livelihoods whilst protecting biodiversity.

Training involves learning techniques for biodiversity inventories, taxonomic identification, obtaining specimens, plant cataloguing, and wildlife sightings. Participants also share their traditional knowledge of medicinal plants and bush food. The programme provides an engaging and reciprocal learning environment. Ex-combatants have produced local biodiversity inventories, including the use of the app and online network iNaturalist whose work contributes to the global scientific community and helps form a greater understanding of Colombia’s natural environment. Since the peace agreement, over 150 new animal and plant species have been discovered. Research could also help shape environmental decision-making as part of the peace process and help limit exploitation of resources.

However, peacebuilding has not been readily extended to Colombia’s indigenous communities. Researchers and environmental activists have primarily advocated for the protection of national parks; however, critical environmental monitoring and modelling have not been conducted in indigenous territories. Colombia has a poor indigenous rights record with deforestation, land confiscation, illegal extraction, forced displacement, and violence against indigenous people. This year alone, at least 95 human rights defenders have been murdered; this is a 61 percent increase from the same period last year.

The nature of Colombia’s conflict is driven by a complex dynamic of socio-ecological factors. Colombia provides an example of how post-conflict reconciliation can create conservation opportunities and improve the livelihoods of former soldiers. The Peace with Nature project may provide a positive learning experience for other countries or regions plagued with poor governance, ongoing or recent conflict, and diverse ecosystems and cultures.

Note: In-person training has been suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic with plans to offer virtual workshops instead.

Jenna Homewood

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