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In Colombia, Turning FARC Fighters Into Ecological Warriors

In the rugged terrain of the Antioquia department, a group of former guerillas recently helped scientists discover 14 new plant and animal species.

Colombian soldiers in May in Icononzo, Colombia
Colombian soldiers in May in Icononzo, Colombia
Paula Casas Mogollón

MEDELLIN — The first thing he used to do when he woke up was grab his rifle, the weapon of war that accompanied him in the Colombian mountains for more than 30 years. But these days, Barbado — a key member of the FARC guerilla army's 36th Front — starts his days by looking over the plants and flowers he and a group of botanists recently collected as part of a research project.

Along with several of his former camp mates, the ex-fighter participated as a co-researcher on a two-week rainforest expedition near Anorí, in the northeastern department of Antioquia. The scientific mission was one of about 20 in Colombia being funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). It was also a major success: Barbado and the rest of the group's members discovered 14 new species.

For more than 50 years, during Colombia"s long civil war, wilderness areas occupied by guerillas were no-go zones for biologists and other scientists. Now that the conflict is over, researchers have finally been able to venture into largely untouched jungle that is teeming with biodiversity. And in the case of the rainforest around Anorí, controlled for decades by the FARC"s 36th Front, researchers invited some of those former fighters to join them.

The group's coordinator, Juan Fernando Díaz, explains that a conscious effort was made to include locals — including former guerillas — who had prior knowledge of the terrain and the plants and animals that live there.

"We wanted to work with the ex-fighters and other community members but not have them just be guides or assistants," he says. "We wanted them to be co-researchers. The knowledge they have of the territory, of the plants and animals, is very valuable." So too is their knowledge of which areas may still contain landmines, Díaz, biological sciences dean at EAFIT University in Medellín, admits.

Still, getting the former guerillas to leave their comfort zone — the so-called "reincorporation" camp where they'd been living since the peace accords were signed — was no easy task, the expedition coordinator acknowledges. The scientists visited the camp several times. They slept over, played football with the ex-fighters, and took the time to describe and explain their expedition project.

It was magic discovering how things look through a stereo microscope.

The ex-fighters were skeptical at first: What did the researchers really want from them? Why were they proposing going back into the jungle? What were they really up to? But little by little, Díaz and his colleagues gained the trust of the former FARC.

Joining the group on their jungle mission were specialists on different types of animal and plant groups. This helped in the process of identifying previously unknown species, such as an arboreal mouse of the genus Nyctomys. The team also discovered two new kinds of beetles, a lizard and nine plant species, including two types of orchids.

To verify that they were indeed new species, the researchers conducted DNA tests in laboratories in Medellín. "The ex-fighters were with us in the molecular biology laboratories where we worked with gene strings," says Díaz.

How exactly did the researchers explain the ins and outs of cellular biology and DNA to people who'd been so removed from society all those years? Díaz explains that he hired a group of education experts to develop a specific strategy for how and what to teach the ex-guerillas.

A sunny day in Medellin, Colombia — Photo: Daniel Garzon/VW Pics/ZUMA

"There was a different dynamic than you'd have with children, but we did start with some simple exercises to teach them. We focused, for example, on different morphological characteristics," he explains. "For them it was just magic discovering how things look through a stereo microscope, what DNA is, what it's like to put on a lab coat and prepare specimens for the museum. Learning all that opened up a completely new world for them."

The former fighters, together with the researchers and students, presented their results before an audience of 600 people at EAFIT University. Above all, they provided a striking example of the transformative power of education — further proof of just how important it is to invest in science. Still, Díaz does have one concern. So far, it's not clear whether the current government, under President Iván Duque, will continue supporting these types of initiatives.

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