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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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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