Former guerrillas becoming conservationists

13 August 2019
Protecting biodiversity in Colombia
Researchers from the University of Sydney and the Earlham Institute are working with ex-combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (People's Army FARC-EP) to grow their capability to protect the country's valuable biodiversity.
We are providing a pathway for the former-guerillas to become citizen scientists and protect biodiversity in Colombia.
Associate Professor Jaime Gongora
FARC-EP ex-combatants participating in an initiative to equip them with skills to protect Colombia's biodiversity

FARC-EP ex-combatants participating in an initiative to equip them with skills to protect Colombia's biodiversity

Strengthening biodiversity

The initiative will use the power of nature to drive sustainable development and empower former members of the FARC-EP to become conservationists. This is a vital step to enable them to contribute to environmental projects, improve their livelihoods and reincorporate into society.

Colombia ranks second in the world in terms of biodiversity, which is not only important for the country’s natural heritage and preservation of unique species but also to improve social equity and economic development. The country has been through almost 55 years of internal conflict, which has resulted in more than 200,000 people killed and millions of displaced people and victims.

FARC-EP ex-combatants sighting birds in Colombia

FARC-EP ex-combatants sighting birds in Colombia

Reincorporation of guerilla fighters

A recent survey of FARC-EP members by the Colombian Agency for the Reincorporation and Normalisation indicates more than 4,000 have environmental conservation skills, more than 7,000 have skills in agriculture, with 10 percent interested in veterinary science, aquaculture and animal production and 60 percent interested in agriculture. 

The peace agreement between the rebels (FARC-EP) and the Colombian government signed in 2016, has created a new socio-political environment providing an opportunity to link biodiversity to the reincorporation of more than 10,000 FARC-EP ex-members into Colombian civil society. It has also opened opportunities to access geographical areas that were not possible to study before because of the conflict.  

The project - funded from the GROW Colombia research program at Earlham Institute led by Professor Federica Di Palma – involves training workshops in areas of biodiversity for ex-combatants to contribute their experience and acquire new skills for conservation and sustainable biodiversity. 

Associate Professor Jaime Gongora teaching FARC-EP ex-combatants conservation skills

Associate Professor Jaime Gongora teaching FARC-EP ex-combatants conservation skills

Empowering FARC-EP ex-combatants

Project lead Jaime Gongora, Associate Professor of Conservation Biology and Animal Genetics at the University of Sydney, said: “This is the first step for the ex-combatants to contribute to inventories of biodiversity in their communities, participate in expeditions organised by the central government and local universities, and develop ecotourism projects. As a result they will be better informed when considering biodiversity, conservation and environmental sciences.

"These skills have the potential to generate sustainable activities based on green markets, enhance their tertiary education and professional futures and help with the reincorporation process.”

“We are providing a pathway for the former-guerillas to become citizen scientists and protect biodiversity in Colombia,” said Professor Gongora - a dual national with Australian and Colombian citizenship - from the Sydney School of Veterinary Science.

The participants established their own national committee and were given the tools to coordinate and promote their own biodiversity and scientific tourism initiatives. Cross-institutional working groups (government, academic, scientific institutions and agencies) were formed to support and initiate biodiversity and scientific tourism as part of the reincorporation process.

Former FARC-EP ex-combatant Juan Camilo Antonio is a member of the Social Economies of the Common Council that looks after more than 120 economic and social organisations towards the reincorporation of FARC ex-combatants.

“FARC-EP contributed to the conservation and maintenance of important ecosystems in this country. The current training by GROW Colombia is the first initiative at the national level that enables ex-combatants to put their local knowledge of nature in a context of science and establish a national body to coordinate their biodiversity and ecotourism initiatives. This is just the beginning in exploring the potential that biodiversity can have for the reincorporation of FARC-EP including for the establishment of ecotourism initiatives,” Mr Antonio said. 

Professor Federica Di Palma, Director of BRIDGE-Colombia and Director of Science at Earlham Institute said: “The development and delivery of our ex-combatant training is a great achievement. Our GROW Colombia program aims to strengthen biodiversity characterisation, conservation and management to sustainably grow the bioeconomy in one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, while ensuring social inclusion through equitable partnership. 

“The latter is exemplified by this achievement and it comes at a crucial time for Colombia as it seeks to give root to the fragile shoots of peace, secure political stability and socially integrate post-conflict communities.”

This project received support from the Social Economies of the Common (ECOMUN) and the Agency for Reincorporation and Normalisation (ARN). GROW-Colombia is supported by a Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF-RCUK) grant led by the Earlham Institute (United Kingdom) and in partnership with the University of Sydney (Australia), other UK and Colombian institutions.

Related articles