In this post, Jorge Ari Noriega, a Colombian researcher working in functional ecology, shares his experience in researching during times of conflict and difficulty – and hope.
It was a cold and slightly cloudy night of the summer of 1998 in the middle of the Amazon jungle in Colombia. It had been a long day of fieldwork. That day we had woken up very early to look for the herds of howler monkeys (Alouatta seniculus); after eating a plate of beans and slightly burnt rice, we decided to go to bed early, not knowing what the next day would bring us. As I woke up in my hammock, I realized that the floor of our sleeping quarters was completely covered by guerrillas, who had arrived during the night and had used our camp to rest. The presence of armed guerilla groups was not something unusual; it was something that happened intermittently at the field station since it was located within their territory.
For several decades, doing science in Colombia implied getting used to, and adapting to, working in areas with the presence of armed groups. In many cases our work required permission from these groups. We sometimes had to take great risks, and in other cases, needed to leave equipment behind or dismantle projects because it was no longer safe to return to certain areas. For many years, researchers in Colombia had to include maps of the potential “danger zones” in their project proposals, and proceed with the execution of these at a risk to their own lives.
This situation was probably the main motive behind my decision to go to Spain to do my Ph.D. studies in 2014. Spain was a country that was at peace, despite having also suffered a lot of violence from armed groups, such as ETA, and other complex moments of social conflict. For five years in Europe I got used to the peace, and to the safety of going to the field at any time. It was wonderful to travel alone and stay in the area and not fear for my life, not having to ask permission from any armed group or risk my life to enjoy and research nature.
In 2016, after more than 50 years of war, the Colombian government signed a peace treaty with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). This treaty, in the minds of many researchers, made them believe that it was possible to return to those amazing places where we had worked before or even go where nobody has been. When I returned to Colombia in 2018, I was excited by the idea of going back to the field, of going to places where I had worked or dreamed about. However, upon my return, I found that many dangers still remained, not only by the existence of dissident armed groups, but also because of the presence of land mines and complex social problems. This is when I realized that I had the responsibility to participate in the resolution of this post-conflict situation, and that I could not continue to avoid the complexity of the social context in Colombia. It was necessary to face the situation urgently and contribute to its improvement.
Like many things that happen in life, by pure coincidence one day at the end of 2018, I met a childhood friend, Carlos Valderrama, in a local bar. Carlos had been working with the NGO WebConserva in one of the most complex areas of the country. La Serranía de San Lucas is a place with a history of heavy-armed conflicts, illegal crops, illegal mining, and all the possible problems that you can imagine. The first program of volunteer substitution of illicit yields, from coca crops to fruits, corn, cocoa, and coffee started in October of 2016. Despite the support and economic stimuli from the government, this replacement of crops has unfortunately been very slow and not all farmers in the region have decided to join. In this context, Carlos has been leading a fantastic project with coffee growers in the region, evaluating the presence of large mammals, especially large carnivores, in areas that have the potential to serve as key corridors for conservation purposes. Then, after having some drinks and sharing our work perspectives, we came up with the idea of incorporating camera traps and dung beetles as bioindicators to evaluate the effect of these corridors in the recovery of the mammal fauna and the ecosystem services in the area. As a result, we are generating tools to evaluate the management plans, while raising awareness about the conservation of large carnivores and improving the livelihood of farmers.
For this project, we have been travelling to La Serranía for the last two years, collecting all the data needed to integrate this information. Although the region is not entirely safe, as there are still some small and isolated armed groups, some illegal extraction mines, and the possibility of encountering personal mines, the risk is worth it. On our last field trip, the camera traps we had installed captured a bear with her calf, a unique sight to see. In addition, our pitfall traps collected what we believe may be a new species of dung beetle known to science. In general terms, our preliminary results point out that the existence of coffee crops neighboring the forests provides a buffer zone that mitigates the negative effects of anthropic perturbations and contribute to the conservation of biodiversity.
Unfortunately, this year, the COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted our field trips to the area and our monitoring samplings. This complex public health situation has affected coffee cultivators in many ways, especially causing issues with product transport and delivery, and leading farmers to have to sell the coffee at a lower price. In addition, many of these areas, being so far from urban centers, are strongly deprived of specialized medical aid and assistance, with difficult and reduced access to hospitals, causing a higher risk to the population if COVID reaches those areas. However, this has not prevented us from keeping in contact with the farmers, who are highly motivated to work towards the conservation of their forests and the animals that live there. Many of them send us photos and messages of the forests, of the coffee crops and especially of the beetles and other animals like spectacled bears, cougars, and small mammals that they see every day, and they are very excited to continue to play a key role in these research project.
Just for the last few decades, these same families suffered heavily because of the armed conflict, in which they lost their children and other family members. During that time, they also grew cocaine which was their only significant source of income in the region. Now, with crops like coffee, cacao, or fruits, they are learning how to live their lives in peace and be able to raise their children without the fear of war taking them away. They are regaining their freedom and peace. More than that, these farmers are playing a crucial role in rebuilding the country, while helping with the conservation and preservation of biodiversity, functional processes, and related ecosystem services. Finally, thanks to these farmers, I am contributing to the peace that my country deserves, contributing to the study and conservation of our biodiversity, and showing that when you want something with great force and you fight for it, it is possible to achieve your dreams.