Associate Professor Jaime Gongora pictured with an armadillo during his Peace with Nature work. [Credit: Jon Spaull]
The program, Peace with Nature, led by Associate Professor Jaime Gongora, was first established in 2017 and has been instrumental in empowering former combatants who once took refuge in remote forested areas and now share a deep affinity for conserving biodiversity.
Peace with Nature is comprised of a series of virtual and in-person workshops with diverse themes and hands-on field activities, equipping participants with the skills to document Colombia's unique plants and animals, develop nature-based enterprises and cultivate sustainable tourism.
The program has trained more than 350 ex-combatants and local community members from across Colombia, with a significant concentration in the Amazon region.
“There were thousands of former guerillas looking to improve their livelihoods and reincorporate into society when I began the project, but from the shadows of conflict they began emerging as business owners whose weapons have been replaced by tools of conservation,” said Associate Professor Gongora, from the School of Veterinary Science.
“Peace with Nature has become a blueprint for ecological research and social transformation in post-conflict regions, demonstrating how scientific and social progress come hand-in-hand.
“Biodiversity knowledge, generated through science and support from researchers, can drive the development of sustainable business, foster economic growth, promote social inclusion, empower communities and protect the environment.
“The ex-combatants I’ve been working with are documenting all sorts of life in their territories, which is an extremely important first step in environmental protection.”
Colombia has one of the highest poverty levels in Latin America and is home to more than 56,000 species, 9,000 of which are native to the area, making it the second most biodiverse country on Earth.
But the research and protection of the country’s natural treasures have been significantly hindered by more than 50 years of armed civil conflict, which killed more than 220,000 people and left over nine million victims.
The 2016 peace agreement between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the federal government marked a turning point, granting access to critical ecoregions that were once too dangerous to travel to.
“While this helped advance the documentation of biodiversity, it unintentionally led to an increased deforestation by more than 65 percent across the country and 150 percent in protected areas,” Associate Professor Gongora said.
“One of the messages that Peace with Nature promotes is that ‘you cannot take care of or love what you do not know’, so the first step in sustainable conservation is documenting the biodiversity of the territories.”
One notable Peace with Nature achievement is the partnership with Manatú, an ecotourism venture founded by ex-combatants in the country’s south, on the border of the Amazon rainforest and Orinoquía grasslands.