Peace with Nature: Rejuvenating war-torn Colombia with sustainable development

An initiative set up by an interdisciplinary researcher in biodiversity conservation from the University of Sydney is helping former Colombian guerilla fighters transition into environmental custodians in the war-torn country.
Associate Professor Jaime Gongora pictured with an armadillo during his Peace with Nature work. [Credit: Jon Spaull]

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when I began the project, but from the shadows of conflict they began emerging as business owners whose weapons have been replaced by tools of conservation,” said Associate Professor Gongora, from the School of Veterinary Science.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.

Amazonian umbrellabird, one of the species documented along the trail. [Credit: Cesar Arredondo]

Amazonian umbrellabird, one of the species documented along the trail. [Credit: Cesar Arredondo]

Through immersive experiences, the program has documented more than 300 species along a two-kilometre trail, such as the Amazonian umbrellabird and yellow-headed caracara, and improved the tourism experience in the process with citizen science, biodiversity-based mindfulness and birdwatching activities.

Yellow-headed-caracara. [Credit: Cesar Arredondo]

Yellow-headed-caracara. [Credit: Cesar Arredondo]

While areas neighbouring the ex-combatants’ ecological trail have been subject to deforestation, the land they manage has remained preserved in its natural state.

A recent visit from UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly underscored the program’s significance in peace-building and safeguarding Colombia’s natural legacy.

“Congratulations on completing your training to be the people who link your wonderful forests and trees and plants and wildlife to those visitors from around the world, who will enjoy your country but also help you have a livelihood that will support yourselves, your families and your communities,” Mr Cleverly said to the former guerilla fighters.

Two of Britain’s initiatives, the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and Partnering for Accelerated Climate Transitions (Colombia-UK PACT) program, have supplied substantial financial support of around $1 million, which is helping Peace with Nature continue into 2024.

The Colombia-UK PACT program aims to reduce emissions and foster inclusive economic growth in partner countries.

Support and facilitation by the British Embassy, United Nations Mission in Colombia, Agency for Reincorporation and Normalisation as well as multiple collaborators in the country and UK have been pivotal to the success of Peace with Nature.

Images: Available to download here.

Hero image: Associate Professor Jaime Gongora leading an exercise on full concentration and relaxation. [Credit: Dorlan Gomez, Peace with Nature]

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