Ex-Guerrillas Turn into Citizen Scientists Using Their Knowledge of the Colombian Jungle to Protect Biodiversity

Reprinted with permission from World at Large, an online journal focused on travel, foreign affairs, health and fitness, and the environment.

After 2016, when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a peace agreement with the Colombian government, scientists realized that it was suddenly safe to explore the rainforests, mountains, and savannas from which FARC waged a 50-year guerrilla war—and these areas are counted among the most biodiverse and least-explored places on earth.

A few biologists who longed to journey to the heart of these places also seized the opportunity as the perfect way to bring 14,000 former guerrillas back into society in a meaningful way that could benefit not only them, but the country’s stunning biodiversity.

Colombia is often referred to as the world’s most biodiverse country. Although this is a hard thing to designate, since many species around the world of all kinds remain undiscovered, she does lay claim to the most bird species anywhere on earth—both endemic and migratory.

Who better to help protect Colombia’s wild spaces than those who know them best, pondered Jaime Góngora, a wildlife geneticist at the University of Sydney who is originally from Colombia.

Góngora now leads a group of researchers from the United Kingdom, Australia, and 10 different Colombian scientific institutions in a program that trains ex‑guerrillas to study Colombia’s native plants and animals—a program which to date has uncovered nearly 100 previously-unknown species.

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Peace with Nature

Peace with Nature now unites scientists with guerillas to help protect Colombia’s biodiversity and aid in the post-conflict situation for thousands of people, 84% of whom, according to Góngora, are interested in pursuing, of all things, river habitat restoration as their post-conflict career path.

Góngora and his colleagues are only too happy to help, and Peace with Nature began hosting citizen scientist workshops to help train eager folks to find, identify, catalogue, and study wild plants, insects, birds, amphibians, and more.

The preparation work was long and hard – between 15 and 18 months according to Góngora.

“We did the first regional workshop last March in a remote ex-combatant village named Charras in the province of Guaviare at the interface of three major ecosystems in Colombia: Andes, Orinoquia, and Amazon,” says Góngora, in an interview with Science Magazine.

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“There, we did a more comprehensive workshop and inventory of an ecotourism trail identifying more than 120 plant and animal species, which were uploaded to iNaturalist”.

iNaturalist is an app used by citizen scientists around the globe, that allows naturalists to document their country’s biodiversity inventories and to inform and highlight potential ecotourists of attractions in their communities.

“In some of the workshops, we have the presence of the police and military forces along with the ex-combatants,” explains Góngora. “I think what has surprised me most is the opportunity that biodiversity offers for reconciliation and healing after an armed conflict. These workshops have been spaces for a respectful dialogue about biodiversity and nature”.

WATCH a video from Peace With Nature… (File photo by Nishaan ahmed)

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Tiny Forests Are Springing Up All Around Europe, Inspired By Japan, to Help Restore Biodiversity

Using the methods of Japan’s most famous botanist, European countries are beginning to dot their urban landscapes with tiny forests, as productive and biodiverse as any in wilderness areas, yet sometimes only as big as a tennis court.

The idea is that volunteers can plant densely-packed clusters of seedlings from indigenous plants to create a small functional ecosystem that can restore soil, protect resources like water and air quality, and act as a biodiversity hotspot that can have a measurable effect on both the local and regional environment.

Akira Miyawaki was the botanist who in 1970 observed that trees around Japan’s Shinto and Buddhist shrines tended to be native species, well-adapted to the soil and climate of the islands of Japan.

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He later found that only 0.06% of contemporary Japanese forests were indigenous forests, with the sizable remainder populated by non-native tree species, or planted in unnatural ways.

He pioneered a method of restoring indigenous forests on degraded or deforested land which had been devoid of humus. It came to be known as the Miyawaki method. Using this formula he created over 1,700 forests throughout Asia, 96.7% of which developed into a resilient ecosystem within ten years.

Miyawaki in Europe

Growing more than 10x faster, and possessing up to 20x more biodiversity potential than contemporary forests, the Miyawaki method is perfect for organizations like Urban Forests in France and Belgium, and the Tiny Forest initiative in Holland, with their strong desire to prevent the worst of climate change upon their nations’ relatively small landmass.

Urban Forest in Belgium – Instagram @urbanforestsbelgium

On March 2nd Urban Forests finished a 22-species, 1,200-tree Miyawaki forest in Toulouse, France, planted on 400 square meters—the first such forest in Toulouse.

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“The plantations are made in a very dense way, in order to favor the cooperation between the species,” Audrey, one of Urban Forests’ volunteers explained to Actu Toulouse. “It captures more CO2 and trees grow up to ten times faster than in a conventional forest.”

It’s just one of many Urban Forests’ projects, and the fifth that the nonprofit has completed this year. In total their Miyawaki forests across Belgium and France consist of 21,000 trees over 7,000 square meters.

The Tiny Forest Initiative started in 2015 in the Dutch city of Zaandam by the Institute for Nature Education and Sustainability (IVN), has created 100 Miyawaki forests across the country, and had planned an additional 30 for the first three months of 2020.

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In 2017, ecologists at Wageningen University in Holland examined the newly planted mini-forests and concluded that tiny forests “increase the biodiversity compared to the nearby forest. Both the number of species groups and the number of individuals is generally higher than in the reference forests.”

They also found that biodiversity was improved because sunlight was able to reach more species of local plants known to local pollinators. The forests also provided “more variety in food and shelter for a higher diversity of animals like insects, snails, butterflies, amphibians, bugs, grasshoppers.”

“This is a great thing to do,” said wildlife researcher Eric Dinerstein in a recent scientific publication. “So this could be another aspect for suburban and urban areas, to create wildlife corridors through contiguous ribbons of mini-forest.”

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EU Plans to Raise $22 Billion Annually to Protect 30% of Land and Oceans for Biodiversity

The European Commission (EC) has made a concrete pledge to enshrine 30% of the EU’s land and oceans as protected zones by 2030. To reach this end they plan to raise 20 billion euro ($22 billion) every year for the next 10 years from private and public sources—both the EU climate fund and national budgets.

The EC believes that recovery from COVID-19 with biodiversity in mind will be key to restoring the health of both the environment and the economy.

The proposed strategy focuses on establishing binding targets to restore damaged ecosystems and rivers and bringing back pollinators to agricultural land, while reducing pollution, greening its cities, enhancing organic and biodiverse farming.

In its effort to improve forest health, part of the plan is to implement stricter protections and restoration projects for the remaining primary and old growth forests of Europe as early as next year.

This is especially important when researchers suggest that 60% of species assessed on the continent are in decline.

Farming for the Future

Biodiversity will receive another boost as the EC proposes changes to the agricultural landscape of Europe in a way that supports wildlife and pollinators. Such changes would include creating “high-diversity landscapes” in 10% of Europe’s farming acreage by hosting features like ponds, hedgerows, buffer strips between fields, and fallow land.

SEE: Farming in the Forest – A Chance to Reverse 1,000 Years of Destructive Land-Use Practices

Some experts are skeptical, but hopeful, the changes are implemented.

“It’s a big if, but then you are starting to look at healthy agriculture that can provide habitats for farmland birds and butterflies but also agriculture that can actually provide food at the end of the century,” Ariel Brunner, senior head of policy at Brussel’s BirdLife International said to the Guardian.

Wildlife in France, by Martina Misar-Tummeltshammer

The 2030 strategy would reinforce Europe’s natural resilience by dealing with agriculture and fisheries using the Farm to Fork strategy.

“The strategy sets concrete targets to transform the EUs food system, including a reduction by 50% of the use and risk of pesticides, a reduction by at least 20% of the use of fertilizers, a reduction by 50% in sales of antimicrobials used for farmed animals and aquaculture, and reaching 25% of agricultural land under organic farming,” reads the report.

The European Commission, which possesses authority to enforce European law, concludes finishes by calling on the European Parliament and Council to adopt the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity measures by 2021.

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