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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Unemployed Single Women Are Saving Fish and Making Money by Farming Sea Sponges

This article was reprinted with permission from World At Large—a news website which covers politics, nature, science, health, and travel.

In an area characterized by poverty, overexploitation of sea resources, and high rates of unemployment, these women from Zanzibar are beginning to farm sea sponges as a more reliable source of income.

Organized by Marine Cultures, a small Zanzibar-focused nonprofit headquartered in Zurich, 3 to 4 sea sponge farms are being launched every year to help unemployed and single mothers support their families.

Historically relying on seaweed for income, the people of Jambiani have been unable to rely on the trade because of disruptions in production from diseases and pests, and the crop’s low market price worldwide.

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Marine Cultures’s Christian Vaterlaus recently detailed how sponge farming became the primary idea for saving the livelihoods of these seaweed farmers in an article published in PANORAMA: a platform hosted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) for nonprofits and other organizations to host solutions that benefit the natural world.

Trial and error

“When searching for alternative means of income, many aspects such as the know-how of the parties involved, eco-friendliness, market opportunities, investment requirements, general acceptance of the method, scalability, and availability of resources need to be considered,” wrote Vaterlaus. However, “aquaculture of sponges was identified to be a suitable alternative to seaweed farming promising substantially higher incomes.”

A research trip to Southeast Asia and the Pacific yielded this idea after the group witnessed an organization working with community members to farm sea sponges and invertebrates with materials and methods that were both sustainable and very cheap.

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Sea sponges are used around the world as shower luffas and sustainable methods for removing makeup and paint. Since the sponges are anti-allergenic, dermatologists often recommend them for washing infants or for those with sensitive skin.

After Marine Cultures opened up their first sea sponge farm in Zanzibar back in 2009, they started testing more than 120 species of sponges to find one that was not only suitable for use in the bath, but also sustainable and environmentally harmless.

“We had to invest a lot of time to figure out best farming methods,” writes Vaterlaus.

Photo by Marine Cultures

Acquaculturalist’s almanac

Since their sponge farming operation was slow to get off the ground, Marine Cultures also started coral farming for the international aquarium trade in 2014.

Vaterlaus says that aquaculture practices—such as sea sponge farming—is “like land-based agriculture where years of experience and trial and error are key to shape best practices.” That being said, the hard work can certainly pay off; one single farm can feed 2 to 3 large families while 3 new farms can be launched each year.

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In contrast to pearl or fish farming, a sponge farm can be started with little to no effort while simultaneously empowering local women to learn the skills of a fisherman, marine biologist, merchant, entrepreneur, swimmer, and farmer all at once.

“To save the created jobs in the long-term, the coastal communities of Zanzibar have to learn more about the sea, the importance of corals, sea grass, mangroves and biodiversity to manage their natural marine resources themselves sustainably,” added Vaterlaus.

Photo by Marine Cultures

Sponge farming 2020

A Marine Cultures update published in February 2020 says the sponge farming operations are going well. The older sponge farms managed by some of the Jambiani women are producing more sponges these days than in previous years, as ecological conditions improve and knowledge is shared among participants.

Shemsa is just one of the Zanzibar women who have found success in sea sponge farming. She told Marine Cultures: “We’ve always lived in the lagoon with sponges—but only now have we learned how they help us to improve our lives and those of our children.

“Sometimes something is very close to us without us knowing how to make money with it,” she added. “Thanks to my training as a sponge farmer, I can feed my family, build my own house and have electricity. We may never achieve all of our goals, but I have already achieved half of mine.”

Reprinted with permission from World at Large

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