Peace with nature: helping former Colombian guerrilla fighters to become citizen scientists



Ex-combatants learned to survey birds, plants and other wildlife.
Jaime Gongora, Author provided

Jaime Gongora, University of Sydney and Federica Di Palma, Earlham Institute

Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world with more than 56,000 recorded species, some 9,000 of which are unique. However protecting and researching this natural treasure has been extraordinarily difficult during Colombia’s nearly 55 years of internal conflict.

Since the 2016 peace agreement 21 scientific bio-expeditions have been carried out, most in areas that were previously conflict zones. This has led to the discovery of more than 150 new animal and plant species.




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This flowering of research offers a new opportunity to the thousands of ex-combatants now looking for productive and peaceful work. We worked with former guerrillas in our project GROW-Colombia to train them to protect Colombia’s biodiversity.

Jaime Gongora led workshops with former guerrillas on the promise of biodiversity.
Mario Murcia, Author provided

Who are the ex-combatants?

A huge effort to reincorporate these combatants back into civilian life is under way. Paramount is finding suitable jobs, to rebuild the country and offer stable wages.

A recent census found the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the FARC-EP) consists of some 10,000 people. Ranging between their 20s and 40s, around three-quarters are men.

Around 40% of these ex-guerrillas have experience in environmental conservation, and 70% have agricultural skills. Some 10% would like to work in veterinary, aquaculture and animal production fields, 60% in agriculture, and 84% in terrestrial and river environmental restoration.

There is also increasing interest in ecotourism in the 26 Territorial Training and Reincorporation Spaces (ETCRs) where the ex-combatants are currently based.

Their interests, the new political environment, and nearly 20 tourism initiatives in the ETCRs provide a unique opportunity to promote biodiversity as part of the peace process.

Training ex-combatants to protect biodiversity

We wanted to teach ex-FARC-EP combatants some basic conservation skills and identify the potential of nature to create sustainable business opportunities.

We started with a national workshop with the representatives of 16 ETCRs from across the country. These members reflected on their personal and scientific perceptions of the natural world, mapped ecosystems in their local areas and canvassed ecotourism projects. We then discussed the contributions they made to protecting biodiversity before the peace agreement.

One participant, Curruco* had his own farm before being displaced by the armed conflict. He told us,

our participation in the workshops is evidence of our commitment to peace. We protected the fauna and flora during the conflict.

We then used case studies to teach our workshop members how to take inventory of the species in a given area, explored tourism of nature and conservation in Colombia and discussed business models for the use of biodiversity in ecotourism enterprises.

Some participants explore caves.
Mario Murcia, Author provided

One of the most interesting parts for the ex-combatants was learning techniques for making inventories. We used teaching stations where they learnt about indirect surveys, for example using footprints and faeces, and direct observation and capture. We covered the use of binoculars, trapping cameras, tablets and mobiles, access to taxonomic identification resources and some basic non-invasive sampling methods.

One of the participants, Solangie, had a remarkable knowledge of the Amazon forest. She said:

I enjoyed all the content of the training but I like the bird sightings and plant cataloguing the most because during my time as a combatant we were living among the fauna, including tapirs, reptiles, frogs and butterflies.

I was impressed with the training about plants because in our time in the jungle we used plants as medicine and health treatments.

We then used these skills in practical field work to collect and inventory plants, sight birds and explore caves. The resulting notes and photographs were documented with iNaturalist, an online repository considered a major drawcard in engaging the public in science around the world.

Participants graduated with new knowledge, skills and contacts in research and business.
Jaime Gongora, Author provided

Turning knowledge into business

We also wanted to give our participants a clear idea of how this knowledge could become profitable work. We hosted a business network forum, and 60 meetings were organised so FARC-EP ex-combatants could meet representatives of the major Colombian research institutions and agencies and gain support for their ecotourism and biodiversity initiatives.

Yesenia*, a mother of two, joined FARC at a young age after the paramilitary killed her parents. During the research, she said:

If we want this peace process to succeed it will require the continued involvement of the various components of society, including scientific institutions and universities.

Our work established two levels of organisation: a national biodiversity committee of ETCR representatives from across the country, and a committee of government and non-government institutions and agencies to coordinate and support their biodiversity and ecotourism initiatives.

All of this may sound relatively simple, but this is new and life-changing knowledge for people who were part of an armed conflict, fighting in the jungle against the government.




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One of us, Jaime, lived part of his life under this conflict, and found it very moving to see how the climate of trust has been changing. While there are, of course, considerable challenges, this was unimaginable before the peace agreements.


The authors would like to acknowledge the support of the University of Amazonia, Research Institute of Biological Resources Alexander Von Humboldt, Sinchi Amazonic Institute of Scientific Research, COLCIENCIAS-Colombia BIO, United Nations Development Programme, National Natural Parks Colombia, Vice-Ministry of Tourism, Social Economies of the Common, Agency for Reincorporation and Normalisation, Verification Mission of the United Nations, British Embassy in Colombia, ETCR participants, the GROW Colombia team at Earlham Institute, The University of East Anglia and The University of Sydney.The Conversation

Jaime Gongora, Associate Professor, Animal and Wildlife Genetics and Genomics, University of Sydney and Federica Di Palma, Director of Science, Earlham Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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A parasite attack on Darwin’s finches means they’re losing their lovesong



A Small Tree Finch from the Galápagos Islands with an enlarged nostril caused by a parasite.
Katharina J Peters, Author provided

Katharina J. Peters, Flinders University and Sonia Kleindorfer, Flinders University

A parasite known to infect beaks in some iconic Darwin finches on the Galapagos Islands is changing the mating song of male birds.

Our research, published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, reveals how the parasite deforms the beak. This has the effect of weakening the male bird’s mating call, and making it no longer clearly distinguishable from that of other closely related species.

A changed song can have an important effect on the male finch’s ability to find a mate.




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It’s another factor that could contribute to declining numbers of these already threatened birds on the Pacific archipelago, about 1,000km off the coast of South America.

A family song to impress

A male finch learns the mating song from his father, and produces the same song for the rest of his life.

It’s a simple tune consisting of one syllable repeated 3 to 15 times, depending on what species of finch he belongs to. Larger-bodied finch species produce a slower song with few syllable repeats, and smaller-bodied finch species produce faster song with many syllable repeats.

Whatever species of finch you belong to, hitting the high notes is important – because females prefer males who can produce such vocally challenging songs.

In the case of the Medium Tree Finch (Camarhynchus pauper), a critically endangered species that only occurs on Floreana Island of the Galapagos Islands, its species-typical song has a bright resonance that rings across the forest canopy.

Medium Tree Finch.
Author provided35.5 KB (download)

An accomplished male singer that can hit the high notes is quickly swooped up by a female looking to pair with a proficient singer.

The ‘Vampire’ parasite

The Vampire Fly – a suggested name for the parasite Philornis downsi given its blood feeding habits from dusk until dawn – was first discovered in a Darwin’s finch nest in 1997.

The parasitic Philornis larvae in a finch nest.
Sonia Kleindorfer, Author provided

Since then, the devastating impacts of its larval feeding habits on nestling birds have been coming to light. The adult fly is vegetarian, but the females lay their eggs into bird nests and their larvae feed on nestling bird beaks from the inside out.

Many Darwin’s finch species now have beaks with massively enlarged nostrils because of damage the feeding fly larvae have caused during the nestling stage. We discovered that a changed beak apparatus measurably affects the song of Darwin’s tree finches with consequences for pairing success.

A Medium Tree Finch male with extremely enlarged nostrils is unable to hit the high notes.

Medium Tree Finch with enlarged nostrils.
Author provided32.2 KB (download)

We found the same pattern in Small Tree Finches (C. parvulus) with enlarged nostrils.

Male finches that produce song with a narrower frequency bandwidth, because their song has a lower maximum frequency, have poor quality song. These males are less likely to be chosen by females, a pattern we documented in both the Medium Tree Finch and the Small Tree Finch.

Also, the song of Medium Tree Finches with enlarged nostrils sounds like the song of the Small Tree Finch.

Small Tree Finches.
Author provided29 KB (download)

When species merge

But confusion among the species and their mating songs may not necessarily be a bad thing for the future survival of individual finches – though it could herald the collapse of species lineages.

Previously, we discovered evidence of hybridisation in Darwin finches. This is where two separate species of finch breed which could potentially produce a new species, phase out one of the species, or cause the collapse of the two existing species into one.

We observed hybridisation driven by female Medium Tree Finches pairing with male Small Tree Finches.

When a female Medium Tree Finch inspects male Small Tree Finches in the forest, she pairs with one who produces high quality song, even if that male is from another species.

A Tree Finch with a normal beak and nostril size, so no infection from the parasite.
Katharina J Peters, Author provided

This female choice seems to be paying dividends, because hybrid pairs with greater genetic diversity also sustained fewer of the parasitic larvae in the nest. And that could lead to fewer birds with infected beaks.




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There are concerted efforts underway to develop control and eradication methods for P. downsi on the Galapagos Islands, building on a collaborative relationship between the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos National Parks. The Philornis downsi Action Group is an international consortium of concerned scientists working to develop biological control methods.

Our new research is an important step towards understanding how this invasive fly may be changing the evolutionary pathway of Darwin’s finches by literally changing the beak of the finch.The Conversation

Katharina J. Peters, Postdoctoral fellow, Flinders University and Sonia Kleindorfer, Professor of Animal Behaviour, Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Message to the EU: you have the chance to stop fuelling devastation in the Amazon



File 20190423 15224 ho9tw8.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Deforestation in the Amazon has accelerated since Brazilian president Bolsonaro scrapped environmental laws.
Shutterstock

Claire F.R. Wordley, University of Cambridge and Laura Kehoe, University of Oxford

The effects of European consumption are being felt in Brazil, driving disastrous deforestation and violence.

But the destruction can end if the European Union demands higher environmental standards on Brazilian goods. Hundreds of scientists and Indigenous leaders agree: the time to act is now, before it’s too late.




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In an open letter published today in the journal Science, more than 600 scientists from every country in the European Union (EU) and 300 Brazilian Indigenous groups asked the EU to demand tougher standards for Brazilian imports.

The letter calls on the EU to ensure a trade deal with Brazil respects human rights and the natural world.

Crucially, this can be done without harming Brazil’s agriculture, if already cleared land is used to its full potential. Indeed, in the long term, farming in the region depends on the rains brought by healthy forests.

Destruction of the Amazon under Bolsonaro

Brazil’s Indigenous people and the forests they protect are facing annihilation.

Controversial president Jair Bolsonaro is opening the Amazon rainforest to business and threatening Indigenous people who stand in the way. In his first hours in office, Bolsonaro gave power over Indigenous land to the Ministry of Agriculture, which is widely seen to be controlled by corporate lobbyists.




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In the months since, he has axed environmental roles in the government and planned three major building projects in the Amazon, including a bridge over the river itself.

As Bolsonaro scraps environmental laws, forests are being cut down faster than they have been in years. And the EU is helping drive this carnage: more than a football field of Brazilian rainforest is cut down every hour to produce livestock feed and meat for Europe.




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Although the situation may seem dire for the Amazon and its inhabitants, ongoing trade talks provide a chance to act.

Billions of euros flow to Brazil from business with the EU, its second-largest trade partner. Goods flowing in the other direction include environmentally and socially destructive livestock feed (usually soy grown on deforested land) which enters the EU on a tariff-free basis. Right now, European consumers have no way of knowing how much blood is actually in their hamburger. The ongoing EU-Brazil trade talks are therefore a powerful opportunity to curb Bolsonaro’s appetite for destruction.

With a side order of indigenous human rights abuse.
Laura Kehoe and Sara Lucena, Author provided

It is hard to overstate the case for strong action from Europe. People in Brazil – especially Indigenous and local communities – are being violently repressed when trying to defend their land against agricultural and mining companies.

Brutal repression and environmental catastrophe

This violence has reached record levels under Bolsonaro, with at least nine people murdered so far in April 2019. And genocide is a real possibility if nothing is done to protect Indigenous people and their land.

Alarmingly, Bolsonaro has even said:

It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians.

On top of the horrifying assault on Brazil’s original inhabitants, demolishing the country’s forests, savannas and wetlands would have devastating consequences for the world.

If the Amazon rainforest alone is destroyed, the resulting carbon emissions could make it extremely difficult to limit global warming to less than two degrees. Burning fossil fuels is often seen as the only culprit in climate breakdown, but tropical deforestation is the second-largest source of carbon emissions in the world.

Brazil’s forest loss 2001-2013 shown in red. Indigenous lands outlined.
Mike Clark/GlobalForestWatch.org, Author provided

Even losing part of the Amazon could cause a tipping point where the forests no longer create enough rain to sustain themselves. This would cause droughts that would drive many species to extinction, devastate farming in the region and likely cause further violence.

We must act now

We are not just at an ecological tipping point, but a social one, too. The world is waking up to the risks posed by destroying our climate and natural world. Climate change is considered the number one security threat by Brazilian people and by many European nations.

Deforestation could affect the Amazon’s diverse animal population, such as squirrel monkeys.
Ryan Anderton/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Europeans believe neither their country nor the EU is doing enough to protect our planet’s life support systems. As protests flare up in Europe over environmental crises, climate change will be a key issue in the upcoming European elections.




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As scientists, we use emotive words carefully. But our open letter calls on the EU to take urgent action because we are terrified of the consequences of Brazilian deforestation, both locally and globally.

We beg the EU to stand up for its citizens’ values and our shared future by making sure trade with Brazil protects, rather than destroys, the natural world on which we all depend.


Visit EUBrazilTrade.org for more information – including a list of parliamentary members standing in the European election who support this initiative. Register to vote in the EU elections here.The Conversation

Claire F.R. Wordley, Research Associate in Conservation Evidence, University of Cambridge and Laura Kehoe, Researcher in Conservation Decision Science and Land Use, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Scorpion Beetle (Onychocerus albitarsis)


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the Scorpion Beetle (Onychocerus albitarsis).

For more visit:
https://www.odditycentral.com/animals/the-elusive-scorpion-beetle-the-only-known-insect-capable-of-inoculating-toxins-through-its-antennae.html

Deforestation of Amazon in Peru


The link below is to an article that looks at deforestation of the Amazon in Peru for more gold mining.

For more visit:
https://news.mongabay.com/2019/03/record-levels-of-deforestation-in-peruvian-amazon-as-gold-mines-spreads/