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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Violence and killings haven’t stopped in Colombia despite landmark peace deal


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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Citizen scientists count nearly 2 million birds and reveal a possible kookaburra decline


Kerryn Herman, Deakin University

The fourth Aussie Backyard Bird Count has just ended, with nearly 2 million birds from 635 species submitted to the BirdLife Australia app. The count, which is in its fourth year, has created a national database of birds found in our backyards.

We don’t know yet exactly how many people participated this year, but more than 60,000 people submitted checklists in 2016. Participants span the whole country, though participation is highest in our urban areas. By surveying our backyards (rather than “good” bird spots), these citizen scientists provide ecologists – like me – with information from urban areas we would not otherwise sample.

This includes data on a range of common bird species that are not frequently analysed because these species are believed to be secure. One of the most surprising results is a decline in the frequency of occurrence of the laughing kookaburra across southeast Australia.

Counting birds

Everyone has a bird story – and fortunately for ecologists, everyone is willing to share them. With 85% of Australia’s population living in cities and towns, birds are an important connection to our natural environment.


BirdLife Australia

But birds are also good environmental indices. They’re generally easy to measure, they respond quickly to environmental change and we know a reasonable amount about the ecology of most species.

Between 1998 and 2014, BirdLife Australia volunteers collected a significant amount of data. This was used to develop a terrestrial bird index in 2015 – a bird “Dow Jones” to track our biodiversity. It was here that the decline in kookaburras was first identified.

The data were drawn from BirdLife Australia’s ongoing atlas project, now called Birdata. However, there are biases in this data set, as people obviously like to go birdwatching where they will see more birds. This may inflate the frequency of encountering some species and decrease the chances of encountering others – particularly rare and cryptic species.

For the last four years, we’ve asked volunteers to add to this data by counting birds around their home for a week in October, when many birds are highly active and visible. These counts complement the data already available in Birdata by allowing access to backyards across Australia, which are generally poorly represented in the larger data set.

While there are still limitations in the Backyard Bird Count data, such as the risk of mis-identification, for common species like the laughing kookaburra we can generally be confident that the identification is correct. Even if the same bird is counted multiple times, our models report only a species’ presence or absence, so inflated numbers don’t affect the trend.

Are kookaburras really declining?

The below figures show modelled trends for the kookaburra across metropolitan Melbourne and Sydney. These figures are derived from the volunteer-collected Birdata, much of which comes from green spaces and remnant vegetation in these landscapes.

I wondered whether these declines are true changes in the populations, or reflect a change in the way kookaburras are using the landscape, possibly moving into the matrix of urban backyards that just don’t get surveyed. Looking solely at the backyard count data, I found similar trends in the reporting rates of kookaburras as those in the models, supporting that this decline is at the population level. What started out in 2014 as a way of engaging the broader community with their birds is now collecting useful ecological data.

Further exploration of the ABBC data across other capital cities found some interesting things. In both Perth and Hobart, where the kookaburra is considered an introduced species, the birds are recorded more frequently than in Melbourne and across the ACT. In Perth, increases in 2016 compared to previous years suggest an increase in the species there.

Modelled trends for Kookaburras from 1998-2014. The figure on the left is for Melbourne, and on the right is for Sydney. The reporting rate shows the percentage of surveys where kookaburras were recorded as present. The thick black line is the modelled trend (with confidence intervals in dashed line), the pink line shows the statistically significant linear trend, the thin black line shows the monthly calculated reporting rate, and the green spots show acceleration (or a favourable change) in the trend. Note that due to modelling method, the ends of figures tend to blow out as there is no data from which to predict trend.
Unpublished models/K. Herman/BirdLife Australia, Author provided

While three years does not make a trend, Aussie Backyard Bird Count data from heavily urbanised areas suggest we are seeing a decline in this iconic species in the eastern capitals. Likely reasons for this are the loss of nesting hollows and possibly reductions in the availability of prey as we increasingly modify our urban landscapes. We don’t really know as this is not an area that has been researched.

We need citizen scientists

Collecting enough data (especially from the backyards of towns and cities) to detect these kinds of changes can be an overwhelming task. This is where citizen science programs like the Aussie Backyard Bird Count can help.

As well as helping ecologists track large-scale biodiversity trends, it also gives people the chance to connect with their natural environment and gain a greater appreciation of our unique fauna.

As with all citizen science projects, there are limitations in the data being collected. However, the Backyard Bird app has been designed to make counting as simple and standardised as possible, providing confidence in the tally of common and “iconic” species, and filling in the gaps found in other data sets.

The good old kookaburra is neither rare or cryptic. If anything, if people are seeking out “good” bird habitat to survey we would expect that kookaburras would be one of those species subject to inflated reporting. But this is not what we encountered.

The ConversationIf we are starting to see declines in species that we have traditionally considered secure, what does this mean for those that are already at risk? Once all the data from the Aussie Backyard Bird Count have been collated and vetted we will continue to explore the developing trends in Australia’s urban birds. Increasing engagement and awareness in our communities can help ensure our backyard birds are still around to count next year.

Kerryn Herman, Research Ecologist, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Citizen scientist scuba divers shed light on the impact of warming oceans on marine life



File 20171019 1045 3eh0e1.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A volunteer diver surveys marine life at Lord Howe Island.
Rick Stuart-Smith/Reef Life Survey, Author provided

Madeleine De Gabriele, The Conversation

Rising ocean temperatures may result in worldwide change for shallow reef ecosystems, according to research published yesterday in Science Advances.

The study, based on thousands of surveys carried out by volunteer scuba divers, gives new insights into the relationship of fish numbers to water temperatures – suggesting that warmer oceans may drive fish to significantly expand their habitat, displacing other sea creatures.

Citizen science

The study draws from Reef Life Survey, a 10-year citizen science project that trains volunteer scuba divers to survey marine plants and animals. Over the past ten years, more than 200 divers have surveyed 2,406 ocean sites in 44 countries, creating a uniquely comprehensive data set on ocean life.

Reef Life Survey takes volunteers on surveying expeditions at hard-to-reach coral reefs around the world.
Rick Stuart-Smith/Reef Life Survey, Author provided

Lead author Professor Graham Edgar, who founded Reef Life Survey, said the unprecedented scope of their survey allowed them to investigate global patterns in marine life. The abundance of life in warm regions (such as tropical rainforests and coral reefs) has long intrigued naturalists. At least 30 theories have been put forward, but most studies have been based on relatively limited surveys restricted to a single continent or group of species.

By tapping into the recreational scuba diving community, Reef Life Survey has vastly increased the amount of information researchers have to work with. Professor Edgar and his colleagues provide one-on-one training to volunteers, teaching them how to carry out comprehensive scans of plants and animals in specific areas.

Dr Adriana Vergés, a researcher at the University of New South Wales specialising in the impact of climate change on ocean ecosystems, said that the Reef Life Survey has already substantially improved our understanding of the marine environment.

“For example, Reef Life Survey data has greatly contributed to our understanding of the factors that determine the effectiveness of effectiveness of marine-protected areas worldwide. The team have made all their data publicly available and more and more research is increasingly making use of it to answer research questions,” she said.

Some of the divers have been working with Reef Life Survey for a decade, although others participate when they can. One volunteer, according to Professor Edgar, was so inspired by the project that he began a doctorate in marine biology (he graduated this year).

There’s a strong link between fish numbers and water warmth, which means warming oceans are likely to change global fish distribution.
Rick Stuart-Smith/Reef Life Survey, Author provided

Warming oceans means fish on the move

One of the important insights delivered by the Reef Life Survey datatbase is the relationship between water temperature and the ratio of fish to invertebrates in an ecosystem. Essentially, the warmer the water, the more fish. Conversely, colder waters contain more invertebrates like lobster, crabs and shrimp.

Professor Stewart Frusher, director of the Centre for Marine Socioecology at the University of Tasmania (and a former colleague of Professor Edgar) told The Conversation that he believes we will see wide-scale changes in fish distribution as climate change warms the oceans.

“Species are moving into either deeper water or towards the poles. We also know that not all species are moving at the same rate, and thus new mixtures of ecosystems will occur, with the fast-moving species of one ecosystem mixing with the slower moving of another,” he said.

As species migrate or expand into newly warmed waters, according to Professor Frusher, they will compete with and prey on the species already living in that area. And while it’s uncertain exactly how disruptive this will be, we do know that small ecosystem changes can rapidly lead to larger-scale impacts.

In order to predict and manage these global changes, scientists need reliable and detailed world-wide data. Professor Frusher said that, with research funding declining, scientists do not have the resources to monitor at the scales required.

The Conversation“Well-developed citizen science programs fill an important niche for improving our understanding of how the earth is responding to change,” he said.

Madeleine De Gabriele, Deputy Editor: Energy + Environment, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.