Fat purple clouds had been gathering all day above Cubará, kicking up a dusty wind and cloaking the forested hills in shadow and mist. When the rain finally came, it came as a torrent, hammering metal roofs, overflowing ditches and transforming roads into rivers. A team of biologists, freshly arrived from Bogotá, could do little besides huddle on a porch in anticipation of their mission: find and document as many bird species as possible.

Not since 1961 had such a survey been undertaken in this remote northeastern Colombian town, primarily because until a few years ago, it was simply too dangerous.

Cubará is in the center of an infamous no-go zone, an area that was notorious for frequent clashes among guerrillas, paramilitary forces and the Colombian army. In 2016 the government signed a cease-fire agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's largest rebel group, bringing an end to the longest-running conflict in the Western Hemisphere. Although gunshots no longer ring out, memories of the violence are still at the forefront of many people's minds. As Cubará's vice mayor told me when we met, “Congratulations for making it. Just a small number of people come here because everyone is afraid of visiting.”

Now that a delicate peace has arrived, Cubará—and thousands of other Colombian towns like it—is slowly coming back to life. The fighting's end marked a new beginning not only for communities eager to rebuild but also for the scientists at the Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute, an independent nonprofit group that hopes to finally take stock of its nation's formidable natural history. Sandwiched between two continents and two oceans and crossed by both the equator and the Andes, Colombia contains 311 different ecological zones, from rain forests and mountains to mangrove stands and coral reefs. Already researchers have documented nearly 63,000 species there—a whopping 10 percent of global biodiversity. Only Brazil has more species than Colombia, and it is more than seven times larger.

This abundance was obvious even while the team took shelter from the rain. Tropical kingbirds flitted around a streetlight, and invasive giant African snails inched along the porch. A beetle as large as a human hand scuttled by, probably on the search for a mate, and a grapefruit-sized toad lapped up dinner from a cloud of termites. A strange wormlike creature that biologist Orlando Acevedo-Charry snatched from the flooded driveway turned out to be not a snake or a caecilian, as he originally hypothesized, but a marbled swamp eel.

Scientists are teaming up with local experts such as Saul Sanchez (1, 2) to survey bird diversity and develop ecotourism. Another researcher picks up bird calls with a parabolic microphone (3). Credit: Rachel Nuwer

It is likely that many more species still await discovery. In nine major expeditions conducted across the country since 2015, scientists have documented hundreds of plants, animals and fungi, dozens of which appear to be new to science—including a freshwater ray with leopardlike polka dots, a peculiar sponge that wraps itself around mangrove tree branches like an insect nest, and a fish with no eyes. “Can you imagine it's 2019 and we're still discovering what we have?” remarks Gisele Didier Lopez, leader of the development unit at Humboldt. “It gives us goosebumps, like, ‘Oh, my God, this was there and we didn't even know it!’”

But as peacetime opens up places such as Cubará for exploration, it simultaneously makes way for development. Roads are being constructed, land is being cleared and forests are disappearing. “The rate of landscape change is faster than our capacity to do research,” says Acevedo-Charry, who curates the Collection of Environmental Sounds at Humboldt. “If we do not categorize biodiversity quickly and continuously around Colombia, we will lose it before we even know what we need to protect.”

Acevedo-Charry, Didier and their colleagues at Humboldt are at the forefront of efforts not only to discover the breadth of Colombia's biodiversity but also to find ways to turn it into the centerpiece of a society bolstered by sustainability, resilience and green economics. “This is not the classical do-not-touch approach to biodiversity,” Didier says. “Instead we want to use biodiversity as an ingredient in the recipe for economic growth—without destroying it.” The ultimate goal, she says, is “to make biodiversity a capital asset for development.”

Since 2016 the institute's 123 experts, along with other scientists and nonprofit organizations from Colombia and beyond, have frantically worked to draw up a vision of what a green Colombia might look like—and to create a roadmap for getting there. Didier and her colleagues may be in a unique position to do so. By law, Humboldt—which receives half its funding from the government and the other half from fundraising—is in charge of studying and reporting on Colombia's biodiversity. Its mission goes beyond cataloguing: the staff also are responsible for pursuing applied science that informs policy-making decisions and ultimately bridges the gap between society and government. Diego J. Lizcano, a biodiversity specialist at the Nature Conservancy, explained that because the institute is directly connected to the government, officials take its findings more seriously than those of NGOs and university researchers.

But as Colombia races forward with postconflict development, the window is quickly closing on realizing a rosy future in which biodiversity is both cherished and sustainably capitalized. Despite Humboldt's relative influence, observers say that the environment remains low on the government's priority list and that deforestation continues to ravage much of the country. Didier describes this trajectory as “putting in a bulldozer and chopping down everything in front of it. Everything is at stake.”

War and (Green) Peace

That so much wildlife and habitat remain in Colombia today is, in part, a serendipitous side effect of conflict. Civil war officially broke out in 1964, when members of the peasant class, a group largely composed of small farmers, miners and land workers, rose up to fight gross inequality and formed FARC. The half-century of fighting froze not just ecological exploration but, in some places, ecological destruction.

Millions of rural residents fled the countryside to take refuge in cities, giving nature time to reclaim their properties. Rebels commanded those who stayed behind to keep out of certain tracts of forest and forbade them from hunting and cutting down trees. What began as an ideological struggle for a Marxist-Leninist government morphed into a conflict largely fueled by profit, especially from narcotics. Coca fields and cocaine labs sprang up alongside forest camps. “The guerrillas benefited from having forest they could hide in, and other people didn’t dare go there,” Didier says. “As a result, biodiversity remained high in hotspots for conflict.”

As narcotics trafficking spread, violence followed. Any scientist who dared venture into rebel-controlled areas did so at the risk of his or her life. Nearly every field researcher in the country today seems to have a story of being kidnapped, interrogated at gunpoint or otherwise scared away from study sites. “Ten years ago the most dangerous thing you could come across in the field was a person,” says Lizcano, who was held hostage for two days by rebels who kidnapped him while he was out looking for tapirs. Lizcano continued his work at a different location, but other studies were abandoned or never attempted in the first place, and many researchers chose to either leave Colombia or change careers. Ecological knowledge stagnated.

Credit: Mapping Specialists

Hope for a reversal of this trend came from one of the nearly 600 stipulations of the 2016 peace agreement: the country must develop sustainably to improve the lives of all Colombians—not just urbanites, who compose at least three quarters of the population. This point was largely meant to address the rural discontent that ignited the conflict to begin with, and it promises marginalized countryside residents—many of whom are members of Colombia’s 112 ethnic minority groups—access to education and clean water, subsidies for development programs in former rebel-held territories, and new roads to connect their communities to the rest of the country. It also encourages illegal coca growers to switch to legal crops in exchange for cash payments and government assistance.

“Because many of our problems come from lack of better livelihoods, education and health care in rural areas, that was the main part of the agreement for me,” says Julia Miranda Londoo, director general of the Colombian National Park System. “If our development was more equitable, people would not need to look for other ways of living like growing coca crops and undertaking illegal mining.”

Although Humboldt scientists and other researchers believe that biodiversity can play a key role in this equitable development, the question is how to actually make that happen across an entire nation. Colombians do not want their country to go the way of San Martn in Peru—a postconflict region that developed quickly yet now is completely deforested and suffers from frequent and severe fires, landslides and flooding as a result. They also cannot base their plans entirely on positive case studies of environmental conservation in places such as Costa Rica and Rwanda, both of which are much smaller and did not experience 50 years of war. Nordic countries provide leading examples of sustainable energy and natural resource use, but unlike Colombia, they benefit from having some of the strongest economies in the world.

So Colombia plans to forge its own path, led by the National Planning Department and backed by the country’s scientists. In addition to growing a thriving ecotourism industry, ideas for this new bioeconomy range from helping indigenous and rural communities benefit from bioprospecting—the search for medicinal, edible and otherwise commercially useful plant and animal species—to using technology to boost aquaculture production and increase recycling, which is nearly nonexistent in the region. The Ministry of Finance is considering a bill that would expand Colombia’s carbon tax, which currently applies to six liquid fuels, to include coal and gas. The government also aims to establish its first serious fleet of renewable energy sources through a special task force dedicated to energy transition.

The biggest focus is on reforming Colombian agriculture, a sector set to grow by 2.5 percent annually and increase its land use area by 44 percent over the next 15 years. “The way we use land is very, very destructive,” says Brigitte Baptiste, who directed Humboldt for 10 years before recently taking up a position as head of EAN University in Bogotá. Ranchers clear-cut forests to graze just a couple of cows per acre. Irrigation systems are woefully out of date and wasteful—something even the producers acknowledge, Baptiste says. And pesticide use ranks among the highest worldwide, poisoning farmers and contaminating the environment.

Uvaldino Villamizar (1) grows cacao using agroforestry practices. Such sustainable methods help to preserve Colombia's biodiversity, including species (234) discovered in the past few years. Credit: Rachel Nuwer (1); Dirk Weinmann (2); From “The Poverty of Adult Morphology: Bioacoustics, Genetics, and Internal Tadpole Morphology Reveal a New Species of Glassfrog (Anura: Centrolenidae: Ikakogi) from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia,” by Marco Rada et al., in PLOS One, Vol. 14, No. 5, Article e0215349; May 8, 2019; (3); Marta Kolanowska (4)

Agroforestry, which could be huge in Colombia, is one alternative, according to Baptiste and her colleagues. This agricultural method incorporates livestock and crops into forests rather than cutting the trees down and in doing so brings benefits such as water provision and mitigation of floods and droughts. Cattle account for about 70 percent of Colombia’s agricultural land use, but the country is also the third-largest coffee producer, the fourth-largest oil palm producer and a major exporter of cacao, which is used to make chocolate. If agroforestry were implemented across Colombia, the nation’s future forests would be not just islands of biodiversity dotting an otherwise human-dominated landscape but an interconnected matrix of nature supported by private landowners.

In Cubará, much of the road into town is lined by barren fields sheared of trees, where cattle graze alongside the stumps. As in many areas of rural Colombia, the shift to agroforestry is happening slowly, although here it is driven mainly by grassroots movements that are not waiting for the government to lead the charge. When organic farmers Monica and Uvaldino Villamizar decided to branch out into commercial cacao farming in 2006, they designed their fields to accommodate around 20 species of trees. Guided by information provided by the National Federation of Cacao Growers, they allowed their property to remain dense with vegetation and the cacophony of birdsong. The diverse growing space has also brought comparatively higher yields, they say, because the shade-to-sun ratio is better for the plants. “We’re definitely happy with this system; it’s why my family is eating and my daughter is studying,” Uvaldino says. “She wants to be a civil engineer.”

Globally, agroforestry and other “payment for ecosystem service” schemes are frequently incentivized by tax breaks or direct payment from governments or nonprofit groups. For the past decade the Nature Conservancy, for example, with funding from the World Bank and the U.K. government, has worked with more than 4,000 farmers to convert 66,500 acres of high-biodiversity, low-income land across Colombia for agroforestry—specifically for sustainable cattle ranching. Under this system, farmers plant trees from a list of more than 50 native species, which provide shade and food for their cows. At the same time, the trees serve as habitats for other species and provide carbon capture and storage services.

Since the Nature Conservancy project began, participating ranchers have reported an increase of up to 80 percent in milk and meat production. Farmers’ profits have also gone up because sustainable products fetch higher prices in cities such as Bogotá, where an increasing number of people are willing to pay a premium for organic, responsibly produced meat, milk, chocolate, and more. Two Colombian meat and dairy companies are already purchasing and advertising deforestation-free products, and a rising number of restaurants—including a popular national chain called Crepes & Waffles—are signing up as well, oftentimes as a direct result of pressure from clientele. “The market here is ready for milk, meat and crops free of deforestation,” Lizcano says.

Colombia’s Ministry of Agriculture is aiming to have a new sustainable cattle-ranching policy signed by the end of 2019—a move scientists and NGOs have been pushing for several years. Carolina Jaramillo, a representative of Colombia at the Global Green Growth Institute, says implementing a policy that provides economic incentives and logistical guidance would represent “a whole cultural, financial and technological transformation across the country.”

Uncertain Forecast

For all of its promise, Colombia has “the same blocks or lack of political will as any country trying to create a sustainable economy,” says Andrs Gmez, a senior biodiversity researcher at ICF International, a global consulting services company. And then there are the issues specific to Colombia: narcotrafficking continues to plague a number of regions; tensions remain high between many of Colombia’s 112 ethnic minorities and the government; and Colombia is facing a migration crisis ignited by turmoil and economic collapse in neighboring Venezuela. Meanwhile the National Liberation Army, another rebel group, has yet to agree to a peace treaty.

Of all the threats to the country’s biodiversity, deforestation is the most dangerous. Nationwide it jumped 44 percent from 2015 to 2016, and although Colombia has doubled the size of its protected areas over the past eight years, 84 percent of the deforestation has taken place on these lands. According to Humboldt, more than 100,000 acres of national parks were cut between 2013 and 2017.

The scientists did not analyze the drivers behind those losses, but they name a number of contributing forces. In some areas, it is illegal gold mining or logging; in others, it is coca production. Land grabs and subsequent sales are commonly used to launder money from illegal activities, Baptiste says, and corruption greases the process. In addition, many of Colombia’s 6.9 million internally displaced persons have begun returning to their former rural homelands, where they stake claims on land. Displaced persons undertaking deforestation “argue that they have suffered from the war,” Miranda Londoo says. “But there is no right to commit a crime to solve your needs.” Jaramillo suggests the need for “profound land reform,” which could give poor people access to land that has already been deforested. But a project of this scale is not currently being considered, she says.

Ecologist Brigitte Baptiste, who led the Humboldt Institute until September 2019, has become famous in Colombia for advocating for a green economy. Credit: Felipe Villegas Humboldt Institute

Trying to slow the forest losses, no matter the source, can be deadly. More than 30 environmental defenders were murdered in Colombia in 2017, and park rangers who interfere with land grabs regularly receive death threats. Colombia’s laws are clear on the illegality of deforestation, and its courts are well equipped to prosecute those who engage in it, Baptiste explains, but the country still has little capacity for enforcement on the ground. Despite many arrests, there are few signs that deforestation is being curtailed. In a paper in preparation, Humboldt researchers analyzed deforestation patterns from 2000 to 2015 to identify contributing factors, including road expansion, coca plantation presence, and conflict. They used those data to build a predictive model and found that if conditions do not change, Colombia will lose an additional 18 million acres of forest—7 percent of the country’s total forest cover—by 2050. More than 50 percent of the losses will occur in postconflict zones.

Ultimately the fate of these forests and other natural resources depends on whether Colombians embrace the environment as a pillar of the new green economy rather than seeing it as an obstacle to improving their well-being. “Unless we create real opportunities for them based on value they can get out of biodiversity, conservation is not going to work,” says Jose Manuel Ochoa Quintero, a program coordinator at Humboldt.

Baptiste has become something of a celebrity for taking on a leading role in pushing this agenda. She is famous in Colombia for both her charismatic evangelizing about the environment and her status as a transgender woman in a conservative country. She regularly appears on television and is quoted in the media—as are an increasing number of celebrities who have aligned themselves with antideforestation initiatives.

The culture seems to be shifting. When Colombia’s new president, Ivn Duque Mrquez, took office in August 2018, his administration’s plan to end deforestation entailed dousing coca crops in herbicide and allowing that thousands of square miles of wild nature would still inevitably be lost. But the announcement received major condemnation from the public and the media, and the Duque administration began preparing a new approach. Deforestation is now considered a national security threat.

If there is a cultural signal that national enthusiasm for biodiversity is on the rise, it might be associated with the fact that Colombia is home to 20 percent of the world’s recorded bird species. Birding tourism holds “immense potential” for the country, according to a 2017 paper in Tropical Conservation Science. (Peru, the authors write, doubled its bird-watching tourism from 2012 to 2013 and now enjoys $89 million of annual revenue, much of which remains in local communities.) Despite this wealth of bird life, it was not until 2015 that Colombia participated in Cornell University’s Global Big Day, an annual event in which birders around the world compete to see which nation can log the most species in 24 hours. In 2017, after two years of “dysfunctional participation,” as Acevedo-Charry puts it, the country emerged victorious, with 1,486 species sighted. National pride soared.

Confident Colombia could hold on to the title in 2018, national radio stations ran commercials encouraging participation, and television media and newspapers featured stories about the event. The blitz worked: Some 4,500 birders, including members of the air force and police, turned out at 730 sites. In Cubará, Acevedo-Charry, Johana Zuluaga-Bonilla, president of the Ornithologist Association of Boyac-Ixobrychus, and Saul Sanchez, a former hunter turned local conservationist, recorded 111 species among the three of them, transforming the region from a question mark on the map to one rich in verified biodiversity. Across the nation birders saw and heard 1,546 species—an “unfathomable” number for a single country in a single day, the competition organizers wrote. In 2019 Colombia took the gold yet again.

This enthusiasm is translating into economically viable options for rural residents, where former hunters, monocrop farmers and timber harvesters are turning to birding, ecotourism and agroforestry. Less than a decade ago Colombians could not conceive of coming together to celebrate their biodiversity through birding, let alone becoming a country powered by its natural heritage, Acevedo-Charry says. As more people gradually embrace this vision, there are signs it might be making a difference: Satellite imagery recently analyzed by researchers at the University of Medelln indicates that deforestation rates, compared with the beginning of 2018, are going down. “The biodiversity-based economy is injecting hope for those who need it most,” Acevedo-Charry says. “It is already changing lives.”