Conflict to conservation: how guerrilla fighters became environmentalists

They were guerrilla fighters in a lengthy civil war. Now they’re protecting Colombia’s pristine, richly biodiverse jungles and ecosystems. Jaime Gongora is helping them win the battle and build themselves new lives.

Growing up in a war‑torn country changes you. For Associate Professor, Jaime Gongora (PhD(Vet Science) ’04), born and raised in South America’s troubled Colombia, it ignited a passion for building social cohesion and giving back to community. “A scientist must have a commitment to society to ask more than just the scientific questions,” he says, in his office at the University of Sydney, spreading his arms almost as wide as the couch he’s sitting on.

Seeking a life with greater safety and certainty, Gongora emigrated to Australia in 1999 to pursue a career as a wildlife genetics specialist. But when an opportunity arose to contribute to the healing of his home country, and to simultaneously preserve its natural habitats, he jumped at the chance.

A scientist must have a commitment to society to ask more than just scientific questions

Jaime Gongora

After 52 years of ruthless civil war sparked by inequalities in land ownership, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government ceased hostilities. FARC was founded in 1964 by farmers and land workers who spent the war years, and often the majority of their lives, fighting from bases in the remote, mountainous jungles of the country. With the conflict over, there was the problem that all conflicts produce: how to reincorporate ex‑combatants into civilian life.

Gongora, with some sadness in his voice, explains, “In Colombia, many people have been subject to violence, directly and indirectly. It has been a very stressful environment. But we have always been optimistic that one day this will change.”

From conflict, an unexpected opportunity

One opportunity that has emerged is an unexpected benefit of the war itself. Despite terrible damage and loss of life, the war kept development out of the jungles, leaving Colombia’s unique ecosystems in relative peace.

It’s hard to envision the complexity and beauty of these ecosystems which might contain rare mammals like the giant otter and brown spider monkey, and flora like the dramatic Dracula orchid and the endangered national flower, the Flor de Mayo. “Even with your eyes closed, you can feel the intensity of the colour green!” says Gongora. Colombia’s habitats, from coast to mountains to savanna to rainforest, support 10 percent of the known species on earth, including 18 percent of all bird species – the most of any country.

It took three years for Jaime Gongora and a team of scientists, ex‑combatants and others, to put an eco‑tourism workshop together.

Biodiversity and natural environments like these underpin human fundamentals. They support clean water and air, food security, and even provide resources for medical research. In a warming world, there are few things more important than protecting these vulnerable places and the creatures that exist in them.

Colombia’s fledgling peace and stability exposes these ecosystems and the resources they contain to exploitation. This vulnerability was recognised early by the UK’s Earlham Institute which supports research into living systems. The institute started a project to focus on Colombia’s genetics and biodiversity. A one‑time PhD student of Gongora’s, Amanda Chong, was working there and suggested he get involved. Gongora agreed but contributed some ideas. “The project was missing something,” he says. “In a post‑conflict situation, it’s very important to consider the social aspect of reincorporation of ex‑combatants.”

Fighters become environmental champions

One idea was simple but powerful. Gongora suggested retraining the ex ‑guerrilla fighters of FARC, who’d spent so many years hidden in the most remote parts of the jungle, to become protectors of the jungles and come up with environment‑based business ideas.

Gongora is well known for people‑centred thinking. He has received multiple international awards for his achievements in education and promoting diversity. At the University he is recognised for embedding cultural competence into the University’s veterinary curriculum and celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures.

His ability to integrate ideas and bring people together also proved invaluable in preparing for the training project through three years of careful consultation with ex‑combatants, police, paramilitary and government.

I had tears of happiness watching ex-combatants explain their plans with police and the local army chiefs

Jaime Gongora

The process, led by the Earlham Institute in partnership with the University of Sydney and supported by the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), resulted in the development of a practical workshop program for ex‑FARC members. “We wanted to equip ex‑combatants with something positive they can take into the future,” says Gongora.

Gongora was involved as a teacher and workshop leader at the first workshop in Bogota in July 2019 and at others located across the country – picture long car trips on bumpy roads to remote areas. By generating business opportunities based on eco‑friendly approaches, the project aims to help safeguard against overdevelopment. “The main risk facing Colombia’s natural environment is deforestation driven by overexpansion of the cattle industry, illegal mining, illicit crops, the expansion of the agricultural frontier and illegal timber extraction,” Gongora notes.

The former guerrillas sign up for the workshops where a multidisciplinary team of teachers guides them as they brainstorm ideas that combine their lived knowledge of the jungles with scientific method.

The syllabus spans topics from taking plant samples, to handling binoculars, and forecasting how much birdwatchers would pay to sight a particular bird. After the workshops, participants can share their knowledge and plan new business ideas, such as creating nature trails where the former guerrillas can work as specialised guides, or use their learning as a foundation to pursue further educational opportunities.

Eco‑tourism offers ex‑guerrilla fighters a future, with bird watchers willing to pay generously to be guided to the right bird.

A victory for science and for hope

The workshops have also generated local biodiversity inventories which are now resources that can be used by the ex‑combatants and feed back into global scientific communities through online repositories, contributing to a greater understanding of Colombia’s natural habitats.

The extensive consultation process has been successful in other ways, “I had tears of happiness watching ex ‑combatants explain their plans with police and the local army chiefs. These were people who, only a few years earlier, were killing each other,” Gongora says. And he remains positive despite recent news of general social unrest in Colombia and new tensions between FARC and the government.

He sees so much promise in an approach that helps to heal human society and protect the other creatures of the Earth. “To hear a puff of water vapour and to look over and see a family of dolphins visiting a temporal lake; it’s extremely moving,” he says. “When I talk about Colombia, I get very passionate!” he adds with a huge smile.