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Colombia’s Former Guerrillas Need New Jobs. Why Not in Conservation?

Painted flowers of pink and blue grace the nails of two slender hands posed on the trigger and barrel of an assault weapon. Behind the weapon, a hot pink t-shirt serves as backdrop. There is nothing else in the frame. From the moment that I saw this photo last month in The California Sunday Magazine,...

Painted flowers of pink and blue grace the nails of two slender hands posed on the trigger and barrel of an assault weapon. Behind the weapon, a hot pink t-shirt serves as backdrop. There is nothing else in the frame. From the moment that I saw this photo last month in The California Sunday Magazine, it stuck in my mind: Who is she? What is her life like? A week later, there was one new piece of information I had about this woman: she’s recently out of a job.

The image of this female guerilla fighter was captured by Nadège Mazars near the Caqueta River in Colombia. And something big happened to her county last month.

The government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, declared a ceasefire after 50 years of fighting. Almost 7,000 FARC guerrilla-style fighters will abandon clandestine jungle hamlets, demobilize, and re-integrate into a new Colombia. Almost 30 percent of them are women, many of them commanders. Twenty percent have some form of higher education.

Read the the original story in "The California Sunday Magazine" that inspired this post. (Photo by Nadège Mazars)
Read the the original story by Nadja Drostin with photos by Nadège Mazars in The California Sunday Magazine that inspired this post. (Photo by Nadège Mazars)

This available workforce is a rare gift to a rural landscape that could use one. Among them are working, independent women with proven leadership skills now resettling into a landscape where teenage pregnancy and pay inequality proliferate. The average time rural girls spend in school is less than five years. Conservation biologists would be quick to mention the other chronic problem plaguing this landscape: illegal deforestation.

Why not utilize this available workforce to help Colombia reach its conservation goals?

The Need for Protection

President Santos pledged at the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement to protect an additional 2.5 million hectares of forest by 2018. Currently, 20 percent of Colombia’s protected areas show evidence of large-scale deforestation. And the tax incentives created by Santos to quickly develop post-conflict rural areas with roads and bridges will likely make illegal logging even easier.

The situation is messy. A strange phenomenon has manifested in which FARC-driven conflict in has actually helped some forests. A recent study found that 56,000 km2 of land abandoned during conflict saw successional regrowth, reforestation, and returning biodiversity since the 1990s.

With development and resettlement imminent, a new peace between peoples does not guarantee a peace with the land. Colombia is at a crossroads. One path leads towards a sustainable future. The other spirals toward a wicked sequel of socio-environmental conflict.

A Step on the Right Path

Transforming Colombia’s guerrillas into a conservation workforce would be a step on the path towards sustainability, but it won’t be easy. We can find inspiration though from Nelson Mandela who said, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” There are also three practical reasons this could work.

  1. Former guerrillas are keepers of ecological knowledge missing from the books. Here’s a map of where the FARC’s areas of influence were in 2014. A hobbyist geographer could tell you that these hot spot areas concentrate over two of Colombia’s largest and least protected ecosystems: the tropical dry forest and the Orinoquia wetlands. Due to fragmentation and decades of conflict there, currently only five percent of the dry forest is under federal protection. The Orionoquia makes up 30 percent of Colombia’s territory yet it hosts one nationally protected area. These ecosystems deserve more to safeguard their unique biodiversity. But first they need to be understood. After decades of living in and off of these lands, former FARC guerrillas have singular skills and knowledge needed for strategic conservation.
  1. Former guerrillas can harness new technology. Mobile phone use has penetrated 70 percent of Colombia’s population, with over 60 percent of users owning smartphones. Colombians, on par with Chileans, lead Latin America as the most connected and advanced mobile users. And the ways in which smartphones now locate, measure, and monitor biodiversity is rapidly expanding: Illegal logging can be be detected by passive cell phone technology; Ground-breaking automated remote sensing allows us to identify newly established illegal logging camps anywhere in Colombia in near real-time; ESRI has built mobile platforms that help boots on the ground blaze new trails to areas of concern and map the route. Open innovation has produced customized biodiversity tracking apps that upload to large, global databases. It’s no fantasy that the best tool for collecting targeted conservation knowledge could fit in the cargo pocket of a former guerrilla.
  1. Guerrillas seek meaning. Let me be clear: I think guerrillas should be trained in conservation work, not trained as park rangers. The former involves education and empowerment. The later prioritizes security and arguably perpetuates a decades-old militarized approach. Training guerrillas as park rangers doesn’t elevate them; it puts them in a camouflaged box that makes it harder for us to recognize their fundamental desire for meaning. We know that a personal search for identity and belonging–not violence or authority–motivates most rebel-joining Colombians. More intimate documentation of the FARC, including photographer’s Nadège Mazars work for The California Sunday Magazine, provide evidence that female guerrillas seek to break traditional gender roles and take pride in stewarding rural lands.
One of the major conservation issues in Colombia is the amount of deforestation for agriculture and cattle farming. (Photo by Nadège Mazars,

Part of a Growing Trend

Creating eco-friendly, salaried jobs for former “bad guys” isn’t novel. Zimbabwe’s government teamed up with guerrillas to aggressively stop rhino poaching in the 1980s. Recent models are more tactful. Nowadays, former lion hunters serve as lion guardians in East Africa, former guerrillas as eco-tourism guides in El Salvador, and former poachers as rangers in the Congo. But simply replicating these models in Colombia would be misguided.

Forget the one-big-idea-to-save-the-world narrative. Think more along the lines of a SEAL Team 6 approach: targeted.

Protecting Colombia’s 311 distinct ecosystems will require situational innovation, and a bit of McGyvering. Realistically, Colombia’s biodiversity will be saved by a mash-up of community engagement, technological solutions, scientific training, and prioritizing gender equality. Increased enforcement will help; scientific evidence shows overall unsatisfactory efficacy to date within Colombia’s protected areas. Experience suggests that the long-game solution involves more than rebranding guerrillas under “park ranger” titles.

A Conservation Outlier

Here is how I summarize (admittedly imperfectly) the conservation situation in post-conflict Colombia:

  • Biodiversity is nearly last on a list of national priorities list that includes drug trade and kidnapping.
  • Scientists are lost when it comes to current ecological knowledge about huge swaths of forest exposed to new threats.
  • Former guerrillas now entering the workforce are some of the least understood populations on the planet.
  • The stigma of violence surrounding guerrillas likely explains why they are left out of meaningful conservation work (often advised by conflict-averse groups and donors).
  • Unheralded solutions, like putting guerrillas in conservation jobs instead of park ranger jobs, are easily looked over as too difficult, improbable, or not evidenced elsewhere.

The least understood, the left out, and the looked-over have a name in science: outliers. Their meaning is lost on us. They fall outside the normal, predictable distribution of data. According to scientific convention, an outlier is the last thing to address when answering big questions. An apt description for Colombia right now might be “conservation outlier.”

Here’s a little secret about outliers: if you ask a scientist, on the street or in a bar, we’ll gush about outliers being the most compelling, awe-inspiring part of science. They keep us up at night: what is that thing? For the daring few who put aside big trends to act on the outliers, the reward is often extraordinary. The most promising advances towards an AIDS cure happened when doctors recently focused on “outlier” paitents. The bravery to invest in former guerrillas to the extent that we invest in Colombia’s biodiversity could lead, similarly, to something groundbreaking.

Looking back to that photo of the woman with painted nails holding an AK47, I’m still curious–what is her life like? She feels rare, so outside of my normal distribution of life experiences. The social and environmental landscape she inhabits is more unheralded and messy than most places. But, to a scientist, it couldn’t be clearer that this conservation outlier holds promise. Encouraging unheralded, creative solutions for places and peoples that don’t fit a silver-bullet solution, in the end, elevates everyone.

More by Clare Fieseler

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Meet the Author

Clare Fieseler
Clare Fieseler is a National Geographic Grantee and National Geographic Creative photographer. She’s currently a Innovation Fellow at Conservation X Labs and is completing her PhD in Ecology at UNC Chapel Hill. Follow her @clarefieseler on Twitter Instagram.