How Colombia and the UK are joining forces to protect biodiversity

"Biological diversity is vital for human health and well-being. I urge all – governments, businesses and civil society – to take urgent action to protect and sustainably manage the fragile and vital web of life on our one and only planet" António Guterres UN Secretary-General

By Luis Calzadilla Waldmann

Biodiversity describes the abundant variety of life on earth. Even if we don’t notice it, biodiversity affects every aspect of our lives: from the food we eat and the air we breathe, to the medicines we take and the nature we enjoy.

Colombia is the world’s second most biodiverse nation. According to WWF estimations, with more than 56,000 species, it is actually the most biodiverse country per square metre – home to more birds, butterflies and frogs species than any other country on the planet.

Despite its fundamental importance to our very existence, a growing body of evidence shows that biodiversity is decreasing at an alarming rate. Human activities such as farming and mining are destroying habitats, contributing to climate change and threatening many species with extinction.

Global challenges require global solutions

In response to such urgent environmental challenges, Colombia and the UK have partnered on Colombia BIO, a major international research and innovation programme which aims "to know, value, conserve and sustainably use biodiversity in the country, contributing to sustainable and socially inclusive development".

Supported by the Newton-Caldas Fund, Colombia BIO connects researchers from various academic disciplines to tackle the biggest biodiversity-related challenges and undertake projects that range from scientific expeditions, the creation of science centres, the development of eco-tourism, and R&D into biotech and agribusiness innovations.

Kew Royal Botanical Gardens leads on several Colombia BIO projects that aim to transform the Colombian economy into one based on green growth by helping the country make sustainable use of its natural capital and rich biodiversity. For instance, the BRAVO (Botanical Resources Available Online) project is producing knowledge on Colombia’s vast biodiversity, delivering a series of capacity building workshops and tools to make botanical data accessible online.

The Guardian recently featured important work being undertaken by Colombia BIO researchers to save the páramos, the most biodiverse mountain ecosystem in the world. Healthy páramos are highly efficient at capturing huge quantities of water from fog and rain, providing virtually all the water for big cities in the region. However, it is predicted that half of the remaining páramos could be destroyed by 2050. The research is part of a wider programme, Exploring and understanding Colombian BIO resources, co-funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Colciencias.

Biodiversity research to reduce hunger

The theme for this year’s International Day for Biological Diversity is Our Biodiversity, Our Food, Our Health. While global diets are largely based on three cereals – corn, rice, and wheat – scientists around the world are searching for ways to diversify what we eat, with Colombia no exception.

Partners from the UK are collaborating with the Research Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia on a programme to support innovative, multidisciplinary research on food security. The programme aims to improve human and farmed animal nutrition and increase the resilience and sustainability of tropical agricultural systems containing pulses and tropical forages in Colombia.

Building capacity for greater impact

The success of the Colombia BIO programme has been bolstered by other, complementary funding schemes. Grow Colombia, a Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) programme led by the Earlham Institute, aims to strengthen Colombian research capability in the biological sciences, computational biology, and socio-economics to develop robust coordinated activities under a shared vision centred on biodiversity as a means to achieve sustainability and peace.

Grow Colombia works in partnership with Bridge Colombia, a network of researchers and organisations from Colombia and the UK who are working together to understand and protect Colombia’s biodiversity with the ultimate goal of generating sustainable growth for the country.

Gene bank collaboration with CIAT

Gene bank collaboration with CIAT. Image credit: International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, Palmira ValleSeen

Seen as a whole, these initiatives show the breadth of scientific collaboration between Colombia and the UK. The UK was recently invited to be guest country of honour at FIMA, Colombia’s International Environment Summit, where the Colombia BIO programme was praised for playing a major role in strengthening the relations between the UK and Colombia.

Attempts to tackle issues related to biodiversity don’t stop at Colombia’s borders. Inspired by Colombia BIO, the £9 million Latin American Biodiversity Programme is the first multilateral partnership of its kind between the UK and Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Peru. Four new projects were recently awarded under the programme, including initiatives to safeguard pollinators from invasive species and prevent the degradation of the region's kelp forests.

As we reflect on the scale of the challenge the planet faces on the International Day for Biological Diversity, it is encouraging to know that robust and innovative programmes are being implemented that demonstrate the power of international cooperation to tackle the world’s most important challenges.

Luis Calzadilla Waldmann is Science and Innovation Director for the Newton-Caldas Fund in Colombia. Colombia is one of 17 active Newton Fund partner countries, working closely with the UK on science and innovation for sustainable and equitable growth.

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