For the past three decades, botanist Julio Betancur has braved minefields and penetrated deep into jungle territory infested with drug traffickers and armed gangs in a bid to document Colombia’s rich biodiversity.
Colombia is second only to Brazil for its incredible range of fauna and flora.
Armed only with a notebook and gardening shears, Betancur has taken numerous risks to collect plant cuttings.
He has contributed 4 percent of the 600,000 samples in the University of Colombia’s herbarium.
There have been close calls including “a slightly violent” encounter with a group of drug runners that Betancur and his colleagues came across in the jungle.
The drug traffickers accepted their explanations and left them alone.
On another occasion, local peasants freed them from a minefield.
“If it hadn’t been for them, the communities, we wouldn’t be here telling the story,” Betancur said.
The 59-year-old, a biologist, university professor and collector of bromeliads — which include the pineapple, Spanish moss and queen of the Andes — said that it is worth taking the risks so that his country can “know about” its biodiversity.
While dangers lurk for Betancur, Colombia’s biodiversity faces far more threats.
Deforestation — mainly from livestock farming, but also illegal mining and coca plantations — has done untold damage to Colombia’s jungles.
Almost 5 percent of the 169,000 hectares of illegal coca plantations are in protected areas, while illicit gold mines cover 98,000 hectares.
Since 2010, more than 1 million hectares of jungle have been cut down, an official report said.
Wearing an explorer’s hat and a rucksack, Betancur forges into the mountainous Chinganza National Natural Park about 40km from the capital Bogota.
Suddenly, he stops in front of a plant with tiny yellow flowers known as a chite, a member of the Saint John’s wort family.
He takes a clipping and wraps it in newspaper soaked in alcohol.
Back in the university herbarium, where Betancur works as a curator, he jots down in his notebook the color, size, smell, coordinates and the sample number that betrays his vast body of research: 22,999 specimens.
“Every time I take a botanical sample, it’s like writing a page in the book of our forests,” he said.
In the future, after the vegetation has disappeared from places, the inhabitants “will know what species lived there at a certain time and with that, they can reconstruct the natural history of this territory,” he said.
At Betancur’s apartment in Bogota, he has a large terrace where he looks after his collection of bromeliads.
These plants, with their colorful flowers ranging from red to green, provide a water source for animals during times of drought.
Among them is a species that had never before been documented until Betancur noticed it while out driving.
He spotted it high up in a tree on Bogota’s savannah and climbed up to take some clippings.
“I still don’t know what to call it, because I have to baptize it,” said Betancur, one of the Colombians to have named the largest number of plants.
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