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How recognising human plant use can help protect Colombia's biodiversity

Forward Thinking series
Laura Kor

Joint PhD student in the Department of Geography

17 August 2023

Colombia supports an incredible diversity of plants and animals, many found nowhere else on earth. Over 7,400 plants in the country have reported human uses ranging from food and fuel to ritual and religious significance. However, Colombia’s biodiversity is rapidly disappearing, with impacts on both human livelihoods and the natural environment. How can we prevent this while enabling sustainable development?

Following decades of internal armed conflict, the 2016 Colombian peace agreement helped to propel research in many disciplines. New scientific documentation of plants and animals have occurred in large areas of the country which were previously off limits. However, just as we are beginning to understand Colombia’s biodiversity better, we are losing it faster than ever. Deforestation rates have increased since the peace agreement, and despite its biological wealth, the country is marked by rural poverty, social inequality, and the remaining shadows of conflict.

Using plants without losing them

The concept of ‘sustainability-through-use’ has emerged in recent decades. This is the idea that using natural resources such as wild plants can incentivise conservation. In fact, post-conflict development plans in Colombia focused on growing its bioeconomy – the goods and services provided through sustainable biological resource use. This was a major motivation for the Useful Plants and Fungi of Colombia (UPFC) Project, which I have worked with as part of my PhD. But the concept of sustainable use is extremely complex.

Our review of studies in four countries across north-west South America found that unsustainable harvesting and the loss of useful wild plants are common challenges. Colombia had the highest percentage of unsustainable outcomes.

Fitting useful plants into global conservation priorities

While Colombia has its unique social, ecological, and political situation, rapid biodiversity loss is happening across the world. Much like climate change, this has led to multilateral treaties focusing on biodiversity protection. First established in 1993, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) recently adopted new global targets for 2030. Known as the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), this includes the ‘30 by 30 initiative’, a commitment to designate at least 30% of the world’s area to conservation.

Area-based protection is a traditional conservation approach, with most countries having national park systems. But with a big increase needed to achieve 30 by 30, how do we choose and manage these areas in an equitable way?

Amongst the many methods is the Important Plant Areas (IPA) approach. First established by Plantlife in Europe, then expanded to tropical areas by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, IPAs aim to identify and protect the best sites for plant conservation in the world. IPAs are different from other methods as they can be identified based on the presence of socially, economically, and culturally valuable species – or useful plants. While heavily anthropocentric, focusing on useful species allows us to highlight the importance of plants for livelihoods as well as identify conservation areas with co-benefits for both global conservation and local communities.

Identifying potential IPAs in Colombia

Despite having the second-highest plant richness in the world, IPAs are yet to be described in Colombia. A major aim of my PhD was therefore to identify potential IPAs for useful plants.

Drawing on the Checklist of Useful Plants of Colombia, we gathered over 1 million records of native species in the country. We then applied the IPA criteria to see which areas met thresholds for threatened species and botanical richness. After splitting the country into 10km x 10km square cells, we found 980 sites are potential IPAs. We then highlighted 10 ‘top priority’ sites for conservation by combining a range of factors such as the number of useful plant species, how at risk of extinction they were, and whether the area was already protected. To form more meaningful site boundaries for policymakers, local people, and researchers, we drew IPA borders based on overlapping ecosystem and administrative boundaries.

What next?

While this work was recently published in a scientific journal, this is only the start. On the research side, fieldwork and expert consultation is needed to verify the presence of species in the areas they were reported. Perhaps even more importantly, engagement with non-academic stakeholders is needed.

Encouragingly, our paper has gained attention from botanists and the media in Colombia, but for effective and ethical conservation action, we need to engage with regional authorities, national governments, relevant NGOs, and crucially, local communities at the proposed IPA locations. As highlighted in our review, sustainable wild plant use is most successful when management is driven by local resource users. We have, therefore, also been working with communities in three case study municipalities as part of the UPFC.

With Colombia being a global biodiversity hotspot, protecting its habitats and wildlife is crucial for both national and international wellbeing. A focus on useful plants using the IPA approach has allowed us to account for the human dimensions of biodiversity in its conservation. We hope that this can be brought forward to support the GBF’s mission “to put nature on a path to recovery for the benefit of [both] people and planet”.

In this story

Laura  Kor

Laura Kor

PhD student

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