“BLOODY plants! Always in the way.” That is not the sort of expostulation expected of a researcher from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. But Lee Davies is not a botanist, he is a mycologist—an expert in fungi—who, at home in London, helps curate Kew’s fungarium. And, although history and convenience mean the study of fungi is often lumped together with that of plants, Dr Davies is keen to point out that mushrooms and their kin have nothing in common with the vegetable kingdom beyond their sedentary way of life.
His sentiment was particularly understandable on this occasion. Being ankle deep in mud, on a narrow trail traversing a precipitous hillside that was sloping down who-knew-how-far-or-where, and then trying to collect a specimen hidden just out of reach behind a tangle of greenery, would fray anyone’s nerves. But the specimen was duly acquired, popped in a plastic bag, labelled and carried back to base camp for processing and identification.
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Dr Davies and his compadres were in Colombia, in the Serranía de las Quinchas, an area of cloud- and rain-forest in the foothills of the Cordillera Oriental that was, until a peace deal signed in 2016, part of the sphere of influence of the FARC, a group of rebels fighting to overthrow the government. The FARC did not encourage visitors. As a consequence areas they controlled, which amounted at their height to about 40% of the country, are often more or less pristine from an ecological point of view. They are also, as far as flora, fauna and fungi are concerned, poorly catalogued.
That, though, is changing as a result of Colombia BIO, an attempt by the government to take advantage of the FARC’s departure and to explore what is living in the recently vacated habitats. So far, since 2016, the project has sponsored 13 expeditions staffed by botanists, mycologists, entomologists, ornithologists, herpetologists and many other sorts of biologists. The figure should rise to 20 by the end of the year.
The hope is to run 100 more expeditions over the next decade, by which time Colombia’s forests, swamps and mountains will have been comprehensively sampled and recorded. Dr Davies and his colleagues were there because, to bolster Colombia’s still-small regular army of pertinent experts, the country’s government has recruited several groups of foreign mercenaries.
Hi ho! Hi ho! It’s off to work we go
Colombia BIO is the brainchild of the country’s president, Juan Manuel Santos. Just as, in the 19th century, many countries set up geological surveys to assess their mineral assets, so Mr Santos aspires to survey, in a comprehensive and systematic way, Colombia’s biological assets.
Measured by number of species, these are enormous. Its tropical location and topographical variety mean Colombia’s biodiversity is second only to Brazil’s. How valuable such assets are, though, is a different question. Some habitats are clearly crucial. In particular, there are worries deforestation will upset the hydrologic cycle in certain places, threatening water supplies and hydroelectric power generation. Also, trees have value as timber. But that is not quite what Mr Santos means when he speaks of turning Colombia into a “bioeconomy”. The government’s aspiration is that biodiversity itself might be harnessed as an economic resource, and that this might contribute as much as 2½% of Colombia’s GDP by 2030.
Exactly what constitutes part of a bioeconomy is a bit hazy. At the moment, those involved tend to throw into the pot anything that might vaguely count: ecotourism; wild fruits and nuts that can command a premium price; cosmetics made from forest products that appeal to the virtue-signalling middle classes. But the long-term aspiration is more ambitious. It is that some of the organisms to which Colombia plays host might act as feedstock for a future in which genes and metabolic pathways can be monetised in the ways that gold and other minerals once were. And for them to be so monetised, they must first be catalogued and analysed.
Making that happen is the remit of Alejandro Olaya Dávila, the director of Colciencias, Colombia’s government science agency. This is Colombia BIO’s parent body. The samples collected are destined for a national repository, whence they will be distributed for study. There are also, according to Dr Dávila, plans for a national research centre for biotechnology and a government-backed venture-capital fund that will finance start-ups in the field—an endeavour helped by the recent repeal of a law specifically preventing academics at state universities from doing this.
The repository is at the Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute, in Bogotá. Brigitte Luis Guillermo Baptiste, the Humboldt’s director and herself an ecologist, says she was sceptical about the likelihood of a grandiose project like Colombia BIO succeeding. She changed her mind, though, when initial expeditions proved successful in discovering new species and rediscovering old ones thought extinct. Her doubts now centre on whether the government can act fast enough to protect those areas vacated by the FARC. She cites an example of a stretch of river, tributary to the Amazon, that was almost completely denuded of its fish a mere 15 days after the guerrillas left.
Silvia Restrepo, a mycologist who is vice-president of research at the University of the Andes, one of Colombia’s leading academic institutions, points to other obstacles. Perhaps the most curious is that ecological researchers—even Colombian nationals—not only have to obtain permits to collect specimens but also have to pay a levy of 15,000 pesos (about $5) on every specimen taken. And that means every specimen. Collect 100 mosquitoes, for example, and you pay 100 times. This makes collecting an expensive business.
It is also hard to export specimens for study abroad. That would matter less if Colombia’s own facilities for things like genetic sequencing were up to snuff. But they are not. Yet such sequencing is a vital starting-point for any serious investigation of the economic potential of a species.
Another complaint by researchers involved in Colombia BIO is money. In theory there is plenty. By law, 10% of the royalties raised by the government on extracted oil and gas are supposed to be set aside for scientific research. Last year, that amounted to $390m. Although the royalties are collected centrally, the cash is then disbursed to the administrations of the country’s 32 provinces. Colombia BIO’s central budget is tiny—about $4m a year. The bulk of the money for the expeditions comes from the provinces in which those expeditions are mounted. It is the governors of these provinces, therefore, who decide what science gets funded and, indeed, what the definition of “science” is. Speculative surveys of the country’s biodiversity are not always top of the list.
Nor are they top of the list for many other people. The newly liberated land is a target for squatters, whose modus operandi is to clear the trees for profit and then run cattle over the resulting pasture. Local politicians often turn a blind eye to such activity, especially if bribed to do so. And the average Colombian, whether urban-dweller or rural smallholder, is less concerned with rarefied matters like biodiversity and its possible role in a speculative biotechnological future, than with the immediate business of making ends meet.
And speculative that future is. How big a role biotechnology will play in the economy of the 21st-century world is hard to predict. It could be huge, with products now unimaginable becoming available as a result of new techniques of gene editing and the creation of synthetic genomes. Or it could, as now, be an important factor in agriculture and medicine but of little wider resonance. At least at the moment, successful biotechnologies are more often derived from microbes and fungi than from the plants and animals that attract the attention of most conservationists. That argues for recruiting more Restrepos and Davieses to the effort. Moreover, if Colombia really is to benefit from its genetic patrimony, it will need to build up its scientific base and get rid of red tape that stands in the way of research. In the end, therefore, Colombia BIO will survive or fall depending on its support from the top.
Will the end, will the means
Whether the president’s aspirations are shared by other national politicians will soon become clear. On May 27th, Mr Santos having served as president for the maximum period permitted by law, Colombians go to the polls to elect a replacement. After a possible second round in June, the winner will take office in August.
Amid Colombia’s many problems, not least making the peace settlement with the FARC stick, biodiversity would be easy to forget about. But it is not forgotten entirely. One candidate, Iván Duque, talks of an “orange economy” of knowledge-based production, which might bode well for aspiring biotechnologists. A second, Gustavo Petro, is a former guerrilla who says he is keen on renewable ways of creating wealth. And a third, Sergio Fajardo, a maths professor who was once mayor of Medellín, also seems interested.
Whether such inclinations would translate into action in office remains to be seen. But, at the very least, Colombia BIO offers an opportunity to clarify which parts of the country’s wild areas most deserve protection at a moment when the offer of protection is still meaningful. And, since no one actually knows how the biotechnological future will turn out, just possibly the surveys it is sponsoring will reveal riches that make the gold rushes of the 19th century look like chump change.