Colombian botanist risking his life to preserve nature’s memory

LA CALERA, Colombia: For the last 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 considerable risks to collect plant cuttings.



He's contributed four 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 Betancur and his colleagues came across in the jungle.

"Without realising it, we were putting ourselves in the eye of the storm," Betancur told AFP.

Colombian botanist Julio Betancur documents all the plants he collects in a book of the South American country's vast biodiversity. (Photo: AFP/Diana Sanchez)



Fortunately, 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," said Betancur.

The 59-year-old, a biologist, university professor and collector of bromeliads – which include the pineapple, Spanish moss and queen of the Andes – says it's worth taking the risks so 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 five per cent of the 169,000 hectares of illegal coca plantations are in protected areas.

Colombian botanist Julio Betancur has taken many risks in his bid to document Colombia's impressive biodiversity. (Photo: AFP/Raul Arboleda)

Illicit gold mining, using techniques that are harmful to the environment, cover 98,000 hectares – an area greater than Berlin.

Since 2010, more than a million hectares of Colombian jungle have been cut down, according to an official report.


Wearing an explorer's hat and with a rucksack on his back, Betancur forges into the mountainous Chinganza National Park some 40km from the capital Bogota.

Suddenly, he stops in front of a plant with tiny yellow flowers known as a "chite" in Colombia: A member of the St 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.

"Every time I take a botanical sample it's like writing a page in the book of our forests," he said.

Colombian botanist Julio Betancur shows off his collection of plant samples. (Photo: AFP/Raul Arboleda)

In the future, once the vegetation has disappeared from somewhere, people "will know what species lived there at Read More – Source