Ian Harrison, Ph.D.
Freshwater Species Assessment and Program Fundraising Manager
In 1999 I ran an expedition to Lake Tota in the Colombian Andes, about 185 km northeast of Bogota, in collaboration with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogota, and a local environmental organization in Colombia, CORPOBOYACA, who have offices and laboratories on the lake shore. The region is in a part of the country where guerilla activity was quite strong.
We were looking for a reportedly extinct catfish found only in the lake. My colleagues at the University notified the main guerilla group in the region, I believe it was FARC, of our intentions and received their permission to work there. I was told that some of the guerillas are quite hospitable to the Universidad Nacional because some of the leaders had gone through that university.
The lake is very beautiful, and the only known location for the existence of the catfish, Rhizosomichthys totae. While there we worked using a boat provided by the local police office and operated by one of the police, which provided some security. The staff of CORPOBOYACA were extremely friendly and were very eager to help with our research.
The lake has been threatened by the development of onion farming around the lakeshore, and the CORPOBOYACA were pleased to promote programs that could help signify the ecological importance and conservation of the lake habitat. I had the impression that the people living around the lake – mostly farmers – were also interested by our presence, but a little cautious.
Word spread around quickly that we were there, and my colleagues from the University, who had been very relaxed initially, became nervous when a man who came from an area with many guerillas offered to help find some fish and said he would meet us the next day with some collected fish.
|Lake Tota, Columbia. Ian says, "I was told [the island on the left]|
was owned by Pablo Escobar and used for drug processing until
the army rocketed the lab. Until that time it obviously made the
lake a difficult place to work; after the lab was blown up the
island was converted into a small reserve and the remaining
building was converted into a little lodge for students/reserve
managers to stay and work. Just a bedroom and living room.
I had breakfast there one morning – hot chocolate with cheese.
The University staff were concerned that the North American members of our team were drawing too much attention. They were suspicious that the man they met had gone up into the mountains and notified another guerilla group of our presence, who might be ready to meet us the next day. They therefore arranged for just two of them (both Colombians) to go to meet him in the morning, and the rest of us stayed behind at the CORPOBOYACA office.
There was some concern because there was only one road to and from the lake, over a pass, where guerillas regularly set up road blocks. They decided it was too dangerous for us to stay, so we made arrangements that morning to collect our traps from the lake and pack up and leave.
The atmosphere had become very tense by that stage, and sadly we did not have time to look extensively for the fish. Even so, everyone remained very optimistic at the end, with the possibility that Colombians could continue to the work around the lake more securely later. They have been doing this, with occasional breaks when the area has become a little more risky; but they still have not found the fish.
VIDEO: Watch a mini-documentary of the experience.
|Ian Harrison, Edgar Prieto (student at the National University of |
Colombia), and John Lynch make traps to catch fish in Lake
Some months later, in August 2000, one of the American staff from the University, John Lynch, was kidnapped with several students by the the National Liberation Army, when conducting fieldwork. He was only held for two days, and in fact was able to negotiate an agreement with the guerillas to be allowed to survey for frogs in an otherwise inaccessible region.
While I believe that the very careful planning by colleagues from the University meant that our team were safe the entire time, our work was unfortunately cut short. The guerilla presence there can make it very difficult to work in some parts of the country, but it has also ensured that some regions, such as forests, have remained safe from high human settlement or organized external exploitation. In this way, the guerilla activity may actually help conservation. At the same time, the guerilla activity can impact conservation by creating instability in land use and tenure, and in Colombia there has also been the problem of conversion of habitat to coca production for drug production. There have been some very informative publications on these issues in Colombia.
LEARN MORE: Read more scientists' accounts of working in conflict areas.