Image showing that Colombia has at least 91 different types of ecosystems
kew.org > Blogs > Kew Science blog > Colombia: megadiverse and still to be discovered

Colombia: megadiverse and still to be discovered

Mauricio Diazgranados reveals how Kew is contributing to the ‘green’ development of this country through capacity building and scientific research on its natural resources.
Date: 
9 November 2017
Blog team: 
Author: 
Mauricio Diazgranados

Once considered a failed state

Not so long ago, Colombia was listed as a failed state. People were trapped inside cities because of the high risk of being kidnapped, and for decades armed confrontations affecting civilians happened almost every single day. As a Colombian scientist and field biologist, I learned how to carry out research under those conditions. Countless times I had dangerous encounters with the guerrillas, the paramilitaries and the anti-guerrilla forces. I was detained a few times, had friends kidnapped and even killed, and have personally faced death at very close quarters. 


Image showing Mauricio carrying out fieldwork in 2011 with protection by Colombian soldiers, at the Ocetá páramo in Boyacá

Carrying out fieldwork in 2011 with protection by Colombian soldiers, at the Ocetá páramo in Boyacá (Image: M. Diazgranados).    


The turning point

Today, Colombia is a different country. For the most part it is safe, probably safer than many neighbouring countries. Its economy is booming, with stable growth year after year. With the peace agreements between the Colombian government and revolutionary group FARC-EP (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army), tourism has flourished, boosting the industry and bringing further development across the region.


Image showing Mauricio Camping in the mountains between Cocuy and Chita in Boyacá, in February 2017

Camping in the mountains between Cocuy and Chita in Boyacá, in February 2017 (Image: M. Diazgranados).


New environmental challenges in the post-conflict era

A combination of improved safety in many previously inaccessible areas and rapid development has, however, been a high price for the country’s natural resources. In less than two years, nearly 1.5 million hectares of natural ecosystems have been degraded (equivalent to almost two per cent of the total area) and the deforestation rate is rampant. Despite the celebrated government efforts to increase the national protected areas, the question now is how biodiversity can survive development.


Image showing Deforestation of the Amazon forest in Colombia

Deforestation of the Amazon forest in Colombia (Image: M. Zimmerman 2007: Wikimedia Commons).


Emporium of biodiversity

Still, Colombia is considered a paradise for megadiversity. One in ten known species is found in the country, which ranks second globally in overall species richness. Based on worldwide comparisons, Colombia has the highest diversity of birds (1,937 species) and orchids (4,270) and is the second most diverse country for plants (25,163), amphibians (805), freshwater fishes (1,435) and butterflies (3,274). It is the third most diverse country for reptiles (537) and palms (288) and fourth most diverse for mammals (518). The country also ranks third in overall endemism (with at least 9,153 species that only exist in Colombia) and includes 91 types of ecosystems, from tropical deserts to some of the wettest rainforests. 


Image showing that Colombia has at least 91 different types of ecosystems

Colombia has at least 91 different types of ecosystems (Image: M. Diazgranados).


Seeking a green development

In 2014, the Colombian government launched its Colombia Bio programme, aiming to lead the transformation of its economy into one based on green growth – to make sustainable use of its natural capital and rich biodiversity. The programme, established in the country’s National Development Plan (2014–2018), involves collaborations with a range of national and international partners, including RBG Kew, to undertake primary research on biodiversity and ecosystem services in parts of the country as yet completely unexplored.


Image showing The 15 participants on the Seed Conservation Techniques training course in September 2017, assessing the quality of native seeds on the field trip to Páramo La Rusia in Boyacá

The 15 participants on the Seed Conservation Techniques training course in September 2017, assessing the quality of native seeds on the field trip to Páramo La Rusia in Boyacá (Image: M. Way).


Supporting Colombia’s research and development

In line with Kew’s Science strategy, thirty-two researchers are currently involved in six funded research projects to support exploration of the biological resources of the Boyacá department (region), in the heart of the Andes.


Image showing Taxonomic work to understand Boyacá’s biodiversity of grasses (left) and legumes (right)

Taxonomic work to understand Boyacá’s biodiversity of grasses (left) and legumes (right) (Images: Steven Sylvester; Cesar Castellanos).  


Time for fieldwork

With some of Kew’s scientists currently residing in Colombia, and the first joint expeditions with our local partners underway, 2017 has proved to be a promising year so far. Various new species of grasses, legumes, sunflowers and fungi have already been found and are being characterised. With the growing network of local collaborators, we have been increasing training and capacity building, bringing closer ties between Kew’s scientists and local researchers. 


Image showing Fieldwork day at the oak forest near Tipacoque (Parque Natural Municipal Robledales de Tipacoque), collecting lichen and fungi.

Fieldwork day at the oak forest near Tipacoque (Parque Natural Municipal Robledales de Tipacoque), collecting lichen and fungi.


Plans for the future

Colombia has still a long way to go, with at least two other groups of left-wing rebels, high levels of crime and corruption and appalling income inequality. But this is the window of opportunity to consolidate the country’s transformation and development, whilst safeguarding its biodiversity. RBG Kew is developing a long-term collaboration with the Colombian government and various partner institutions to help identify, protect and promote biodiversity, supporting the sustainable use of natural resources in this megadiverse paradise.

Look out for further blogs that will describe the work of the individual Colombia Bio Programme projects.


Image showing Rainforest at the Río Ñambí Nature Reserve in Nariño. Kew’s plan for Colombia includes working in this department in 2018

Rainforest at the Río Ñambí Nature Reserve in Nariño. Kew’s plan for Colombia includes working in this department (region) in 2018 (Image: M. Diazgranados). 


Further reading

IDEAM, MinAmbiente, IAvH, IIAP, PNN & IGAC (2017). Mapa de Ecosistemas Continentales, Costeros y Marinos de Colombia (escala 1:100.000). Available online

Baptiste B., Pinedo-vasquez M., Gutierrez-Vélez V.H., Andrade G.I., Vieira P., Estupiñán-Suárez, L.M. et al. (2017). Greening peace in Colombia. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1: 0102. Available online

Escobar D., Gamboa J., Buitrago L. (2016). Biodiversity 2016 in numbers. In: BIODIVERSITY 2016. Status and Trends of Colombian Continental Biodiversity. Ed: L.A. Moreno, G.I. Andrade & L.F. Ruíz-Contreras, pp. 11–12. Research Institute of Biological Resources Alexander von Humboldt. Bogotá, D.C., Colombia. 106 p. Available online


Find out more

Profile: Mauricio Diazgranados

Find out more about Mauricio's work.

Kew – Colombia Bio Programme

Find out more about the six projects within the Kew – Colombia Bio Programme

Kew Science news: New species discovered by Kew scientist is named to honour Colombian President

The plant, from the genus Espeletia in the sunflower family, was discovered by Dr Mauricio Diazgranados, Colombian-born Research Leader on Diversity and Livelihoods in the Natural Capital and Plant Health department at Kew.