Colombia prides itself on being the most diverse country in the world, but its biological collection is at risk

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Last Monday, February 5, it rained heavily again in Bogotá. Professor Andrés Cuervo, curator of the ornithology collection at the Institute of Natural Sciences (ICN) of the National University of Colombia, was in his office when a terrified female student and her assistant arrived. Above the tanks housing the biological collection, the largest bird in Colombia, the country with the largest number of species in the world, it was raining. It wasn't drops. They were water jugs. They acted in emergency mode. They laid down plastic that ICN had already had to use on several occasions to protect the tanks, grabbed buckets that seemed insufficient and literally prayed that none of the 43,000 bird specimens they had would get into the water. There, there were 1,650 bird species at risk, approximately 85% of those found in Colombia.

“I suffered a lot,” Cuervo says a week later. After searching one drawer after another, they found no damage, just a few bird marks that were blurred by raindrops. Still, the chaos was warning enough of what might be coming. “It's a very difficult subject emotionally. But the mind would also say to me: What did I do to make it all go to waste? It felt as if the Mona Lisa had been painted under your care.”

This is not the first time researchers have faced concerns like this. Since 2010, it has been almost constant. The ICN building houses not only the ornithology collection, but also 12 other collections, including the National Herbarium, which is also the largest botanical herbarium in Colombia, with more than 600,000 specimens. And now he is flirting with ruin. Although, in addition to the 13 collections, there are a total of 3.5 million samples, the infrastructure has been flooded, there are leaks, and the building is suffering from a structural failure that has filled it with cracks.

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The deterioration of the institute building. picture: Camila Acosta Alzate | video: EPV

“In fact, the ICN is two buildings connected to each other,” says Gonzalo Andrade, director of the institute. The first one was built in the 1970s, and since it was built in a wet area, they designed it with technology so it could move or tilt slightly, depending on the time of year. The second annex, built in the 1980s, was repaired without expansion. “Then, as the original moves south, it collides with the new, causing it to break.”

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Carlos Parra, who was director of the National Herbarium between 2010 and 2018, recalls that around 2017, the university conducted a study to find out what was happening and what could be done. “The conclusion was that reinforcing the building was more expensive than demolishing it and rebuilding it. Mitigation was then proposed which included ten recommendations, such as placing a grid on the roofs. “That way, if something shook and something fell,” recalls Parra, who during his tenure witnessed three major floods “What, he wouldn't hit us in the head, but that didn't even happen.”

The scientists' concern is enormous, and goes beyond the risks faced by the approximately 30 researchers working in the building. The deepest fear is losing what those vaults hold, which hold years of data, history, and information. he First sample Which entered the National Herbarium, for example, is Equisetum bogotense They were collected by the famous botanist José Jeronimo Triana in 1853. In fact, from the Choreographic Commission, led by General Agustín Codazzi for geographical and cartographic studies, and of which Triana was the main botanist, there are about 5,000 specimens collected between 1851 and 1851. 1857.

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But the herbarium has older specimens. With a plant on the table, dating back to 1783, Julian Aguirre, professor and botanist at INC, says that through an exchange with the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid (Spain), many specimens were collected by the famous botanist and mathematician José Celestino Mutis. . During the Royal Botanical Expedition to the Kingdom of New Granada. From that collection there are 598 specimens collected between 1783 and 1810.

Plant species preserved at the institute. Camila Acosta Alzate

What the ICN building holds is a treasure. It is the nation's heritage, says Andrade. It is clear to non-experts that these reservoirs contain genetic potential and scientific resources that serve the world and are reference points in the history of Colombia. But Cuervo, who has been guarding the bird collection for five years, also sees thousands of stories. In the flood – which was not in Noah's Ark – the specimens of the Andean vulture, a bird that was declared extinct in 1977, would have been lost; miniature hummingbirds, which are only the size of a pinky; And unique species that are only found in areas such as the Serranía del Pinche in Cauca. “It was a disaster experience.”

Saving the collections: a project still in progress

National University is no stranger to what happens inside INC facilities. Andrade adds that in 2018, the institute and the university's architects designed a project of four buildings to house the collections, those natural treasures, in a safer way, according to the standards they deserve. “We are not standing still. The buildings we are proposing, which cannot be more than five storeys high according to the regional planning plan, will give us a storage capacity of between 8,000 and 10,000 square metres, while the current capacity is about 5,000 square metres.

However, the plans have been on paper for more than five years. Not even the first brick was laid, because no one donated money to start construction. “The value of this project, with the financing involved, is 93 thousand million pesos (about $24 million) and even if we get only part of this money, we will be ready to start construction, even if it is a building.”

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According to Camilo Yunes, vice president of research at the National University, a public institution, the investment budget they have available – which is different from the money allocated for their operation – amounts to 300,000 million pesos for three years (just under $77 million). “We cannot spend nearly 100,000 pesos on one project, on one building, and that is why we cannot stick to the current budget,” he says.

What they did from the university and from ICN itself was to call on the government to somehow intervene and get that money. “We believe that this is a responsibility of the ministries of science, environment and education, but also of the Ministry of Culture, because the constitution stipulates that the flora and fauna of the country is Colombian heritage,” says Andrade. But none of the ministries wanted to say much. America Futura contacted them and the only response was from the Ministry of Culture, via the Heritage District.

“We visited the building last Friday. The university is conducting the technical study and will have to submit the project for a license because it is located in the area of ​​influence of the national assets of cultural importance of the campus. The Ministry of Culture is not responsible for the investment, it must be done by the owner,” they explained. It is the national university.

Researchers catalog the birds at the institute. Camila Acosta Alzate

Professor Cuervo now hopes that some small repairs made to the roof where the ornithology collection is located will be able to withstand future rain. But what breaks his heart is that in Colombia, a country with such high and growing diversity, the infrastructure it has to protect it “doesn't do it justice.”

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