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Difference Maker

Álvaro Cogollo uses popular music to entice Colombians to love nature

Biologist Álvaro Cogollo draws on Colombia's native vallenato music to inspire a love for his country's biodiversity.

By Autumn SpanneContributor / January 3, 2012



MedellÍn, Colombia; and New York

As a boy growing up on a farm near the Caribbean coast of Colombia, Álvaro Cogollo loved the forest. His grandfather taught him the common names of the plants, trees, and animals, and Mr. Cogollo would disappear for hours with a notebook, recording the explosion of life he found there.

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After long days harvesting cotton and corn, Cogollo's laboratory was the forest. And vallenato, the traditional music of the region, with its upbeat accordion, distinctive rhythms, and poignant lyrics, was his soundtrack.

Plants and vallenato have been lifelong passions for Cogollo, now the scientific director of the Medellín Botanical Garden. His Spanish teacher, a folklore enthusiast, encouraged an early interest in the music.

Later, as a biology student in the 1970s, Cogollo studied plant taxonomy by thinking of all the plant references he could remember from classic vallenato songs. He has since traveled around the country to document its rich botanical heritage and, informally, studied the music that tells an important story of Colombia.

"We were colonized by the Spanish; later, Africans were brought as slaves to exploit gold mines; and the indigenous peoples were [already] here," he says. "That is what authentic vallenato represents with its three instruments: the accordion, from a European origin; la caja [drum], which is of African origin; and la guacharaca, a percussion instrument made from a palm trunk, [which] is from [indigenous] American origin."

Over the course of his nearly four-decade career, Cogollo has discovered more than 150 new species of plants, 17 of which bear his name. He has won numerous awards for his research and mentored many young biologists.

"Working with him is really incredible because he can just stop and talk about a plant, how it grows, the distribution, the ecology, the uses, the names – he's a real bible for botany in Colombia," says Saúl Ernesto Hoyos Gómez, a botanist who directs a Colombian conservation organization called Fragmento and who first worked with Cogollo as an undergraduate biology student. Mr. Hoyos Gómez still reverently calls Cogollo el profesor.

Although Cogollo never earned a PhD, his colleagues say he's made invaluable contributions to knowledge of Colombia's flora at a time when deforestation poses a grave threat to the country's biodiversity.

"My opinion is that he is probably the best field botanist there is in Colombia right now," says Enrique Forero, a member of the Colombian Academy of Sciences who has known Cogollo for 25 years.

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