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.
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Research and environmental protection have never been priorities for a country mired in battling armed groups and extreme income inequality. Governments have focused on trying to move the country out of poverty and conflict through exploiting its natural resources, not through sustainable resource development.Skip to next paragraph
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Cogollo sees things a different way. By making a thorough inventory of Colombia's flora, educating the public about alternative uses for the land, and researching plants' potential uses – including as pharmaceuticals, foods, and sustainable bio-fuels – Colombia could improve its economy and quality of life without neglecting conservation, Cogollo says.
"He's always trying to make people understand that the biodiversity can be used in a sustainable way and as income for the community," Hoyos Gómez says.
Cogollo's vision involves creating a more equitable economic system for poor, rural people who depend on forests. John Pipoly, an American botanist who began collaborating with Cogollo in the 1980s, says he always employs local people on expeditions, exchanging knowledge with them about traditional and potential new uses for indigenous plants.
"Cogollo's approach is, 'Let's figure out how to help these people be sustainable,' and asking what returns will people see on investment of working with us short- and long-term," Dr. Pipoly says.
Cogollo's other major achievement has been the transformation of a neglected botanical garden in a downtrodden Medellín neighborhood into a renowned center for research, environmental education, and community gatherings. What had been an exclusive club mainly for wealthy orchid enthusiasts now offers free admission and attracts rich and poor alike.
The success of the botanical garden has in turn contributed to the transformation of Medellín. Once paralyzed by violent turf wars between armed groups, the city has embraced civic improvements that include better public safety, tougher pollution controls, a modernized public transportation system, and the creation of green spaces.
The botanical garden is a centerpiece of efforts to "green" the city.
Today, Colombians are beginning to develop an environmental consciousness, Cogollo says. But there are huge disparities between environmental conditions among wealthy and poor communities.
And that's where he has focused his latest efforts, teaching Colombians from all social classes and backgrounds about the importance of biodiversity and conservation through a shared musical heritage.
"The fact that Álvaro's been able to give ... talks to audiences filled with all kinds of people is very important, and that's what happened in Medellín the first time [he talked about vallenato music]," Dr. Forero says. "People sitting there had no idea of the [science], and then they did."
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