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‘You don’t find orchids; they find you’: Q&A with botanist Edicson Parra

  • Edicson Parra has not only discovered more than 20 new species of orchids in his home country of Colombia, but has also used his expertise in orchid diversity to help halt development, road and mining projects that would have otherwise threatened their forest habitats.
  • But studying orchids can be a dangerous challenge in Colombia, due to drug traffickers and threats to environmentalists in the country.
  • Parra says orchids could be “one of the most sensitive of all Earth’s taxa.” Orchids are particularly vulnerable and fragile to deforestation, including edge effects, making protecting large tracts of forests key to their survival.

When a mining company came to exploit an old-growth cloud forest near Edicson Parra’s hometown of Fusagasuga in Colombia, he decided to take action. He rallied as many relatives and friends as he could and joined a street protest against the looming project.

Photos of Parra and his family waving placards and sporting identical Colombian soccer jerseys ran in local newspapers. But Parra had one superpower nobody else at the protest possessed: he had spent 10 years learning how to identify orchids.

On entering the tract of forest slated for demolition, Parra, who recently received his Ph.D. in conservation science from Imperial College London, did what any biologist worth their salt would do: he carried out a biological survey. Rooting through mossy treetops and rotten logs, Parra found 24 species of orchids living in the cloud forest. Three were endemic to Colombia. One of these, Epidendrum fusagasugüense, Parra had discovered and named after his hometown only the year before.

He provided the information from his botanical survey to a legal team fighting the mining. A court eventually banned development in the ecosystem. A central factor in the ruling was the recognition of the forest as an orchid hotspot, along with the fact that this forest provides freshwater to over 1,000 households.

But this wasn’t the first time Parra had used his orchid knowhow in defense of Colombia’s cloud forests. Already once before, his botanical surveys helped divert a road set to cut through a unique forest reserve in the Central Cordillera. And when a company planned to build a gated community of luxury chalets in a forest that Parra calls “the orchid Garden of Eden” – home to 126 orchid species, including 15 completely new to science — his targeted surveys once again came to the rescue.

Mongabay caught up with Parra to chat about using orchids to save forests, the realities of working as a biologist in war-torn and post-conflict Colombia, and the threats and conservation opportunities for Colombia’s most enigmatic plant family.

Edicson Parra searches for understory and canopy orchids in the cloud forests of the Colombian Andes. Images by Gianluca Cerullo.

Mongabay: Where did your passion for orchids come from?

Edicson Parra: My mum was into her flowers. When I was young, we used to hike up into the hills and look for orchids. I literally fell in love. I can’t think of another explanation apart from love. Whenever I get the chance to go into the forest now, I always bring that passion with me. I try to keep the link between being a scientist and a human. There’s this perception of scientists as heartless. But how can you be called heartless when you regularly say out loud that you are in love with a family of plants? It helps that orchids are so emblematic in Colombia and that we really are the global epicenter for orchid diversity — for sure, that keeps things interesting!

Why are there so many orchid species in Colombia and do you think there are many more to still be discovered?

My country has more than 4,000 species of orchids. Even though orchids are the most diverse plant family in the entire world, that’s still a hefty chunk of Earth’s orchids! The story of why Colombia is the most orchid-rich country on the globe is closely linked to the uplift of the Andes. As these mountains rose, it provided a huge altitudinal and spatial gradient, with lots of varied microhabitats that epiphytes [plants that grow on other plants], including orchids, were able to exploit. We also have this land gradient between the Amazon and the Andes in southwest Colombia which is incredibly diverse.

The second reason for Colombia’s staggering orchid diversity lies in the very high diversification rate of some of its smaller orchids, especially the subtribe of orchids known as the Pleurothallidinae. These essentially settled in one place and then exploded in diversity like an orchid atomic bomb!

There are definitely many more species to be discovered in Colombia. Previously conflicts with guerrillas made it difficult to access some areas for surveys, but in peacetime lots of new expeditions are on the hunt for new species. There’s huge potential for exciting discoveries, especially in the Chocó biogeographic region in the west of the country, which is pretty well preserved.

Colombia is the most orchid-rich country in the world, with more than 4,000 species. Images by Edicson Parra.

How do orchids respond to forest degradation?

So far there has actually not been much research into how orchids respond to habitat degradation, but from what we do know, things look very worrying indeed. When you chop down or fragment a forest it creates these new edges that my research has shown can have devastating impacts on orchids.

Working in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, I found that there are some drought-resilient orchid species that can survive in farms or colonize the drier edges of forests. But this is only a tiny fraction of hardy orchids. Most species, including those that are the most critical in providing pollen and other rewards to pollinators, are extremely sensitive and simply cannot survive in forest edges.

Because orchid seeds don’t have a protective tissue, to grow, their seeds have to land in a sort of Goldilocks zone, where conditions such as moisture and mycorrhizal associations are just right. But these Goldilocks zones vanish as humans homogenize forests and as edge effects fritter away core forest area.

In my research, I found that 85 percent of orchids need to be half a kilometer [0.3 miles], or even more, away from the forest edge to have the right sort of habitat to survive. That’s huge! To put that in perspective, that means that less than one-fifth of habitat remaining in the entire Brazilian Atlantic Forest biome, which has already been heavily fragmented and reduced by farming, could actually conceivably support forest-specialist orchids into the future. Orchids could very well be one of the most sensitive of all Earth’s taxa.

You’ve discovered more than 20 species of orchid. Which were the most meaningful to you?

You never forget your first love, and it’s like that with my first orchid discovery: Lepanthes foreroi, named after my botany professor at university. I remember working in Yotoco reserve with my friend when I stumbled across it. And then, during my master’s, I found a few species. The one I named after my son, Hapalorchis dominicii, is of course special to me. And then a few species, Epidendrum fusugasugüensis and Lepanthes dapäensis, came at a really good time for the conservation of community forests. Ah, it’s so hard to pick one!

The one I’ve named after my partner is still in press, waiting to be published, so that will be a nice if it comes through!

People in my field, especially non-academics, say that you don’t find orchids. Spend enough time in the forest, and it’s the orchids that find you. Like a human pollinator, you are pulled in by their fragrance and the complex, fragile reproductive systems that they have evolved. I have to admit that I do put some stock in that. Whenever I go in the forest, I just feel this lure toward orchids. It’s magnetic! Probably something is wrong with my brain.

Parra’s discovery of Epidendrum fusagasugüense came at a very important time for the conservation of a community cloud forest imperilled by a looming mining project. Image by Edicson Parra.
Orchids are epiphytes, meaning that they grow on other plants. This makes them very vulnerable to habitat change, as they require ideal conditions to survive. Images by Edicson Parra.

What were some of the more harrowing experiences of working as a biologist in Colombia during the war?

In 2o1o, I was working alone in Garrapatas, near the Páramo las Hermosas. This area was historically under the control of drug-trafficking groups. Once, I was stopped at a territorial checkpoint, stripped of my clothes and held at gunpoint for several hours. I was only an undergrad at the time and I had barely enough money even for transport, let alone to pay any bribes. But I’d committed the mistake of borrowing a GPS from my university. This raised a lot suspicion, as the guys thought I had been sent by the military to spy on their territory. There was a lot of shouting and arguing. In the end I think they got bored of my wimping and let me go. But that was scary.

Another time I was carrying out orchid surveys in cloud forests near the Chalet de la Muerte. This place was the scene of a horrible atrocity, where a cartel wanting control over the area had slaughtered many community leaders. While I was exploring my forest plot sites, I collapsed through the forest floor and into a hole. Initially I thought I had fallen into an ancient indigenous tomb and was really excited. But I quickly realized I was walking on bones and that this was in fact the scene of a mass slaughter and grave. That still makes me really sad today because I know that the people murdered were innocents who only wanted to live their lives in peace.

The most danger I have been in myself though was nothing to do with the conflict. I was 27 meters [89 feet] up a tree looking for canopy epiphytes and my rope was caught in a bromeliad at the fork of a branch. I went to untangle the rope and got bitten by a very venomous pit viper. It was probably hunting for frogs around the bromeliad. So I did what any macho man would do in that situation: I screamed out, cried a lot and shouted for help! I was silly enough to be in the forest on my own, so it was a long and dizzy way back down the tree, to camp, and then on to the hospital to get anti-venom. When I next went back to the field, I made sure that I had an assistant!

Edicson Parra returns from a day hunting for orchids in mountaintop cloud forests. Image by Gianluca Cerullo.

Why was the forest near your hometown under threat and how did you help to ensure its conservation?

In short, this cloud forest reserve, which provides water to over 1,000 Colombian households and farmlands, was imperilled by a mining development project. After community members attended a workshop run by the mining company, they felt they had been unfairly tricked into accepting the project by its silver-tongued representatives. This fomented distrust. When a fire suspiciously broke out in the forest, locals fought to douse the flames and save some of the resident wildlife. This was when our community really came together and were galvanized to attempt to halt the mining through peaceful protest.

I was having drinks with other protesters and I expressed my intention to help out in any way that I could. And the only thing I know how to do is sample orchids. Apart from that I’m pretty useless. So I went into the forest, carried out my surveys and found these rare orchids — one of which had never been recorded before in the Central Cordillera. It was pretty exciting for the community who weren’t aware how diverse the orchids in the forest were.

I also did something else. Here in Colombia, whenever a company wants to carry out a small- or large-scale project, they have to hand in a report that quantifies which species are present in the area. But when I looked in public archives at the report submitted by the mining company, I found that it a was plagiarized copy of a completely different assessment carried out elsewhere. This report said that there were no orchids at all even present in the forest — which was in complete contradiction to my findings.

Orchids are protected in Colombia by law. So if a company wants develop in an orchid area, they have to spend money on restoration or mitigation. And the last thing a mining company wants to do, at least from my own experience, is spend money on biodiversity.

But if you lie in a public document, it means you are lying to the government and the state. Which is a crime. So I submitted my findings as documents in the trial. The judge validated my report, and thanks to that report — and especially to the hard work of the community, without whom the whole process wouldn’t have even been possible — the company was prevented from mining in the area.

We celebrated with lots of beer and Tejo! [Tejo is a Colombian sport that involves throwing metal pucks at a clay target full of balls of gunpowder, which explode on impact.]

After a suspicious fire broke out in community-owned cloud forest slated for mining, community members tried to rescue resident animals and douse the flames. This sloth died from its wounds days after. Images by Edicson Parra.

Are there any other examples of how you have used your knowledge of orchids to save forests?

I once carried out a knowledge-exchange project with my botanist friend Oscar Perez in a community reserve in Dapa, near Cali. It was in this 10-hectare [25-acre] forest fragment. We found around 126 species in this one fragment. It’s the most orchid-rich forest I’ve ever been in, like some kind of orchid Garden of Eden. Around 15 of the species we found were completely new to science!

But that reserve was in the eyes of a construction developer. Dapa is in this really privileged spot that overlooks all of Cali, so this construction project wanted to build luxury chalets there. The community was against that. So they organized themselves and they were trying to find evidence that the forest had value — not just biological value, but also cultural value.

Using our surveys in the fragment, as well as of orchids in the surrounding forests, the community was able to demonstrate the high biological value of the area. But we’d also trained some kids and community leaders on how to spot and cultivate orchids in the forest. And we’d made an orchid trail through the ecosystem so that community members could make a bit of money through ecotourism, from people coming from Cali to see orchids in the wild. This was further evidence that the fragment had cultural value to the community too.

With proof of its importance, the community was able to apply pressure to halt construction in the fragment. It was a real group effort that in the end led to the local government negotiating with the project manager to even bring the fragment into a corridor of small protected forest reserves. That was a great achievement.

I’ve also been involved in a locally organized and community-driven project to divert a road from being expanded through the only official forest reserve on the flank of the Valle del Cauca Cordillera. Again, with orchid surveys, and in close concert with local communities and the National University of Colombia, we were able to force the road developer to build tens of kilometers of extra road so that they circumvented cutting through this monkey-filled and orchid-bursting cloud forest.

Is it dangerous for environmental activists to challenge extractive industries in Colombia?

Since 2018, 317 social leaders, including environmental activists, have been killed in Colombia, with a further 4,000 considered to be under threat. The impact of this is huge, not just because of the life and expertise lost with each leader, but because of how the fear surrounding these murders stifles the emergence of new leaders in remote areas, where they are needed most. We’re tired of this sort of thing. We’ve already had 60 years of war.

It’s hard to link these deaths to extractive industries directly. A lot of it is over territorial conflict, with splinter paramilitary and criminal groups using brutal tactics to take over previously FARC-dominated areas left in the post-conflict power vacuum.

Currently, one of the frontiers for environmental activism in Colombia is related to mineral extraction in our high-altitude flagship páramo ecosystems. These strange areas studded with frailejon [a sunflower-like shrub] are like natural sponges that provide water to literally millions of people. But with strong political support, they are being carved up into gold and rare mineral concessions at the behest of transnational corporations. Just in the past days we’ve seen tens of thousands of people in Bucaramanga rise up to protest against the company Minesa, which is planning to mine for gold near the Santurban páramo.

Colombia’s páramo ecosystems capture, regulate and provide water for millions of people, but are threatened by mining and poor government protection. Image by Gianluca Cerullo.

What are some of the key threats that orchids face in Colombia?

The conversion of land and expansion of the agricultural frontier is the main threat because of the high sensitivity of orchids. Harvesting and collection of orchids for the illegal trade is probably a big threat also, but there is very little reliable information on the magnitude or extent of this currently. Historically, the orchid trade was likely much higher than today. I’ve been told stories by local people in the Eastern Cordillera who used to see entire trucks filled with orchids drive past their houses several times a week 25 years ago.

Climate change is set to hit high-altitude cloud forests especially hard, have you seen this impact of this already and are you concerned for orchids in a warmer world?

What worries me most of all about climate change is how it’s going to worsen the already considerable problems caused by habitat degradation. Already, our forest fragments and edges have drier exteriors that don’t hold moisture well and have more intense light exposure. Water is such an important factor for the survival of orchids, and looking at how so many orchid species just go extinct at forests’ dry edges, what’s going to happen when warmer temperatures and changes to water cycles are added to the mix? It’s not just the orchids that are going to suffer, but the pollinators that rely on them.

Orchids provide key resources to pollinators including bats, hummingbirds, bees and many other insects. Images by Edicson Parra.

Colombia is undergoing huge political change. Do you think this will lead to a shift in how its forests are managed in the future?

Yes. We are in a strategic moment. Currently, there is a lot of discussion about Colombia’s national plan and its planes de ordenamiento territorial, which dictates regional environmental policy over 12 years. Similar to what is happening in Brazil, with [President Jair] Bolsanaro strongly favoring expansion into the Amazon, our current government is very much in favor of pursuing unsustainable development, recently opening up new areas to fracking, mining and oil extraction, and also seeking to unravel protective legislation, particularly in páramos. It’s certainly a tense time for Colombia’s environment. We are at a tipping point.

Ediscson Parra carries out biodiversity surveys in páramos degraded by fire and grazing. Image by Edicson Parra.

If you could give one message to Colombian politicians or members of the public to help in orchid conservation, what would it be?

For politicians, let’s look at the scientific evidence of the impacts of habitat destruction on people and the environment, instead of just viewing exploitation as a means for short-term economic gains. For communities, let’s be happy with the amazing diversity of Colombia and try to protect it. That’s our legacy and our heritage as citizens lucky enough to live in one of the most biologically rich countries on Earth!

What advice would you give to young conservationists who want to use their research to act?

For me, I got lucky. I fell in love with orchids, which are naturally a very charismatic and treasured family of plants. So when I go to talk to people about orchids, they take an immediate interest. From my orchids and experiences, I have learned that you should embrace the knowledge that you have and make it sound fun. That’s how you will get people to listen to you. Understand the scientific literature, and then think of ways to transform it into ways that will be easy to understand for politicians or community leaders. People are not stupid, but conservationists are not always the best at communicating. So be active in trying to engage people about science.