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‘To change policies, insert yourself in them’: Q&A with biologist Liliana Dávalos

  • Colombian biologist Liliana Dávalos has combined conservation research with evolutionary ecology from her laboratory at Stony Brook University.
  • Dávalos was one of the first scientists to warn, in 2001, about the environmental risks that an eventual end to the civil war in Colombia would have — a scenario that is now playing out as Colombia’s forests are being opened up for commercial activity.
  • Bats are another of Dávalos’s subjects of study: In addition to deciphering their genome to understand their evolution in space and time, more recently Dávalos has studied the relationship of these flying mammals with pathogens such as coronaviruses.
  • In an interview with Mongabay, Dávalos, who is openly gay, also talks about attitudes in academia toward women and lesbians, and sends a message to young researchers not to be blinded by the awareness of obstacles.

Liliana Dávalos had only been studying geology for a few days at the National University of Colombia in 1991 when the program director told the whole class that women were there to find a husband instead of pursuing a career in science.

Dávalos had entered the university, the most important public academic institution in Colombia, after obtaining the highest score in the admission exam to the School of Sciences. She intended to become a paleontologist.

But she didn’t last long there. Instead, she moved to Cali, near her hometown of Palmira, to study biology at the University of Valle in the second semester. Her decision, she says, was not motivated by the teacher’s comments. Instead, she says, she did it because the geology program at the national university was more focused on oil extraction than basic research.

Now, 30 years later, Dávalos is the director of her own laboratory at the Department of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook University in New York. From the Dávalos Lab, she leads a team that conducts “research on extinction and deep-time survival, vertebrate genetics and genomics, and deforestation,” according to their website.

Dávalos has focused on studying the evolution of bats, their genomes and, more recently, the relationship of these flying mammals with pathogens such as coronaviruses. Based on her doctoral degree work, she has published a mathematical model showing that human-caused extinctions have stolen 8 million years’ worth of evolution from bats.

She also studies the relationship between armed conflict, drug trafficking and environmental degradation. She’s recognized for being one of the first people to publish, in 2001, a study on the devastating effects that the end of Colombia’s civil war would have on the country’s forests — a phenomenon now unfolding since the signing of peace accords between the government and FARC guerrillas in 2016.

Dávalos studied for her doctorate at Columbia University with the support of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which she chose mainly for the good public transportation system and broad cultural offerings of the city.

At the time, she signed off on her studies into the conflict and the environment as María D. Álvarez, because she was afraid of exposing her family, especially her sister, who was studying economics at the University of Valle, by using the Dávalos surname, which is very uncommon in Colombia.

“Then, public university students were singled out and stigmatized by paramilitary groups as belonging to the guerrillas, with whom they had confrontations,” Dávalos tells Mongabay in an interview.

Dávalos says her love for science was instilled in her by her parents. Her father was a plant breeder, and her mother a nurse. She also says a documentary showing the discoveries of Louis and Mary Leakey, which she saw when she was 5 years old, was fundamental in guiding her ambitions.

“In the video, they excavated hominid fossils in Africa. I said I wanted to do that, and one day with my cousins ​​, we dug a house garden and unearthed the skeleton of a dog. I convinced my cousins ​​that those were fossils. I thought that what I wanted to study was called archaeology, but it was actually about evolution. That was my dream as a child, and I can say that I have been able to fulfill it with my research,” she says.

In her interview with Mongabay, Dávalos spoke about bats, armed conflict, drug trafficking, and forest degradation, topics that she addressed in April this year when she gave the prestigious Scott A. Margolin ’99 Lecture in Environmental Affairs at Middlebury College.

Dávalos, who is openly lesbian, also spoke about gender and sexual orientation issues in academia, both of which were recently portrayed in a profile on National Geographic about her and her spouse, Angelique Corthals.

Liliana Dávalos in Jamaica, trying to set up a mobile molecular lab. Image by Winifred Frick.

Mongabay: Do you think that, as some scientists have argued, the next pandemic could be caused by a virus originating in the Amazon?

Liliana Dávalos: There are diseases caused by viruses that arose in the Amazon, but have not been pandemics, such as the Mayaro virus, which causes a high fever and joint pains, first discovered on the island of Trinidad in the early 1950s. There have been small outbreaks in the Amazon, but cases are likely underestimated as the symptoms are similar to other infections. These viruses have been found in non-human primates but across a wide range that is often called pan-Amazonian.

There are also viruses that cause hemorrhagic fever and have been found in different animal species, including the Tacaribe virus, which was found in bats in Trinidad, and the Allpahuayo and Chapare viruses found in rodents in the Amazon. The idea that a virus outbreak can arise in the Amazon comes both from some viruses that have been located in vectors or wildlife and from models that project the density of virus diversity depending on the variety of species of mammals and the environmental change that the ecosystem is undergoing. The Amazon is a region with a high rate of change and very high human interaction with a great diversity of mammals. While this contact remains, there is the possibility of a zoonosis, which has been modeled and projected as a risk.

Also, it must be borne in mind that the Amazon’s public health diagnostic capacity is so low that one day someone could come out of the jungle with a fever and be treated for malaria, but it could be a zoonosis. The suffering, pain and death caused by COVID in the Amazon warn us about this.

Although the above is not irrefutable evidence that a pandemic will arise from the Amazon, it is necessary to understand that viruses circulating in wildlife have significant consequences when they reach these other mammals and ourselves.

Mongabay: Could you explain the relationship bats have with coronaviruses and other virus families?

Liliana Dávalos: The first thing to say is that we have great ignorance and do not fully know what it means for a bat to be sick. From the moment relatives of the SARS and MERS virus were discovered in bats, researchers have wondered why these animals showed no signs of being sick. We are investigating this question in my lab. Laboratory studies are showing how they get sick, but it is not known under field conditions. The scientists who discovered those bats that harbored these viruses found that they were not lethargic, nor did they have a fever or other external signs, but that does not mean that they did not experience any discomfort.

In the last two years, 700 relatives of viruses that circulate among the rhinophid and hipposiderid bats of the Old World have been described. What has been found is that it seems like the viruses infect bats in small numbers, such as if the bats had managed to dominate them. One thing that has been proposed is that these flying mammals have a different immune capacity than other mammals. Studies indicate that bats have a biochemical ability to reduce inflammation and high immune response markers against viruses. There are 1,400 species of bats, and about five have been analyzed in which this functionality was found.

Studies have looked at the environmental consequences when people exterminate rabies-transmitting vampire bats. These extermination campaigns have been found to increase the number of circulating viruses because people kill adult bats, which have immunity, and leave young bats alive, which do not, so the virus replicates and increases the spread of the illness. This shows how the human drive toward destruction ends up backfiring because we don’t understand biology. Studies have shown that environmental stressors, such as deforestation, may play a role, but much research remains.

There are viruses that cause hemorrhagic fever and have been found in different animal species, including the Tacaribe virus, which was found in bats in Trinidad, and the Allpahuayo and Chapare viruses found in rodents in the Amazon, said Dávalos. Image by Feroze Omardeen via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

Mongabay: What has been the most striking finding you have made in the genome of bats?

Liliana Dávalos: Perhaps the most important thing that we have published recently is a synthesis of the families of genes that are reduced in bats when compared to other mammals, from proteins that defend in the epithelia of the nose or intestine to the family of defensins, which then activate an inflammatory response, just before the infection.

We found the genes that create proteins from the moment the infectious agent comes into contact with the epithelium until the natural killer cells that oppose the disease are recruited. We discovered that bats reduce all the genes that participate in these processes; they have fewer avenues to generate the inflammatory response. At the same time, they increase another virus recognition response without there being that massive inflammatory cascade that affects humans so strongly.

Mongabay: What do you think of the different hypotheses about the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus?

Liliana Dávalos: To me, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck … This coronavirus comes from bats. There are 700 relatives of the coronavirus circulating in bats. In the epidemics of the first SARS and MERS, the best hypothesis to understand how the transmission of the virus occurred was that it passed from the bats to an intermediary, from which it passed to humans: in the case of SARS, a civet and, in the MERS, a dromedary camel.

Discovering those chains of transmission took years. In the case of COVID-19, we are not clear about the exact way the virus entered that chain, but we understand and know that in China, there has been a strong push toward rural development based on hunting wildlife, which then gets to wet markets. That generated an immense contact of hundreds of millions of rural people and billions of animal individuals, including civets, porcupines, pangolins, everything.

All these mammals are under stressful conditions, their defenses are lowered, and viruses circulate more easily. In the case of SARS-CoV-2, we do not have the clarity on the intermediary animal, if there is one. But there is circumstantial and geographical evidence that points to this route of contact with wildlife.

Mongabay: In this sense, do you rule out the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 originated in a laboratory, as proposed?

Liliana Dávalos: At this time, there is no evidence to rule out that possibility. But on the one hand, we have these millions of people in suboptimal health conditions handling millions of animals to develop the economy of the countryside, and on the other hand, we have a laboratory in Wuhan on which there is no clarity about whether they have provided all the data from their experiments.

But we do not see evidence there, such as a pattern of infections from a patient zero. We do see that with the wildlife markets. In terms of probability, there is no contest between the two scenarios.

Mongabay: For different reasons, such as fiction movies or the transmission of diseases like rabies, bats have gotten an evil reputation. Do you think that this reputation will change and that people will understand the high biological value of these animals?

Liliana Dávalos: That bad reputation is cultural, because in China, bats were good luck animals until this pandemic. What we are experiencing is an opportunity to understand what bats are doing differently. It is also an opportunity to communicate with the public, educate and understand how our actions and influence on the environment can contribute to disease outbreaks.

All of this has led to people talking about bats without understanding them. As someone who has been studying bats for 25 years, I think that we are in a contradictory moment because, on the one hand, I feel that there is interest in them from many branches of biology.

Still, on the other hand, there’s a great need to translate that knowledge to the public so that they understand it. That understanding will not come from scientific papers but from conversations like this one that we are having.

Mongabay: Let’s switch gears a little. You were one of the first scientists to write, 20 years ago, about the environmental risks of a potential end to the conflict in Colombia. How accurate were your predictions?

Liliana Dávalos: Unfortunately, they were more accurate than I expected. Part of the reason I wrote those articles was that I hoped there would be preparation by drawing those scenarios and predicting them. Twenty years ago, a very different peace was envisioned from the one achieved in 2016, but it was known that this was coming for the future. I felt that, as a scientist, publishing the articles was enough because people could already read them, and that was it.

Through my experience, I have understood that this is not the way things are, that if one wants to change policies, one must be inserted in them. If your goal is to change the public’s perception, you have to insert yourself there. The predictions have come true, and the change has been more sudden and greater than I expected.

One of the things I wondered was how the exploitation policies were going to be handled because when the conflict ended, mining and logging would enter certain areas. The results we have seen are consistent with a free-for-all. The policy was that with peace, these problems were going to solve themselves; since it didn’t happen, a reaction on the part of the state began, with military operations like Artemisa. That, with designed policies, would have been avoided.

Mongabay: In what way has the FARC’s departure from the Colombian jungles harmed the forests?

Liliana Dávalos: There have been several levels of analysis. On the one hand, there used to be an environmental policy reinforced by violence by the FARC in their control sites.

For example, they told people where to log and where not to. Some of these areas were the natural parks of Macarena, Tinigua and Picachos. On the other hand, we had the conflict zones, in which the FARC clashed with other organizations, and in which the companies that exploited natural resources did not enter out of fear.

These two situations were brakes on that deforestation car. From one moment to the next, we took the brakes off that car. I am not saying that the control of the FARC was reasonable. I am saying that there must be an environmental policy that is credibly supported and not just sporadic military air raids.

This is different from what the FARC had: people at ground level protecting the environment violently, which is wrong because the law enforcement organizations are the ones who must defend. But how many wars have been won from the air? If we want to have an actual policy, it must have people on the ground.

Liliana Dávalos in the Dominican Republic, capturing bats. Image by Stephen Rossiter.

Mongabay: How has research into the relationship between conflict and the environment evolved in Colombia?

Liliana Dávalos: One of the things that have changed in these 20 years is that, at first, there were very few people in that research field, and now there are several laboratories. One of these teams is led by Dolors Armenteras, who saw this evidence earlier than all teams when studying the fires.

We started working together and were able to quantify and use models to project how much deforestation we expected based on the fires, which gave us an early warning of deforestation. Researchers like Pablo Murillo have found a disproportionate increase in deforestation.

All these teams have discovered that in the areas where there was territorial control of the FARC, deforestation accelerated, which we have classified as an environmental conflict after the political conflict. The latest works that we have developed on this topic have had certain inconveniences to be published, such as delays in peer review. Although it seems anecdotal, it is the reality of publishing from developing countries. This also responds to the fact that it is more difficult for women to publish.

Mongabay: What is the solution to this environmental conflict? Could it be the presence of the army in the forests?

Liliana Dávalos: It cannot be the army because that would mean a governance problem. Those who enforce the law in forests should be seen as people who act fairly. That cannot be done by commanding the army. What we need there is civil governance.

This leads us to the question of how many years the war on drugs has been militarized in Colombia and what the results are. If we are going to militarize forests, we must ask ourselves how effective the militarization of illegal situations, such as coca planting or logging, has been.

We are talking about strengthening civil governance and empowering communities around conservation. Recent articles we’ve published have put coca, conflict and deforestation into a single model. We have found that coca generates armed conflict, and armed conflict generates deforestation.

Mongabay: In Colombia, coca is grown mainly to produce cocaine, the most significant export product of drug trafficking. Do you think that the solution to this problem is the legalization of drugs?

Liliana Dávalos: That just isn’t going to happen. The illegalization of drugs such as cocaine is part of international agreements. The only countries interested in changing are the most affected countries in Latin America, which are the producers. The other countries that are not so affected or only harmed by consumption and traffic have no interest in having this conversation.

When it comes to legalization, it seems like an interesting theoretical fact that will not happen. However, coca only has indirect effects on deforestation. Who is deforesting the Amazon in Brazil? We have to realize in which situations the cocaine is driving the car and in which it is in the passenger’s seat. In Colombia, in the Andean zone, coca is the driver. Still, in the Amazonian regions, I see patterns of deforestation that cannot be explained by coca and that do not explain the extent of the loss of the forest.

The dynamics of deforestation in Colombia, an Orinoquia-Amazon problem, is gigantic. We cannot understand it without considering land tenure and its association with pastures, cows, and agricultural credit.

In Colombia, clearing forests, creating pastures, and putting in cows can help obtain credit and sell the land to people who will put up a farm. The solution is to carry out a cadastral revolution with national geographic information systems. The department of Antioquia is pioneering systematized property records.

Mongabay: You have said that the expansion of coca crops can be understood as a process of colonization. What do you mean?

Liliana Dávalos: We must know that coca for cocaine is not exclusive to Colombia, because this also happens in Peru and Bolivia. But in those countries, the percentage of legal coca is much higher because they have had a much more culturally rooted traditional consumption. However, the large Peruvian and Bolivian coca areas are in the Amazon and coincide spatially and temporally with the colonization of the Amazon frontier and the Amazon Andes.

This resulted from intense pressure and expansion in which Peruvian President Fernando Belaunde Terry (1963-1968 and 1980-1985) was essential. He said that Caracas had to be connected to Buenos Aires by the Marginal Highway. This road is critical, not only because of the sections that have been built but also because of its vision and how it launched internationally financed development investments.

We are talking about the mid-20th century, the heyday of the world’s nation-states taking control. At that time, under the mandate of President Kennedy, in the United States, the Alliance for Progress emerged, which provided financing from multilateral banks. That vision of Belaunde Terry, promoted by politicians in the region, became a financing mechanism in which governments could access credit and be part of the investment. The vision involved decentralizing the populations, concentrated, in the case of Peru, on the coasts, and in the Sierra. At that time, there was also the risk of communism and political polarization, which is why agrarian reforms were proposed so they could grant land to peasants who were “unruly.”

The alternatives were to generate a change in the use of the land with a revitalization of the labor markets so that this peasantry was absorbed or colonize other places. We already know what path Latin America took. As we said in a book edited by Paul Gutenberg, this was like wanting to make omelets without breaking the eggs; that is, to make political change without damaging the relationship with the landowners. This was achieved by opening the Amazon.

This geographical and temporal pattern shows that it is not a coincidence that the areas that today are coca crops were once colonization fronts, many of them supported by the state as a way to alleviate the conflict over land.

Mongabay: What have been the biggest obstacles you have faced in your career as a woman?

Liliana Dávalos: One of the first memories I have of when I entered the geology program at the National University of Colombia was when someone in a position of authority told me that I did not belong there. At that time, I was very young, and I didn’t see it as a gender issue, and it didn’t change anything about what I wanted to do in science. But there are many cases of women who could not open their space.

My partner, Angelique Corthals, says that she has faced more problems for being a woman than for being a lesbian. Before, you were told by other women that you had to lower your head and work harder to achieve half of what men could. Now, several statistical works show that the problem is not in the individual but the lack of spaces, the subtle conversations, et cetera.

Something that has changed is the ability to take videos, which has opened a lot of windows to expose situations that are no longer tolerated. One example that comes to my mind was an ornithology conference that I attended in the early 2000s in the United States. Some male attendees had a firm dispute about the concept of species, and one of them, during a keynote conference, showed condoms of different sizes with the names of the other male attendees. One of the attendees put a raised rifle between his pants in response. It was a competition to see “who was bigger.”

A female ornithologist told me that [she felt] the whole situation left us, women, out of the discussion. There is no video of that, but if the event had occurred today, it would be on YouTube, and it would have generated a conversation and an investigation, or at least a hashtag.

Liliana Dávalos in the Tatacoa Desert (Huila, Colombia), with the paleontological team of Siobhán Cooke, Lisa Tallmany, and Andrés Link. Image courtesy of Siobhán Cooke.

Mongabay: Have you faced obstacles in your career for being openly lesbian?

Liliana Dávalos: To be honest, no. But many women are aware that they are already part of a minority because they are women, so all they can get from there is a benefit. I see very clearly how there is deep-rooted misogyny that has not ended. I don’t see an equivalent in matters of female homosexuality.

Mongabay: But do you think that, even in the 21st century, people with diverse sexual orientations have a hard time in academia?

Liliana Dávalos: There are countries where there is still tremendous inequality that does not allow homosexual people to access rights as essential as inheritance or social security through their partners.

Just look at the laws of some countries to realize this. Switzerland only recently approved gay marriage. When Angelique and I got married in New York, we did it very quickly because we thought the law would be derogated.

Mongabay: You have collaborated with scientists working in Colombia and other developing countries. Do you think they are at a disadvantage compared to their peers in developed countries?

Liliana Dávalos: Definitely, we have experienced this when we received derogatory treatment, for example, from anonymous reviewers. I have had to write to the editors to tell them that such treatment is unacceptable. I don’t know if it was because I was a woman or because my collaborators came from developing countries.

We have received comments from reviewers who take advantage of anonymity to use insulting words.

Mongabay: What is your message for young women in developing countries, like Colombia, who want to start a career in science?

Liliana Dávalos: Do not let the awareness of the obstacles blind you from your immense capacity and the immense contributions you can make to change power structures. And now that there is video and big data analytics, that fight must go on. You don’t have to leave the field to the rest.

Mongabay: How to take conservation results to a global scale?

Liliana Dávalos: When you stop focusing on coca and think about globalization patterns, you see them everywhere. That was the subject of a study we did in 2016 for the United Nations, in which we analyzed illicit crops around the world, and we found parallels.

At that time, I was examining deforestation in the high mountain ranges of Laos, where there is an armed conflict. We discovered that opium crops were not strongly associated with deforestation, as they were more related to economic development drives. Another current issue is the armed conflict against environmental defenders, concentrated in Colombia but alive throughout Latin America. The vision of understanding how armed conflicts are rooted in ecological conflicts is very relevant globally.

Mongabay: What do you think of current conservation trends? Do you think they are heading in the right direction?

Liliana Dávalos: In 2008, I thought that the main concern for the future would be having enough resources to guarantee food for the global population. We understand that the same crops that are destroying forests face reduced productivity due to the absence of forests. That had been theorized, but we had not been able to observe it until now.

We are living a climate emergency that touches us all. One of my greatest hopes is that there is already a genre of science fiction about climate change and that it describes new policies and new ways of tackling the crisis. This inspires me more than anything because it talks about changing a system and a culture. And art changes cultures.

On the other hand, in terms of biodiversity, there is an extensive network of conservation areas in Latin America with environmental defenders, including threatened people.

Legally it is strong protection, but it has a gap in the development of intermediate spaces. We cannot expect the entire Amazon to be a national park or an Indigenous reserve, but neither can we expect that only the protected reserves will be conserved and that everything else will become cropland or pasture. It’s a disaster for the climate. One possible solution is agroforestry. The next 10 years are crucial, and with each passing year, it is imperative not to fall into despair and think that everything is over. There is an urgency, and the change must be systemic.

Banner image: Liliana Dávalos in the Dominican Republic, capturing bats. Image by Stephen Rossiter.