Colombia has more species of orchid than anywhere else on earth and now Colombian scientist Tatiana Arias is hoping that cataloging and cultivating orchids can help improve the lives of rural and remote people.
Colombia has over 4200 documented species of orchids, but the race is on to both preserve the landscapes where they are found and to find better and more sustainable ways to cultivate certain varieties.
After a peace agreement heralded an end to more than six decades of conflict between Colombia’s government and FARC guerrillas, many of remote areas there still need to find sustainable, lucrative industries to avoid a return to drug cultivation and conflict.
“There is a great opportunity here to understand basic aspects of our emblematic plant species of Colombia while connecting different stakeholders in conservation and sustainable microeconomics base in horticulture and plant ecotourism,” Arias said, adding that it could also serve as a model for many regions of Asia where there are also great diversity of orchids and illegal trade.
Arias says her current main research project related to orchid diversity and conservation.
“I want to integrate basic research, biotechnology and conservation with a twofold goal: First, understand basic aspects of the evolutionary diversity of orchids while secondly strengthening local bioeconomies through orchid horticulture in marginalized regions of Colombia,” she said.
However, turning orchids into a sustainable industry in remote areas is not easy and will require scientific help.
“I will be glad to contribute to the orchid horticulture sector in Colombia, for example, using biotechnological tools such genes of interest, selective breeding, and massive reproduction of orchids, for example, with bigger and lasting longer flowers,” she said, adding she’d like to keep including university students in these efforts as both key supporters of the research and as a new generation of Colombian scientists.
“My long term goals will be to integrate genomics and horticulture with social work, in order to strengthen local bio-economies in regions of Colombia where the conflict affected communities,” Arias said.
Orchids are special in Colombia. The Cattleya trianae orchid, was named as Colombia’s national flower in 1936 and is named in honor of Colombian naturalist Jose Jeronimo Triana.
But they are also under threat. In 2016 the Colombian Orchid Society decided to create its first nature reserve, buying 492 acres (199 ha) of land in the cloud forest of Jardin, Antioquia.
In the last four years, they have recorded around 120 orchid species including many pleurothallids, which grow attached to other plants.
“Feel the Forest Floor”
Although Arias grew up in Medellin, Colombia during what she describes as the war between the drug cartels and the government, she also regularly visited her father in Bahia Solano on Colombia’s remote pacific coast.
“There are not roads to get to this town, it is only jungle,” she said, “My father used to make us take our shoes off and feel the forest floor.”
They also went on walks through the jungle, bathed in creeks and the ocean, collected shells, talked to indigenous people and generally had a lot of fun.
Arias says early in her career, she wanted to study in the US. So she jumped at the chance when she won a small scholarship to visit the Missouri Botanical Garden for three months.
“I went away with a small bag and so excited to finally be traveling and fulfilling a small piece of my dream,” she said, “but I did not know I was not going to come back to Colombia for another 12 years.”
She says one academic opportunity led to another and at one point ended up at the University of Tennessee to do a short research visit. After two weeks of seeing what Arias could do in the lab, her host there, Joe Willliams taking her into his lab.
“He found a new visa for me, he gave me a job and also he pay for English courses, so I stayed, with a small bag and a bit of everything he has lent me to start my life- a fork, a spoon, some plates, a pot, blankets and that’s it!”
Six months later she enrolled into a master degree in ecology and evolutionary biology, and then went on to do a PhD at the University of Missouri. Arias would eventually come back to Colombia in 2015.
“I have learned to be independent, and in this I have succeeded,” she said. “I now have a solid support from the Colombian Orchid Society and thanks to that independence we are progressing towards our goals.
Another researcher in the Global South who is using plants to find better outcomes for people in rural areas is Jagannath Biswakarma.
Biswakarma, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (EAWAG),studies how plants and microbes can acquire iron in soils that are sometimes irrigated or flooded, which could have implications for farmers across the world, especially in the global south.