MEDELLÍN, COLOMBIA- In 2011, when biologist Jean Paul Delgado put his laboratory at the University of Antioquia (AdeA) here, he was eager to help his homeland learn more about its extraordinary biological wealth, including about 800 species of salamanders, frogs and other amphibians. However, Delgado's enthusiasm quickly became frustrating, and he has largely abandoned his efforts to study Colombia's biodiversity.
Recently in his office he showed the cause: a large folder filled with paperwork that was necessary to allow native species to be collected or simply to test their DNA. It may take a year or more to get approval from Colombia's Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, says Delgado. And "If you deviate from the contract, there will be consequences" that could include fines and research restrictions.
Many Colombian scientists say that the troublesome, stressful process has caused them to abandon studies involving the country's more than 62,000 native species. Delgado, for example, no longer plans to sequencing the genome of Colombian salamander Bolitoglossa ramosi which regenerates lost limbs. And UdeA chemist Alejandro Martínez fell on efforts to extract useful chemical compounds from marine fungi found along the Caribbean coast. "Unfortunately, my scientific productivity was affected," says Martínez.
However, such setbacks moved Delgado into action. Two years ago, he launched a campaign to persuade the government to reform the licensing process. Now, having traveled the country to forge alliances with university leaders and elected officials, Delgado is cautiously optimistic that this could be the year when his efforts are delivering. One reason for hope: President Iván Duque Marquez, who joined in August 2018, has made biodiversity conservation a "national security issue" and signed on to create the nation's first science ministry. "The creation of the Ministry is an opportunity to speed up slow processes," said Iván Darío Agudelo Zapata, a member of the Colombian Senate, who proclaimed the establishment of the Ministry.
The problem scientists claim is that there were unintended consequences from Colombia's implementation of international agreements, such as the 1993 Convention on Biological Diversity, which aims to give nations greater control over their biological wealth. Generally, these covenants require researchers to explain how they plan to collect and study organisms, and aim to ensure that the nations from which these organisms originate share in profits from valuable discoveries. The rules should not hamper research, but there is often "lack of understanding of the foundations and intentions of international treaties … of the bureaucrats at national level," said Kamaljit Bawa, a conservation biologist at Massachusetts University in Boston who wrote about the issue.
In Colombia, the result has been bureaucracy, which unnecessarily tightens studies, argues researchers. According to current rules, researchers at Colombian universities need a permit, although they will only sequester ubiquitous laboratory organisms such as yeast or fruit flies found within national borders, notes microbiologist Javier Correa Álvarez of EAFIT, a private research university here. And despite the help of his university's three full-time employees, Correa says it recently took him a year to get a field study permit, "and a year is an eternity in our area."
To streamline the biodiversity research lobbying effort, the government urges the government to conclude genetic access contracts to facilitate sampling restrictions and to speed up and facilitate the licensing process. Such changes "would take a lot of stress and pain away," says Delgado. Reformers are also thinking of asking the government to give amnesty to researchers who have already hit the rules. (It is not clear how many there are, Colombian researchers are reluctant to discuss the matter, and the Ministry of the Environment did not respond to a query about how often it has been sanctioned researchers.)
Change could require action by both Colombia's Congress and executive department. But the reformers hope that the country's increasingly scientific political climate and the creation of the new Ministry of Science will act before the end of this year. "For the first time," says Agudelo, "science has room in the presidential cabinet."