From the Andes… to the Andes :)

My name is Andrea Sánchez Tapia, I am a Colombian biologist living, studying and working in Brazil since 2007. My main scientific interest is to understand human-related drivers of change in different contexts and kinds of vegetation, ideally in order to subsidize restoration actions here in the Tropics.

I started my career at the National University of Colombia, working with restoration ecology in high Andean forests, specifically with the invasion ecology of gorse (Ulex europaeus L.). For my masters degree I came to Brazil to study post-fire regeneration and divergent succession trajectories in degraded forest landscapes in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. These forests were also dominated by a non-native species and have been under restoration actions since 1993.

For my PhD project I decided to go back to the mountains and study community assembly in the Brazilian high altitude grasslands. These ecosystems are happily one of the least degraded in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, but they are among the most threatened by climate change. My aim was to relate community composition to soil and topographic conditions at different spatial scales, in terms of their taxonomic, functional and phylogenetic diversity. So I did the vegetation surveys and soil collecting and I sampled some leaf and stem functional traits. Although I recently finished my thesis I honestly feel that work is only beginning…

I also have a quantitative ecology interest, and am an R enthusiast since 2009 and #RLadies member in Rio since last year. I am currently working at the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden, where I did my PhD, in a project that aims to establish an ecological niche modeling platform linked to the Brazilian Flora and the Brazilian Biodiversity information system (SiBBr), related to GBIF.

So I am still in Brazil, but somehow this course is going back to the Andes a little bit, and I am very excited about it. What I am most excited about is meeting people from other countries and institutions.

My main goal for the upcoming course is to deepen my understanding of trait-based approaches, to learn about field techniques and analyses regarding functional plant traits and to unlearn any misconceptions or bad practices I may have. I chose to work with ecophysiological (“harder”) traits because I have never done so, and it’s going to be complete new for me. I am currently writing a project related to the altitudinal gradient in the Brazilian high altitude grasslands and I will know if I met these goals if my understanding of the literature improves and if I can somehow create and test hypothesis related to functional traits in my field area.

I think people in Peru know that climate change is real from first-hand experience because they have felt it, either through higher temperatures throughout the year, or strange rain patterns, or a harsher effect of El Niño and La Niña. I don’t know if they will necessarily understand the mechanism of the change, but maybe in Peru they are so close to the topic that a basic understanding is commonplace. I think they accept or will accept it is largely being caused by human activities. In any case I don’t think they will reject a good explanation, and I doubt that it will be controversial.

Climate change was little discussed in public in Colombia, but it is gaining attention due the recurrent occurrence of extreme events such as flooding and landslides, frequent El Niño and La Niña years, forest fires and droughts. When these occurred before there was a talk about planning and infrastructure and about the need to be better prepared. My personal impression is that climate change is used sometimes to justify some of these man-made errors that are due to lack of infrastructure, land planning and organization. So sometimes it’s referred to as an inevitable thing and an excuse to keep delaying such improvements. «What can we do, it’s climate change!» `¯\_(ツ)_/¯`. Climate change became a handy villain to excuse our lack of action.

Another frequent topic for climate change is the vulnerability of the páramo ecosystems  and the gradual disappearance of snow cover in the summits. Páramos provide water for 80% of the population (in addition to being amazing biodiverse ecosystems) and they have been in the news because the government has given exploitation permits to big gold-mining industries, and they have met consistent resistance from the people. This has created an opportunity to discuss climate change and ecosystem services, and some institutions have been doing good communication campaigns. But it’s still beginning and there isn’t a clear message about how we contribute and what can we do. My impression is that most people know it’s real, and believe that it is man-made, but personal responsibility about countering it is not that common.

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