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.