Thomas van der Hammen is one of the world’s leading experts on biodiversity in Colombia. The South American nation covers less than 1% of the world’s land surface, yet it is home to 15% of the Earth’s plant species. The 79-year-old professor first visited the South American nation in the early 1950s and he returned regularly over the next half century before finally settling there.
In 1951, after obtaining his doctorate in biological geology from the University of Leiden, Professor van der Hammen travelled to Colombia.
“As soon as I arrived, I tried to find a way to go to the Amazon,” says the professor. It wasn’t easy because the Amazon lies thousands of kilometres south of the capital, Bogotá, and transportation in those days was difficult.
I told the director of the institute that I needed to go there. He told me that the Minister of Mines would never understand that. So I said I could do geological research, looking for minerals. He told me that was OK, and that’s how I managed to spend six weeks in the Amazon area.
The conditions were quite difficult.
We went there with two Indians. We had nothing to protect us. We slept on hammocks between two trees and when it rained, we got wet. We ran out of food, and we were eaten alive by the mosquitoes. But it was an unforgettable experience. It was the first geological study of that area.
Professor van der Hammen would spend a total of eight years in Colombia, conducting surveys throughout the country. He married a Colombian and returned to The Netherlands in 1960, teaching first at the University of Leiden and then the University of Amsterdam. He frequently returned to Colombia, and eventually he headed up the first multidisciplinary study – involving geologists, botanists, biologists and other experts – of what are known as tropical Andean eco-systems.
In 1977, they carried out their first studies in north-eastern Colombia, gathering plant and soil samples. They later expanded their research to other regions of the country. They also installed weather stations to learn more about the climate at the different altitudes.
It was quite difficult because we had to move all our equipment on mules and then we had to return every month to collect the data. It took 15 days to collect all the data.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, he and his team are still publishing the results of their findings.
We have already published five thick volumes. I will be taking the sixth to the printers in a few weeks, and we still have to finish the final volume on the Western Cordillera. You can collect quite a lot in a few months and make many observations but it takes a long time to write it all up.
The aim of the research was to make an inventory of Colombia’s natural environment, says Professor van der Hammen.
So when development projects are devised, our research information can be used to make best use of the country’s natural resources without destroying them. It’s about managing your environment. Now, for example, we’re making a proposal with various Colombian institutes to ensure that the country’s biodiversity is not lost. It’s very much in line with what is being done in The Netherlands.
Most of the research carried out by Professor van der Hammen and his team was financed by the Dutch government and Tropenbos International, a Dutch-based group which carries out research on tropical forests. Because of its colonial past, The Netherlands has a lot of expertise in the tropics. Experts like Professor van der Hammen are ensuring that this knowledge is not lost.
In recent years, it has become much more difficult to carry out research in Colombia because the civil war, the drugs trade and the large numbers of kidnappings have made many areas in the country off dangerous to visit. “The problem now is that biology and geology students, for example, can no longer make excursions because of the levels of insecurity.”
Colombian students and institutes still regularly come by the professor’s house and him for advice.
It makes me feel useful. There’s nothing nicer than to see young people’s curiosity. Young people are much more interested in the environment today than they were 10 or 15 years ago. That gives hope for the future.
Original broadcast: November 20, 2003
“Under Foreign Skies” is a series of portraits of Dutch people abroad doing remarkable things.
Thomas van der Hammen died in Colombia in 2010.