Distraction Free Reading

Naming Species in Colombia’s Biodiverse Landscapes

There is a unique pair of rules on Sattins Island, in Ursula K. Le Guin’s world of Earthsea. This pair is called The Rules of Names and though these rules circulate among the villagers, they are taught to children by the schoolteacher. Names are allocated on Sattins Island based on a person’s physical characteristics or any other visible aspect of their way of life. The local wizard, for instance, is simply called “Mr. Underhill.” An old wizard known for his ineffective spells but still respected by the villagers, he lives in a cave under a hill and doesn’t enjoy visits. Mr. Underhill was in fact listening to the schoolteacher, Palani, when she was teaching the children about the Rules. Noting his presence, Palani found it instructive to call Mr. Underhill and use his case as evidence for the omnipresence of the Rules.

Palani explained, “‘Even a wizard can’t tell his truename. When you children are through school and go through the Passage, you’ll leave your childnames behind and keep only your truenames, which you must never ask or and never give away. Why is that the rule?’” (Le Guin 1975, 83). The children couldn’t provide any answer. Le Guin continues, “The children were silent… Mr. Underhill answered the question: ‘Because the name is the thing,’ he said in his shy, soft, husky voice, ‘and the truename is the true thing. To speak the name is to control the thing. Am I right, Schoolmistress?’” (Le Guin 1975, 83), to which Palani responded affirmatively, though embarrassed by Mr. Underhill’s sudden participation.

In this piece, I explore the politics of scientific naming and, therefore, controlling things in Colombia’s “unexplored” biodiverse landscapes. I describe a growing “technoscientific enthusiasm”—which I call a “bioenthusiasm”—that followed the 2016 peace agreement between the FARC guerrillas and the Colombian government. All things “bio” (bioeconomy, biodiversity, biotechnology) are circulating in Colombia’s post-peace agreement context as an alleged route to reactivating the country’s economy, integrating zones into the market economy through the marketization of their biodiversity resources, and finally redirecting the economy towards a bioeconomic future that is expected to contribute 10% to the country’s GDP by 2030 (Misión de Bioeconomía 2020).

But before any of this can occur, conservation scientists and state officials agree that a process of surveying, characterization, and classification of the country’s biological resources is required. Here I focus on a set of recently discovered-named things: an Amazonian butterfly (Magneuptychia pax); a flowering plant (Elaeagia pacisnascis); and a frailejón (“big monk”) or espeletia (Espeletia praesidentis). These three species, among many others, have been discovered, classified, and named in the last five years by scientists funded by state programs aimed at describing and studying the country’s unexplored biodiversity. But “discovering” and naming the thing by their true (scientific) name, as Mr. Underhill reminded the school children, is controlling the thing.

Naming, in this context, emerges both as a form of controlling and a practice of ordering that aims to make legible entire socioecological relations. I see this process as a continuation of long-standing naming-controlling practices that, since colonial times, have sought to govern what scientists and elites have produced as wild/undisciplined/disordered/violent natures (Schiebinger 2004, Nieto 2006, Serje 2011). In this sense, I show how the government of nature through practices of naming-controlling is part of a broader state project of making legible entire territories that have been historically deemed as “no-man’s land” or “fronteras internas de la nación” (Serje 2011)—zones that circulate in the (urban-Andean) Colombian national imagination as violent, wild, and dangerous, escaping the state’s control due to their own (violent) nature.

Espeletia praesidentis: The Ordering and Production of Nature

Endemic to Colombia and found only in the Páramo de Presidente (northeastern Colombia), a recently discovered species of frailejón was given a unique scientific name. Coauthors Diazgranados and Sanchez include the following account under the “etymology” section of their 2017 paper:

The specific epithet of this new species, “praesidentis,” taken from the locality where the species is found, is dedicated also to the President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos Calderón, for his persistent efforts to achieve peace with the guerillas FARC in Colombia, after 52 years of conflict. The Páramo de Presidente has been one of those places that has been closed to researchers for decades. With the peace agree­ment this and other places will be open for fruitful botanical explorations during the post-conflict times in Colombia. May this publication inspire the President to con­tinue with further actions for the preservation of Colombian biodiversity. (Diazgranados and Sanchez 2017, 7-8)

Historians of science have extensively studied the practice of scientific naming. Nieto has shown that Linnaeus himself approved of the practice of naming species honoring the memory of a fellow botanist and deemed legitimate naming a species honoring kings and those who contributed to the development of botany (Nieto 2006). This was indeed a practice used throughout colonial rule in America—particularly during the Royal Botanical Expedition to New Granada (1783-1816)—by Spaniard botanists who honored members of the royal family, colonial rulers, and European botanists. Criollo scientists, descendants from Spaniards and born in America, honored criollo influential figures after the independence from the Spanish empire.[1]

Black and white microscopic images of textured fibers and spiky balls are distinguished in four panels and labeled with significant morphological features.

Photomicrographs of Espeletia praesidentis taken at the Scanning Electron Microscopy Laboratory of the National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC (Diazgranados and Sanchez 2017).

Yet, different accounts of the state’s ordering of society have paid little attention to the concurrent practice of ordering nature and organizing the natural world. What’s more, the political uses of scientific knowledge to govern and produce legible natures have received secondary attention in contrast to scientific practice in relation to large infrastructure projects, the design of cities, and the medico-epidemiological governance of populations. The ordering of nature, however, has been a constitutive part of state-building operations, and particularly in a region such as Latin America (Nieto 2006, Nieto 2007, McCook 2002, Horta, 2016), which rapidly emerged in the modern global imagination as an infinite supplier of the most diverse natural resources (Galeano 1997). Scientific knowledge, and particularly sciences such as botany, forestry, and later agricultural sciences and biotechnology, not only have made the ordering of nature possible but created distinctive natures and validated specific models of human-nature interactions.

Magneuptychia pax: Savage Territories and Enclave Politics

A “remarkable” butterfly that lives in the western Amazon seems to be the first species named explicitly in reference to the 2016 peace process in Colombia. The authors of the paper that introduces this species to the scientific community described their choice of the scientific name in the following terms:

Magneuptychia pax n. sp. is dedicated to the peace process in Colombia and to every person affected there by a conflict that has lasted more than five decades, including in the remote forests that this butterfly inhabits. This dedication is made in the hope that a lasting peace agreement can be reached and to focus attention on the need for conservation of Amazon forests and improvement in conditions for research and scientific discovery in that region. (Huertas et al., 2016: 9)

As pointed out by Huertas et al., this butterfly inhabits what they call a “remote forest,” an area that hosts Magneuptychia pax while becoming one of the epicenters of the internal armed conflict. Colombian anthropologist Margarita Serje (2011) has described how these remote or frontier territories were first administered by Catholic missionaries and then converted into agricultural frontiers where displaced and landless peasants arrived in successive waves throughout the 20th century. These territories would later become “zones of public order,” that is, epicenters of the internal armed conflict where guerrillas and paramilitary forces disputed the state’s hegemony.

A simple map of northern South America indicating with dots where the butterfly has been recorded. An inset photograph shows trees along the Amazon river.

This montage is displayed in Huertas et al.’s (2016) article to depict the localities of where the Magneuptychia pax butterfly has been recorded. The area corresponds to the Colombian, Ecuadorian, and Peruvian Amazon.

Serje has described how an enclave economy has been the state’s privileged approach to integrate frontier territories into the ideal of an ordered nation and from there to global markets. A socioeconomic system in which foreign investment extracts resources for the global markets with no articulation with local dynamics, enclaves make frontier territories legible to state power. The enclave economy thus functions as a politics of “emplacement” that simultaneously connects practices of exploitation (natural resources) and pacification (through Catholic missions, participatory citizen projects, military campaigns) that radically transform local geographies into sites of resource extraction with no articulation with the local economies (Serje 2011). Such enclaves have taken different forms throughout the 20th century with antecedents on the Spanish empire with the extraction of gold and Cinchona plants in today’s Colombia and Ecuador. Within this framework, I suggest thinking about the current enthusiasm over the resources of biodiverse regions of Colombia in terms of genetic enclaves. Science plays a fundamental role in this novel configuration. It is through naming-controlling practices as those described here, and through laboratory practices that seek to assess the potential of species to produce economic gains, that entire ecologies are now emerging as biodiversity hotspots worth studying, naming, and controlling.

Elaeagia pacisnascis: Biovalue and Genetic Enclaves

Scientists Mendoza-Cifuentes and Aguilar-Cano (2018) note that Colombia is the country with the most species of the Elaeagia genus. The “taxonomic discovery” that they are introducing to the scientific community, however, “was found in a biologically unexplored area in the northeastern Andes of Colombia, a region heavily affected by the internal armed conflict during decades. The current peace process allowed accessing the area and the discovering of new species” (Mendoza-Cifuentes and Aguilar-Cano 2018, 4, my translation). Because of this, the authors decided to name this species Elaeagia pacisnascis, literally, “nascent peace.” The region where the authors’ discovery takes place is, in their own terms, an “area of high biological value,” albeit poorly studied by scientists. In this last section, I explore the potential effects that naming-controlling things has in the ecologies it occurs.

During the last ten years, numerous policies have been implemented in Colombia aimed at sustaining a “green economic growth” or bioeconomy. The exploitation of the country’s natural capital and its marketization has figured prominently as a route that, in the post-peace agreement context, will insert the country in global markets of bioproducts while preserving those same natural resources (Colciencias 2016). This requires at least two operations: the scientific characterization of the country’s natural capital and a techno-legal framework that facilitates the aspirations of green economic growth, similar to what Helmreich describes in the case of marine microbial bioprospecting in Hawaii (2009). Laboratory practices and institutional arrangements emerge as two “instrumental regimes, organizing life forms and forms of life” that “are calibrated to one another” (Helmreich 2009, 107). It is this technopolitical apparatus that makes possible the scientific discovery of Espeletia praesidentis and Elaeagia pacisnascis, stipulates the prospects of producing biovalue (Waldby 2002, Sunder Rajan 2006, Helmreich 2008), and, more importantly, puts in motion a new set of practices to make frontier territories legible to state power.

Three different photographs of a small white flower with six simple petals and oval-shaped leaves with small holes bitten out of them.

Elaeagia pacisnascis. A) Stem with flowers. B, C) Superior and lateral view of the flowers (Mendoza-Cifuentes and Aguilar-Cano 2018).

This recent “bioenthusiasm” and its components—bioeconomy, bioprospecting, biotechnology, biocommerce, etc.—enlists frontier territories, now supposedly “accessible” thanks to the peace agreement, as potential repositories of natural capital through a logic of genetic enclave. This operation of “emplacement,” like above, aims to guarantee the articulation of local geographies to global markets with poor connections with local socioecological processes. Although the exploitation of natural capital is based on the belief of the sustainable use of nature, it has the potential to alter the interactions between humans and non-humans in ways that we still can’t figure. More importantly, the logic of genetic enclave produces a novel form of environmental subjectivity—that of the “bioentrepreneur.” In this sense, a genetic enclave economy actualizes old subject formations associated with frontiers territories (such as “illegal,” lazy, among others) and through the alliance of science and (bio)capital conceives of a new subject formation that, this time, aspires to orderly integrate such territories into the circuits of global capital.

Science emerges in this context as producing legible landscapes that appear as repositories of profitable, but still enigmatic, novel commodities. Naming the thing (the frailejón, the butterfly, the flowering plant) and speaking the name, it seems to me, has the potential to control the thing in Colombia’s biodiversity landscapes.


[1] In June 2021, the American Ornithological Association (AOS) launched an ad-hoc committee that will provide recommendations for identifying and changing “harmful English bird names” (AOS 2021). In particular, the AOS has been revising eponyms and honorifics named after people “who supported or promoted racist behaviors” (AOS 2021). One of the most notable cases is the McCown’s Longspur, named after John P. McCown—an amateur collector and Confederate Army general who defended slavery—that the AOS renamed the Thick-billed Longspur in August 2020 (Leber 2020).


American Ornithological Association (AOS). 2021. “What’s next for English bird names?” https://americanornithology.org/english-bird-names/whats-next-for-english-bird-names/.

Colciencias (Administrative Department of Science, Technology and Innovation). 2016. Colombia Bio Working Paper. https://minciencias.gov.co/portafolio/colombia-bio/objetivo.

Diazgranados, Mauricio, and Luis Roberto Sánchez. 2017. “Espeletia Praesidentis, a New Species of Espeletiinae (Millerieae, Asteraceae) from Northeastern Colombia.” PhytoKeys 76: 1–12.

Galeano, Eduardo. 1997. Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. 25th Anniversary Edition. New York: Monthly Review Press.

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Helmreich, Stefan. 2009. Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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Le Guin, Ursula K. 1975. The Wind’s Twelve Quartets: Short Stories. New York: Harper & Row.

Leber, Jessica. 2020. “The McCown’s Longspur Is No More, but the Debate Over Bird Names Continues.” The National Audubon Society. https://www.audubon.org/news/the-mccowns-longspur-no-more-debate-over-bird-names-continues.

McCook, Stuart. 2002. States of Nature: Science, Agriculture, and Environment in the Spanish Caribbean, 1760–1940. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Mendoza-Cifuentes, Humberto, and José Aguilar-Cano. 2018. “Una nueva especie de barniz de pasto Elaeagia (Rubiaceae) de la cordillera Oriental de Colombia.” Biota Colombiana 19: 1–7.

Misión de Bioeconomía. 2020. “Bioeconomía para una Colombia potencia viva y diversa: hacia una sociedad impulsada por el conocimiento.” Bogotá: Vicepresidencia de la República de Colombia. Ministerio de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación.

Nieto, Mauricio. 2006. Remedios Para El Imperio: Historia Natural y Apropiación Del Nuevo Mundo. 2nd ed. Ediciones Uniandes.

Nieto, Mauricio. 2007. Orden Natural y Orden Social. Ciencia y Política En El Semanario Del Nuevo Reyno de Granada. Ediciones Uniandes.

Schiebinger, Londa. 2004. Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Serje, Margarita. 2011. El revés de la nación: Territorios salvajes, fronteras y tierras de nadie. Bogotá: Ediciones Uniandes.

Sunder Rajan, Kaushik. 2006. Biocapital: The Constitution of Postgenomic Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Waldby, Catherine. 2002. “Stem Cells, Tissue Cultures and the Production of Biovalue.” Health: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness and Medicine 6 (3): 305–23.

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