Award highlight: Connecting the past with the present

A paper describing two centuries of changes in crop regions is awarded the Humboldt-Caldas medal 2021 for best biogeography paper in Colombia/Ecuador.

Above: Original cartography of Caldas’ crop regions showing the colonial profile of the travel route with vertical elevations, towns and the different crops Ali Salim.

Ever since I began studying plant biology, I have been fascinated with the life and work of Francisco Jose de Caldas who was born and raised in my hometown of Popayan, Colombia. This paper identifies the changes of crop distribution of eight staple crops (cacao, maize, plantain, cassava, wheat, barley, sugar cane and potato) over 224 years, in relation to latitude and elevation. Using Caldas’ map of crop regions created between 1796 and 1803, we compared these regions with a replicated map of the same regions today.  The challenge of our work was developing a dataset that accurately matched the location of crops from more than 200 years ago. We were especially surprised to see such a substantial change of 740 meters in the elevational range.

Read the article: (Free to read online for 2 months.)
González-Orozco, C.E., Porcel, M. (2021). Two centuries of changes in Andean crop distribution. J Biogeogr. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/jbi.14126  


Above left: Portrait of Francisco José de Caldas (1768–1816), the father of plant geography in Latin America. Portrait painted by Antoine Maurin (1793–1860) and printed by Armand Godar (publication date unknown; in Museo Nacional de Colombia, 2002). Above right: Caldasʾ crop regions map ordered latitudinally (A-D) from Bogota (Colombia) to Quito (Ecuador). Images authorized and obtained from the Archive of the Royal Botanic Garden. AJB, Div. III, M519, M520, M521 and M522.

This study also aims to raise awareness of the significant contribution Caldas has made to biogeography and agriculture. Caldas was a self-learned scientist who came from humble beginnings with little resources compared to European naturalists of his time. Despite this, he developed a deep understanding of plant geography in this region.  We provide evidence to conclude that Caldas’ work on climate and agriculture was essential to developing the field of tropical agriculture climatology, a discipline that Caldas established but for which he was never given recognition. 

For this reason, we are delighted that our paper is awarded the Humboldt-Caldas medal in 2021 which is granted every two years by the Colombian Academy of Science and the Embassy of Germany in Colombia, to the best biogeography paper published in Colombia and Ecuador. We are honoured to receive the award and grateful that we were able to publish our paper in the Journal of Biogeography. Documenting Caldas’ work is an ongoing task being undertaken by Colombian academics who are studying his recently repatriated manuscripts from Europe. This work offers exciting new discoveries of both his scientific contribution and involvement in Colombia’s independence from Spain, which in the end cost him his life.


Above: An image of the medal with Humboldt and Caldas portraits.

Written by:
Carlos Eduardo González-Orozco and Mario Porcel
Corporación Colombiana de Investigación Agropecuaria (AGROSAVIA), Centro de Investigación La Libertad – km 14 vía Puerto López, Villavicencio, Meta, Colombia

Published by jbiogeography

Contributing to the growth and societal relevance of the discipline of biogeography through dissemination of biogeographical research.

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