The Venezuelan Entomologist Who Lost His Insects

https://www.pexels.com/photo/animal-beautiful-biology-blue-533078/

I found Daniel on Twitter, through one of those ‘Here’s why I (insert tease phrase)’ tweets. But what caught my eye in the white scroll didn’t have ten tips for better e-commerce or shinier hair:

Not only did I find out my friend was murdered today, but I found out half the world away, via Twitter.

Daniel Llavaneras, a Venezuelan entomologist, wrote those words and linked to his blog post describing how he’d fled from his home country to Chile.

This grim message was nothing like the rest of his Twitter feed, a roster of crisp images featuring pollen-laden bees on exotic blossoms, beetles mating on fox dung, cheerful pro-science comments and upbeat interactions with other scientists, like his random advice for doing field work in the rainforest: “Don’t use ink on your field notebook, as it will get soggy. Always carry plenty of vials. Wax your backpack/hiking shoes.”

His avatar at the time showed a smiling bald man sporting a tidy beard and a butterfly as a bow tie. I wrote and requested a written interview and Daniel agreed.

He’s generous and meticulous with his answers, and it should come as no surprise that he’s very detail-oriented. Also, he can’t choose between his favourite insects.

Daniel: Drynid wasps look like little villains from a Disney movie (you can’t go wrong with a wasp with claws). As for flies, I’m particularly fond of bat flies in the families Streblidae and Nycterybiidae…I have a soft spot for kissing bugs, since I did my undergrad research on them, and overall I’m drawn to parasitoids, particularly wasps.

That’s not even his entire list of favourites. It’s almost like there’s no insect he couldn’t learn to love.

Over the space of a few years, as Venezuela’s democracy retreated in the face of something more predatory, a spate of violent attacks on the campus of the Central Venezuelan University made it all but impossible for Daniel to continue his graduate studies. Bits and scraps of freelance work barely brought in enough money to pay for food, assuming there was any to buy. It wasn’t until he was badly injured while being robbed at knife point that Daniel decided he had to leave his home of Caracas.

Reading about Venezuela at a distance, you might have heard that the average adult lost 19 pounds over the course of 2016 due to food shortages, or about the wheels coming off of a fossil fuel-based economy that neglected other sectors like agriculture and manufacturing, or perhaps about the collapse of a popular socialist experiment under Hugo Chavez into a burgeoning dictatorship under Nicolás Maduro where only those loyal to the party have access to food and jobs – and that includes researchers, educators and scientists.

Daniel: Scientists (and educators in general) were quite ideologically divided when Chávez was elected in 1998. Some viewed him as a savior, since he promised to invest more in science and education, while others were wary of his socialist ideas and opposed his views. This divide worsened as his presidency continued, thanks in no small part to the government’s divisive “if you’re not with us you’re against us” kind of strategy, with many colleagues fighting and cutting ties with each other.

I ask him if Venezuelan society were an arthropod society, what kind would it be?

Daniel: I wouldn’t characterize it as a single society; based on everything that has happened in the past two decades, I’d say that the current government is like a nest of driver ants, invading established nests, stripping them of their resources, taking everything, and then moving on when the resources run out.

He used to arrive at the gates of the Caracas Botanical Garden twice a month before opening time. Amidst lush foliage and the buzzy ambiance of the nearby six-lane Autopista Francisco Fajardo, Daniel wielded the standard tools of entomology – yellow traps, a conical net, and jars – to collect an estimated 330,000 specimens. He was working towards establishing the first scientific overview of insect life in the UNESCO World Heritage site.

This is someone who loved what he was doing and was doing what he loved.

Daniel: I became interested in science my first week of 9th grade, when I saw a class on the cell with one of my favourite professors. When I finished that school year I knew I wanted to study biology, specifically cell biology…I was introduced to the incredible world of invertebrates, specifically insects. I was immediately hooked on them, and I haven´t looked back since.

The bulk of his research time was spent sorting and identifying what he collected in the attentive tedium that research demands of its acolytes. Then came the muggings. The day he saw another Botanical Garden park-goer being robbed at knifepoint, he decided that his thesis project, no matter how worthy, wasn’t worth his life.

Daniel: A complex ecosystem is a stable ecosystem. Now more than ever, urban environments need green areas, lots of plants and trees, and with them their associated arthropod fauna. Bug spray and pest control is only needed for a mere handful of insects, and we must educate people to embrace (or at least tolerate) the rest of these important animals.

So Daniel started over on a project that kept him on university grounds, this one comparing pollinators in urban settings (on the university campus) to the native forest that surrounded the campus. Then came a string of violent robberies on campus, with perpetrators using the forest to enter and escape. Access to the forest was cut off by the university. Llavaneras lost a second thesis project, and an impending submission deadline meant he was forced to drop out.

Daniel: Over half of my former fellow students are overseas, either working or studying. Most of my colleagues are overseas, studying or working. Many are working in fields different from the sciences: realtors, yoga/dance instructors, artists, chefs and many other occupations.

 It could be seen as insensitive, or even irrelevant, to talk about what happens when highly educated citizens like Daniel find themselves unable to continue to carry out research while the walls are crumbling on all sides for everyone. But if most animals evolve through environmental trial-and-error, humans pride themselves on moving history forward by asking the right questions and finding new solutions.

Daniel: Classrooms became places where politics and the current situation was discussed, even in courses that had nothing to do with politics. My Philosophy of Science course devoted a large part of its time to discuss the flaws in the government’s viewpoints and tendencies, for example. Currently (professors) have to strike a balance between teaching their courses and discussing the political climate, since it affects everyone.

Science, by definition, is collaborative and defined by open communication and discussion. This can’t happen in Venezuela right now, and not only because people are starving and the streets are filled with protestors.

Daniel: People always want to see scientific breakthroughs, without realising that science is almost always built on the results of previous studies, like a ladder, and there must inevitably be a first step to the ladder. However, since those “first step” studies usually don’t provide any practical or usable results (save for a handful of scientists), they’re easily overlooked and rarely funded.

So what did Venezuela lose when this entomologist left the country? In addition to his curtailed survey research, he’d done work in medical entomology, testing pest-resistant mattress fabrics to provide for disease control. He worked on a project looking at the effects of climate change on pest species and the impact that would have on pest management. For all the work on the management of pests like mosquitoes, flies and bed bugs, Daniel wishes people could see beyond the creepy crawlies to understand just how important invertebrates are in the world.

Daniel: People see a spider, scorpion or almost any insect and most of the time the reaction is “kill it with fire!”, which is absurd. They get nauseated at the thought of eating an insect, a crunchy arthropod with lots of legs, but will happily eat lobsters, crabs or shrimp, crunchy arthropods with even more legs.

I understand that we have learned to associate a few insects, like flies, mosquitoes and cockroaches, with disease and unsanitary conditions, but to stigmatise an entire group of animals based on a handful of disease vectors is unfair, to put it mildly. It would be like saying “rats can transmit Leptospirosis, so let’s reject all mammals.”

What his country lost was one man’s curiosity and investigative spirit. And not just Daniel’s. By the time Daniel left, he counted 157 friends and family who had already fled.

Daniel: Scientists (in the broad sense, as in STEM) are ones responsible for the tools to do bigger and better things. Without scientists, innovation stops, and society as a whole gets stuck. When science and ethical experimentation is discouraged or impeded, be it for religious, political or economic reasons, it has a negative effect on society as a whole.

With the help of family members, who bought his plane ticket, and friends who are offering room and board in Santiago, Chile, Daniel is building a new life as an emigré, or as it is more commonly called these days, as a refugee. As much as the Venezuelan government doesn’t want to listen to the opposition, it also doesn’t take kindly to the educated citizens leaving its borders.

Daniel: I feared that I wouldn’t be able to leave the country if I left with my college diploma, as I had heard that some people had problems when leaving with it, so I had it shipped later (it’s a definite sign that one was leaving without plans to return to Venezuela).

Barely a handful of close friends still live there, and all but two have plans to leave this year.

Meanwhile, the World Heritage Botanical Gardens in the middle of the city are subject, not just to crime, but to hunting, to the effects of tear gas, and to burning. And if Daniel got out with most of his data on a hard drive, those countless specimens he gathered are back in Caracas, untended.

He’s applied for a PhD position in Santiago, looking to research entomophagy. Insects as food, for humans and protein supplements for animal feed. For the time being, like most of his fellow migrants, exiles, immigrants and refugees, whatever you care to call them, he’s trying to keep his head above water.

Unable to continue his work in his home country and to contribute in a meaningful way to the forward movement of human understanding, he’s applying for work in any capacity to take the load off those friends who have given him bed and board.

Daniel: I’ve worked since I was 15, and have been pretty much been able to support myself for the last decade, so having to depend entirely on someone else for food and a place to live is a big blow to my self esteem. I also don’t want to overstay my welcome.

After four months, he’s gotten only rejections for jobs as a waiter or cashier, because his visa status is unresolved, or he’s overqualified, or for the simple reason that foreigners aren’t welcome. After all, the ‘Maduro diet’ of reduced daily meals, protest, arrest and repression means that Venezuelans are currently one of the largest groups seeking refuge across the Americas, from Chile to the United States.

Daniel: With all the world-wide discussions about people fleeing countries because they fear for their safety and want a better life, what would you tell people who want to discourage immigration and refugees, and try to turn them away?

Look at the people leaving Venezuela, the ones like Daniel Llavenares, the people with education, curiosity, passion and enthusiasm. Who will be left behind? The ones unable to leave, the opportunists, the ones rich enough to make do, and the ones who make do through opportunism.

And lest we forget, there are those who have died during the past months of protest, including Daniel’s university friend and fellow scientist, herpologist Diego Arellano, He was working on anti-aphid techniques at the Central University of Venezuala’s Pharmacology faculty when he was fatally shot at a protest on May 16, 2017.

Daniel: My work at the Botanical Garden would have laid the groundwork for several ecology studies, as well as studies on the biology of several species of plants and insects.

I see a lot of hard work, sacrifice and homesickness, but also a shot at actually living instead of just surviving like I did in Venezuela. I’m nervous, scared, eager, anxious, excited and optimistic about this new stage, and the hardest part will be to recognise and take advantage of these opportunities.

In a recently tweeted photograph, an oddly adorable weevil teetered on bright green moss. Daniel’s caption was:

Rhyephenes humeralis, my first Chilean weevil! It feels good to be able to see insects again.

The insects on entomologists’ photos always look larger than life. Probably because they are the focus and life of those who study them, and who then show them to the rest of us.

If Daniel lost his insects when he had to leave them behind, then the insects of the Botanical Garden also lost their entomologist. The person who came along to study them is gone, and so for us, the insects of the Caracas Botanical Garden are gone too, along with all we might have learned from them. At least for now.

Science is the practice of asking the same questions over and over, getting as many answers as possible, and using those to decide which questions to ask next. It doesn’t thrive in a place like Venezuela, where for the moment, questions are not welcome and answers are pre-determined.

What happens when people forget that questions are even an option?

P. K. Read

About P. K. Read

A Californian-born resident of France, P.K.Read's fiction and non-fiction has been published in Necessary Fiction, Bartleby Snopes, the 2015 Bristol Short Story Anthology, Jersey Devil Press, Rind Literary Magazine, The Feminist Wire and elsewhere. She writes for Huffington Post and Midcentury Modern (Medium).

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