Far away from home - In Memory of Javier Maldonado

8 March 2019

Being able to travel the world in the pursuit of scientific research is an amazing privilege, yet sometimes the work can have its own difficulties, as we are far away from our family, friends, and support network.

Claudia Munera has penned this heartfelt piece following the loss of her friend and colleague, Javier Maldonado who was in Colombia working in the field. Claudia honours his memory and celebrates his passion for life and scientific research.


This week we lost my friend Javier, a person from my past, a friend that managed to leave a deep mark on my memories. This post may seem selfish, because it is about how I am feeling now, but I am far away and I can’t hug my friends and share the pain and memories together. I am writing this to help me to come in terms with my sorrow and also to invite others, who may be struggling to cope with emotional issues due to limited contact with their established support network, to share their feelings, to help them deal with things and maybe lead to building new support networks and friendships.

Javier's loss triggered many memories, but also many reflections about my life and being a biologist. He lost his life following his passion: the river. He dedicated his life to the study of freshwater ecosystems and Colombian rivers, to discover and describe as many fish species as possible. He collaborated extensively with Brazil, Ecuador and other countries. He never held knowledge for himself, always sharing and open, always collaborating. Javier was convinced that open data was critical for building knowledge and supporting decision making. He was building an extensive database on Amazonian fish, his research was critical to protect ecosystems and species, and to understand and help supporting decisions to mitigate the impacts of human development on our rivers. Javier was also committed to working with local communities and involving them in the research. He was convinced that their knowledge was as relevant as scientific knowledge, and wanted to involve local communities in the research process. And the river claimed his life. He died in an unfortunate accident while doing his job in a remote area in Colombia. When I heard the news that he was missing after the accident I was in denial. My friends and I were trying to keep hope alive (on Twitter), and we kept saying ‘he is an active person, he knows the river, he is a professional and for sure they will find him alive, he will back soon to tell us a lot of stories about the river’. Then, denial again when we heard the sad news that his body was found by the Brazilian naval force, 70 kms away, three days after the accident. All I can think about is in Javier smiling, Javier dancing (he was an amazing Salsa dancer!), laughing with Javier and with our other friends, Javier working on the fish collection, his books, papers, Javier signing the declaration of a new RAMSAR site for Colombia…and all those good memories are transforming in tears. He touched so many people. A mutual friend said “he lived so passionately that his spirit is now tattooed in our souls”. As a sad consolation, we want to think that he died doing what he loved.

When I started working at the Humboldt Institute in Colombia many years ago, I remember a map of biological records from the country: the majority of information was collected along the Andes but some areas of the country, including the Amazonian portion in Colombia were almost empty, very little and scattered records. It was a priority to fill the knowledge gap in that area. Javier knew that and he was working hard on learn more about Amazonian fishes.

I can’t stop thinking about the dark side cost of producing knowledge. I know that Javier’s accident is not an isolated case. We have lost other human lives of valuable people that were helping to build knowledge or protecting our natural resources. People that lost their lives in different circumstances, while collecting data to connect the dots and have a better understanding of this mesh we call life. It was Javier passion, as it is for many of us in this activity. And I can’t stop thinking about how often I put my life at risk while doing ornithological research in the past. How often I worked alongside colleagues and friends in conditions that by Australians standards would be considered life threatening (and now, I understand and respect our ANU travel forms). Sometimes the risks were because we were working in “conflict” zones where the ‘ghosts’ of armed militias were a reality, other times working in remote areas under difficult conditions. And why? The answer is and always will be because we care about our job, because we are passionate about our bugs, plants, birds, fish or whatever critter is our subject. Because we want to make a contribution to build scientific knowledge and help to protect our precious ecosystems and biodiversity.

For international students, it is especially hard to handle difficult situations, such as losing a friend or a family member at home, because we are so far away. When we made the decision to move to another country to study or work, we know that we are leaving behind part of our life, friends and family, but always with the hope that we are going to see them again. When a situation like the loss of a close friend happen, we can’t grieve in the company of our people to share memories and support each other, and our pain and tears are often shed in solitude. Of course, I am immensely grateful to my Fenner colleagues and close friends in Canberra for their compassion and for offering a hug, or a shoulder to cry on. Their support in this difficult personal moment has been really important to overcome the pain, and also to appreciate more our work and our commitment to Science.  

In memory of Javier Maldonado (Nano), one day you will share with us more about the fishes you loved, and we will laugh and dance again.