Cristián Samper was born in San Jose, Costa Rica in September 1965 and grew up in Colombia. Studied Biology at the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogota, and then went on to obtain his M.A. and PhD at Harvard University. He has done extensive field work on the Andean cloud forest ecosystems, as well as the Andean Paramos and lowland forests of the Chocó region.

He served as Director of the Environment Division of the Foundation for Higher Education (FES) in Colombia, and was also an adjunct professor of biology at the Universidad del Valle. From this position he was actively involved in the establishment of a private reserve network, that now includes more than 200 reserves throughout Colombia, as well as designing and implementing an environmental education program (Caja Ecologica) that is now used in more than 10,000 schools. He was also involved in the process that resulted in the creation of the Ministry of the Environment of Colombia in 1993.

In 1995 he was appointed as the founder and first Director of the Alexander von Humboldt Institute, the national biodiversity research institute of Colombia. From this position he was in charge of coordinating the biodiversity inventory of Colombia, and also promoted research in areas of taxonomy and systematics, conservation biology, ethnobiology and environmental economics. At the same time he served as chief science advisor for biodiversity to the Ministry of the Environment and the Government of Colombia, and served on the boards of many environmental institutions. For his achievements in the area of conservation and contributions to Colombia he was awarded the National Medal of Environment, Colombia's highest honor in this field. In April 2001 he became the Deputy Director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute [STRI], based in Panama, one of the leading tropical research institutions in the world. In January 2002 he was appointed as Acting Director of STRI.

He has also been an active player in linking science and policy, especially through the United Nations. He has served as head of the delegation of Colombia to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity since 1995, and was also the Chairman of its Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) from 1999 to 2001. From this role he has been actively involved in the development of a global strategy for plant conservation. He is also the chairman of the Scientific Advisory Council of the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC) of the United Nations Environment Programme, and Vice-chair of the Species of the Species Survival Commission of IUCN, The World Conservation Union.