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Cycle 5 (2015 Deadline)

Degradation of tropical forests in Colombia: impacts of fire

PI: Dolors Armenteras (, Universidad Nacional de Colombia
U.S. Partner: Jennifer K. Balch, University of Colorado, Boulder
Project Dates: December 2016 - November 2019

Project Overview:

5-331 Fires occurring in the Savannah forest in the Bita region
Fires occurring in the Savannah forest in the Bita region [Photo courtesy of Dr. Armenteras]
Tropical forests host the highest levels of biodiversity and maintain some of the greatest carbon stocks of all terrestrial ecosystems, having an essential role in global carbon (C) cycling. Colombia is no exception and hosts a diversity of tropical forests that are rich in both C and species, but also highly threatened. The international community has established mechanisms such as REDD+ (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation plus enhancement of forest carbon stocks through conservation and sustainable forest management) as a way to combat global change. Colombia is one of the REDD+ countries that has made advances in quantifying C stocks and measuring emissions from deforestation but has yet to address the drivers and consequences of forest degradation. Recent studies have identified fire as a major driver of tropical forest degradation. Fires affect landscape structure, patterns, and processes and have shaped today´s species composition and biological diversity. However, fires have also been used more recently as a tool in management practices for land clearance, crop or pasture maintenance, and slash-and burn agriculture in tropical forest systems. Though a natural mechanism in many ecosystems, human actions have altered regimes and the extent and frequency of fires have increased in many regions of the world, particularly in tropical forests.

This study will be the first in Colombia to address the impact of fire on the composition of a given forest, or how fire is partially controlled by the spatio-temporal distribution of available resources to burn (fuel amount) and climatic conditions promoting combustion (fuel moisture). This project is anticipated to provide a basis of knowledge that will help reduce threats to agriculture systems, which are becoming more vulnerable in a climate change context and causing significant economic losses. Such is the case of fire dynamics which particularly can affect vulnerable crops that are composed of monocultures of highly flammable plant species (e.g., oil palm plantations). By identifying fire drivers, it is possible to design safer plantations, including elements and tools that reduce fire risk and dispersal. The project should also promote low-carbon economic growth through increased investments in low-emissions development, as well as improved community resilience to changing weather patterns and protection of significant ecosystems. By developing reliable estimations of carbon emissions from forest degradation and calibrating models combining field data and fuel moisture satellite observation data, the researchers will promote joint efforts to strengthen the capacity of regional stakeholders to integrate scientific products into development and decision making for the Colombian National REDD+ policy.

Potential developmental impacts 
The results of this project will address the impact of fire composition of different types of forest and demonstrate how fire is controlled by the spatio-temporal distribution of available resources to burn and climatic conditions. These findings are anticipated to be helpful in strengthening environmental resiliency and low emissions development, as uncontrolled fires, such as the ones taking place in the Orinoquia Region, are depleting forest C stocks and increasing CO2 emissions. This project is anticipated to determine which types of forests are less resilient to fire impacts, in order to prioritize regional management actions to control fires.

5-331 Q1 2017a
 Photo courtesy of Dr. Armenteras
Project updates:
The main focus during the first year of the project was: (1) assessment of how fuel load and fuel moisture change along forest types, and (2) advancement of understanding of the interactions between fire frequency and intensity and resulting biomass depletion and C stocks in different types of forests affected by single and repeated fires.

The first study sites were selected at the Bojonawi Reserve (Vichada, Colombia) at the Orinoco Basin. The site in the Andean forests was still being determined, and is likely to be around the Iguaque Sanctuary, Boyaca district. Building and integration of databases comprising land uses, fire dynamics, biodiversity continued. The team collected existing data on biodiversity of the area and had the species' sampling determined. For the Andes site, the team  began a preliminary study of fire dynamics with MODIS to  select  the potential sites for field plots, a selection that is under process and which will help filter out sites and select an area of study for the Andes site. Collected botanical material was processed at the Botanical Laboratorio of the Instituto de Ciencias Naturales of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. Collections were identified based on comparison with the specimens of the National Herbarium of Colombia (COL) and the Herbario Amazónico Colombiano (COAH), as well as with collections of virtual herbariums: Jstore Global Plants, New York Botanical Garden and Field Museum (Neotropical Herbarium Specimens). Botanical experts were consulted for identification of complex families, such as Rubiaceae, and for identification of infertile material. A database with structural and compositional categories was set up which includes information on botanical identification, diameter at breast height (DBH), height, sprouts, wood specific gravity and coordinates, for each plant individual sampled. Two independent vegetation data bases were created for adult plants and natural regeneration (seedlings, saplings and sprouts).

During the first three months of 2018, the team continued fieldwork and outreach activities. At a national level, a meeting was held with the Ministry of Environment in response to a fire crisis during this period. Meetings were also held with the National Parks where the team gave a presentation on the impacts of fire. At a local level, the team signed an agreement with Asochaina - the local community association that protects the watershed. In early April, PEER PI Dr. Armenteras is scheduled to conduct an exchange visit with her U.S. partner in Colorado to discuss project progress, followed by a visit to Washington DC to present the preliminary research results to USAID.
Fieldwork: Establishment of plots and field sampling of fuel, biomass, and forest composition remains on schedule. Field work in the oak forests affected by fire began in February 2018. The team worked on re-sampling in the Orinoco site during late February - early March and six new plots were established. Despite of technical issues with the newly obtained Licor LA2200 C analyzer which was used in the Orinoco site, the team is hoping to have 80% of their data collected once the Andes’ site sampling is complete.  
Upcoming activities:
In parallel with the ongoing project work, the team’s Evidence-to-Action Supplemental activities will be launched in 2018, with two workshops to be conducted in two regions that suffer greatly from the fire - the  Andean region and the Orinoquia Region. Through these activities the team aims to downscale the National Plan for the Prevention, Control of Forest Fires and Restoration of Affected Areas which is the national planning instrument that guides the actions of the State and individuals in the issue of Forest Fires, and through application of PEER project's gathered scientific knowledge on how fire affects the structure of tropical forests and their carbon stocks, engage and raise awareness in the local community where fires happen by engaging in the discussion not only the locals but also governmental and non-governmental decision-makers and scientists. Specific objectives: (1) Raise the awareness in the community about the degradation of forests by fires.  (2) identify the perception of different actors about the degradation of forests by fires, as well as the experience from the point of view of each manager with the fires. (3) Identify the structural causes and drivers that are likely to increase the risk of fires. (4) Identify the management of fires in three phases: before, during and after the fires by each of the actors, as well as the effectiveness of fire monitoring, rapid detection and suppression. Identify the critical aspects in the resources that must be assigned to manage the fire in the country. (5) Construct a document that contains the identified priorities and that serves as an input for the formulation of public policies.
Project website

5-331 Q1 2017c 5-331 Q1 2017b  

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