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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.

(1) Assess how fuel load and fuel moisture change along forest types;
(2) Advance understanding of the interactions between fire frequency and intensity and resulting biomass depletion and C stocks in different types of forests;
(3) Develop a model to quantify the response of different types of forests to changing fire regimes;
(4) Develop capacity to implement estimates of carbon emissions from forest degradation caused by fire into end-user decision-support systems
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 Armenteras article

Project updates

During October 25, 2018, the PEER team conducted a workshop for the stakeholders including local communities and national parks on preliminary results for the Andean site. Soon after, during November 29-30, 2018, UNC organized II Colombian Symposium of Landscape Ecology with PEER project results presented for the Academy, NGOs and research institutes with over 200 participants in attendance.  With the information obtained from these workshops, the team elaborated a document including a series of criteria and indicators to identify knowledge gaps and monitor changes in forests conditions and fire dynamic as an easier way to communicate the results of their progress. The team also established direct cooperation agreements with Fundación Omacha (NGO), Natural National Parks of Colombia (through its representatives of the northeast branch and El Tuparro Natural National Park), Senator Luis Iván Marulanda Gómez, and Congress Representative Mauricio Andrés Toro Orjuela.

During the period, Dr. Armenteras also published a paper that she indicates is having a big impact internationally and has caught the attention of the scientific community. Entitled “Fires in protected areas reveal unforeseen costs of Colombian peace,” it raises the alarm on fire impacts in the remaining forests in Colombia and discusses how much research and better legislation are needed in order to reduce the risk of fires. (Armenteras, D., Schneider, L., Dávalos, L.M., 2019. Fires in protected areas reveal unforeseen costs of Colombian peace. Nat. Ecol. Evol. 3, 20–23. doi:10.1038/s41559-018-0727-8.)
As part of the ongoing Evidence to Action PEER Supplemental activity focusing on policy impacts, the team worked with the National Natural Parks of Colombia (PNN). The result of the joint work has been the implementation of a proposal of criteria and indicators that allow the strengthening of the tools of planning for the management of protected areas, so that the degradation of forests can be prevented by forest fires. This opens the possibilities for the execution of a pilot project focused on the development of policies aimed at reducing the risk of fires in the face of climate change. This, in turn, according to Dr. Armenteras, will allow the strengthening of the PNN entity, which favors territorial development and the conservation of biodiversity, in turn benefiting the populations surrounding the protected areas.
Project website

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