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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:
During April-June 2018, the PEER team made significant strides in terms of strengthening of stakeholder contacts, and building and strengthening communication with other institutions. At a national level, a high-level meeting was held with the Ministry of Environment, which included a planning session with the Vice Minister and her technical staff. The PEER team provided input for the five-year planning on a Forest Fire Project they are starting to design. Work with the National Parks Authority continues as well.

The team developed collaboration at several levels: for the North Andean region, the team held a workshop in May to discuss perspectives and problems around fires in Andean parks. With SFF Iguaque, the team received the permission to conduct fieldwork in June in the oak forest areas which were affected by fire in 2015. With PNN El Tuparro, the team established collaboration via two meetings and a preliminary field visit which was intended to establish potential field sites. The team is also discussing the second workshop in lowland areas with the collaboration of the parks authority of El Tuparro.  At a local level, the project team conducted fieldwork in June on the oak forests affected by fire in Asochaina, a local community association that protects the watershed, 

Dissemination of results: the team began the design of the page ( and developed a video for the National Parks personnel to be able to retrieve directly the daily early warning of fire:
The project is well on track with the proposed schedule, generating interest and a high level of expectation from the authorities. For the first time the Institution in charge of the monitoring of deforestation and early warnings has provided their reports with the inclusion of fire and some aspects derived of the project team’s scientific work as the distance of fires to forests. See at 
In terms of developmental impacts, a policy document is being created in collaboration with the National Parks Authorities. 

Upcoming activities:
In parallel with the ongoing project work, the team’ is working on Evidence-to-Action Supplemental activities:  two workshops have been planned  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. The first workshop with National Parks personnel from the NorAndean Division which took place in May was a success. The project team is  drafting a policy paper specific for their situation. The lowland workshop  will take place in mid-September in Puerto Carreno, the capital of Vichada, in the Orinoco.
Project website

5-331 Q1 2017c 5-331 Q1 2017b  

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