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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 and evidence of impact to policy

Going in to year 2019, the project team developed a fire policy revision for publication. Preliminary results of the research, along with the results of previous investigations have shown, that it is necessary to review the national political context in forest fire issues in order to identify which policies, plans, programs and projects can make contributions and recommendations in the matter. Gaps in the current regulations regarding the issue of forest fires have been identified, and the proposed review of policies will serve as an important input for the adaptation of  legal framework and as aid in formulation of public policies on forest fires taking into account national needs and considering the integral management of fires. A key point is to encourage the academia to become a leading actor for the country to enter a transition phase, from a paradigm based on the suppression of fire to the adoption of policies based on the compression and integral fire management. This change of vision arises from the results of investigations that are the basis for the social appropriation of knowledge, and the extension of them are the basis for cultural changes based on the understanding of fire and its impacts.

Work with the Congress of the Republic (House of Representatives): Based on review of national and international political context and identified gaps in the management of forest fires, the team has been working on contributing to formulation of a draft National Law that addresses causes and management of forest fires to aid in territorial planning and  country development.
Project website:

Most Recent Updates: 
During the reporting period of April-June 2019, the project team continued engaging stakeholders. Two meetings were held with Forest of the Orinoquia (Forestfirst) to discuss methodologies used in the workshop on fire management in the Vichada, and organized by the private sector (reforestation companies. The possibility of using workshop supplies in the fire prevention protocol that the PEER team have been working on at Vichada was discussed. There was also talk of signing an agreement of wills between Ecolmod and Forestfirst, to propose a joint project and look for funding sources to continue working the forest fires in this region so affected by this disturbance.
Fieldwork has been ongoing. A field trip was made to El Tuparro National Park to establish new plots and monitor established plots; fieldwork at Villa de Leyva, SFF Iguaque included a field trip to the SFF Iguaque to remedy and monitor the plots established in this project in that sector. 
Outreach and collaboration activities have been ongoing and include discussions on fire policy with the Senate of the Republic, the House of Representatives, and the local Council of Bogotá. Collaboration with Omacha NGO in fire research at the Río Bita Ramsar site is ongong, as is search for opportunities to develop joint activities with Forestfirst private company.

Media and policy impact:

In May 2019,  Dr. Armenteras and Thomas Defler had their opinion piece, entitled "Colombia: new plan imperils Amazon" discussing the Colombian government's National Development Plan published in the International Journal of Science, in May 2019: "The Colombian government approved a new National Development Plan in March that could increase the country’s deforestation to 280,000 hectares annually from 2018 to 2022. As well as flying in the face of expectations for socio-economic and environmental improvements after Colombia’s armed conflict ceased in 2016, this plan has implications beyond Colombia.
The northwest region of the Amazon is the wettest, so the increase in deforestation stands to destroy the water cycle of the whole basin and therefore the entire Amazonian ecosystem. As far as we know, the government has no plans to control this exploitation of resources. Such misuse of land will continue unabated, particularly in rural areas where biodiversity is richest, until environmental policies are reformed, state control is enforced and society has a voice in decisions and in policy making."

In the light of the raging fires in the Amazon, Dr. Dolors Armenteras and her work on forest fires has been receiving increasing media attention.  On August 23, 2019, Dolors gave a live-streamed interview to El Tiempo on the impacts of deforestation, national regulations, and actions to be taken  to reduce the risks of forest fires; On September 2, 2019, the national newspaper El Tiempo published an article on preparation of a draft bill on integral management of fires, featuring Dolors: 
 5-331 Armenteras El Tiempo 5-331 Armenteras draft bill article
5-331 Armenteras radio article 5-331 Armenteras amazon burns article

RCN Radio article:

News media in  Brazil:

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