Environmental groups alarmed by fires in Colombian Amazon

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Environmental groups are expressing concern over a sharp increase in fires in Colombia’s Amazon region that…

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) – Environmental groups are expressing concern over a sharp rise in fires in Colombia’s Amazon region that they blame on people clearing the forest to make way for cattle ranches, coca fields and to illegal roads.

More than 150 academics and activists from Colombia, Brazil, France and Spain sent a letter to President Ivan Duque on Tuesday urging the Colombian government to take a more aggressive stance against deforestation, using the military to put out the fires , creating economic alternatives for people. in the Amazon region and arrest those funding forest clearing efforts.

“It’s a tragedy that could have been avoided,” said Sandra Vilardy, a biology professor at Los Andes University in Bogota, who also leads an interdisciplinary group that monitors deforestation in Colombia’s national parks.

The dry season in the Colombian part of the Amazon region runs from January to March, which usually brings an increase in forest fires. But environmental groups say the number of fires this year is dramatic.

The Conservation and Development Foundation, which monitors deforestation and carries out projects to prevent it, reported detecting more than 1,800 fires in the Colombian Amazon in January, compared to just 65 in the same month last year. This is the highest number of fires in January since 2012.

The foundation uses heat spot data compiled by the Global Forest Watch app, then compares it with satellite imagery and data collected from its own flights over the Amazon.

Alejandra Gomez, who heads the foundation’s monitoring program, said the fires signal increasing deforestation in the Colombian Amazon, particularly along the northwestern edge of the rainforest, where agriculture is expanding rapidly.

“These burning areas were most likely felled in November,” Gomez said, with farmers returning to burn downed vegetation once the dry season begins.

Colombia’s environment ministry also reported late last month that the number of hot spots recorded over the Colombian Amazon was the highest for any January in a decade, although Nicolas Galarza, the vice -Minister for Spatial Planning, warned that hot spots do not always equal fires. . He said January deforestation data would be released later this year.

Galarza said Colombian firefighters have put out 170 fires in the Amazon so far this year.

According to government statistics, deforestation peaked in Colombia in 2017, when the country lost 219,000 hectares (815 square miles) of forest cover. In 2020, the last year for which figures are available, Colombia lost 171,000 hectares of forest.

The Colombian government has attempted to stem deforestation through military operations against illegal loggers in national parks and by making cutting down forests or financing deforestation a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Galarza said the government has also offered grants to families through forest preservation programs and increased funding for firefighters.

“Deforestation is a big challenge,” said the deputy minister. “But it’s not something we left unattended.”

Critics, however, say programs promoting the sustainable use of forests, such as the harvesting of natural crops like acai berries, involve only several hundred families, while the region’s reliance on livestock livestock seems to be increasing.

The Colombian Institute for Agriculture reported that the number of cattle registered in three provinces in the Amazon region had doubled between 2016 and 2021. A survey supported by the Foundation for Conservation and Development found that in villages bordering three national parks, the number of cattle has increased from 80,000 in 2016 to 194,000 in 2020.

The country’s largest rebel army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, abandoned many parts of the Amazon in 2016 following a peace deal with the government. Analysts say their departure encouraged cattle ranchers and other groups to settle and clear the forest the rebels relied on for hiding.

Vilardy said the government’s failure to prevent the fires is making it harder for the country to meet pledges it made recently at the world climate conference in Glasgow to cut carbon emissions and preserve its natural areas .

She said if deforestation continues, parts of the Colombian Amazon will stop capturing carbon emissions and instead become net producers of greenhouse gases. She noted that Tinigua National Park has already lost 45% of its original forest cover.

“This part of the planet is vital for regulating the global climate,” Vilardy said. “The levels of deterioration we are seeing in the northern Amazon are not sustainable.”

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