BOGOTA, Colombia — Environmental groups are expressing alarm about a sharp increase in fires in Colombia’s Amazon region that they blame on people clearing forest to make way for cattle ranches, coca fields and 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 arresting those who finance efforts to clear the forest.
“This is a tragedy that could have been prevented” said Sandra Vilardy, a biology professor at the Los Andes University in Bogota who also leads an interdisciplinary group that monitors deforestation in Colombia’s national parks.
The dry season in Colombia’s portion of the Amazon region runs from January to March, which generally leads to an uptick in forest fires. But environmental groups say the number of fires this year is dramatic.
The Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development, which monitors deforestation and leads projects to prevent it, reported it detected more than 1,800 fires in the Colombian Amazon in January, up from just 65 in the same month last year. It was the largest number of January fires since 2012.
The foundation uses data on heat points compiled by the Global Forest Watch app and then contrasts that with satellite images and data gathered on its own flights over the Amazon.
Alejandra Gomez, who leads the foundation’s monitoring program said the fires signal growing deforestation in the Colombian Amazon, especially along the rainforest’s northwestern rim, where agriculture is quickly expanding.
“These areas that are burning were most likely chopped down in November,” Gomez said, with farmers returning to burn the downed vegetation once the dry season starts.
Colombia’s Environment Ministry also reported late last month that the number of heat points registered over the Colombian Amazon was the highest for any January in a decade, though Nicolas Galarza, the vice minister for territorial planning, cautioned that heat points are not always equivalent to fires. He said data on January deforestation would be released later this year.
Galarza said that Colombian fire departments have put out 170 fires in the Amazon so far this year.
According to government statistics, deforestation peaked in Colombia in 2017, when the nation 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 forests.
Colombia’s government has tried to stem deforestation with military operations against illegal loggers in national parks and by making cutting down forests or financing deforestation a crime punishable by 15 years in prison.
Galarza said the government has also offered subsidies to families in forest preservation programs and increased financing for firefighters.
“Deforestation is a big challenge” the vice minister said. “But it is not something that we have left unattended.”
Critics, however, say programs promoting sustainable use of forests, such as by harvesting natural crops like Acai berries, involve only several hundred families, while the region’s dependency on cattle ranching appears to be growing.
The Colombian Institute for Agriculture reported the number of cattle registered in three provinces in the Amazon region doubled between 2016 and 2021. An investigation backed by the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development found that in villages bordering three national parks, the number of cattle 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 that their departure has encouraged cattle ranchers and other groups to move in and clear foresta the rebels had depended upon for cover.
Vilardy said the government’s inability to prevent the fires makes it harder for the country to sustain commitments it made recently at the global climate conference in Glasgow to reduce carbon emissions and preserve its natural areas.
She said that if deforestation continues, some parts of the Colombian Amazon will stop capturing carbon emissions and will instead become net producers of greenhouse gases. She noted that the Tinigua national park has already lost 45% of its original forest cover.
“This part of the planet is vital for regulating the world’s climate” Vilardy said. “The levels of deterioration we are seeing in the northern Amazon are not sustainable.”