Fire and deforestation hold up Colombia's political system
by Andrea Echeverri, Diego Cardona and John Freddy Gómez
Fires can occur in territories and their ecosystems naturally or can be caused by humans, with different outcomes, from positive and desirable to negative and undesirable. We know that fire is not always a problem for nature, and in many cases can benefit life forms and ecosystems, such as when it is produced by certain traditional practices.
Some ecosystems or types of vegetation actually depend on fire, have evolved with it and some of their species are so well adapted that it even favors their reproduction. This happens in the eastern plains of Colombia and Venezuela, which are very similar to the Brazilian Cerrado. Climatic factors such as dry and rainy seasons also have impacts on fire, but we will focus here on causes related to human actions seeking to accumulate and reproduce capital, and not to reproduce life.
Fire can cause serious damage and alter territories, including their flora and fauna, local peoples and communities, as well as webs of life woven among them, when used in the wrong way. This is what is most frequently the case in vast areas of countries where agribusiness and cattle ranching are expanding, like Colombia, whose dynamics and effects we intend to address in this brief article, with an emphasis on the Amazon region.
Official information on forest loss in Colombia has been difficult to access in recent years, and constant monitoring of forest fires or deforestation requires considerable dedication. Therefore, the information in this article is based on secondary sources, which, although not as current, allow us to deduce trends and patterns related to forest destruction in the country.
Towards an understanding of forest fires in Colombia
In Colombia, fires have been largely uncontrolled, and human practices behind them work in diverse and complex ways, with catastrophic effects. It is not only about fires set directly, though, since other anthropic actions and alterations influence or are associated with the occurrence of fires. For example, the climate crisis, the introduction of invasive species into ecosystems, or changes in land use can increase the number of fires. Fire can affect the number and type of living species in an area, modify the local microclimate and alter soil fertility. In other words, fires in the plant cover have effects on the physical, biotic, and abiotic environment, besides generating harmful social and economic effects in the territories.
In the region of the planet located between the two tropics, the climate crisis and the expansion of agriculture have been responsible for most of the increase in the number, surface area and intensity of fires in recent decades. In Colombia, the fact that, every year, 45% of fires occur in tropical savannas, grasslands and shrublands is actually to be expected, due to their fire-dependent vegetation, i.e., the evolutionary development of these ecosystems has long been accompanied by fire. On the other hand, 39% of all fires occur in the tropical and subtropical rainforest group. Since this type of forest does not depend on fire, fires here do not occur naturally, but are mainly set by humans.
Although arsons are one of the main direct causes of forest degradation and biodiversity loss in Colombia, they have been poorly studied and managed. A jungle area of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta has faced during 14 days in 2020 long-last fires and new fires have been reported in 2022, impacting indigenous peoples who live in the area. According to Arhuaco authorities, the fires are due to “recent invasions in the Arhuaco territory and the effects of ‘slash and burn’ practices”.
Thompson ID, Guariguata MR, Okabe K, Bahamondez C, Nasi R, Heymell V, Sabogal C. 2013. An Operational Framework for Defining and Monitoring Forest Degradation. Ecol. Soc. 18(2):20. Available here.
Armenteras D, González TM, Vargas JO, Meza MC, Oliveas I. 2020. Incendios en ecosistemas del norte de Suramérica: avances en la ecología del fuego tropical en Colombia, Ecuador y Perú. Caldasia vol.42 no.1 Bogotá Jan./June 2020. Available here.
Torres Romero, F. 2020. Puede que el 2020 tenga menos deforestación, pero más incendios forestales ¿Continuará la degradación de los ecosistemas? Voces Natura. Available here.
After peaking in recent years at a deforestation rate of around 220,000 hectares in 2016-2017, subsequent years have been celebrated for a decline in deforestation, although the average loss still hovers around 180,000 hectares per year, which is adding to accumulated deforestation. Yet in contrast to this slight decrease in land area, the number of fires has increased. In February 2022, 597 municipalities in the country (out of a total of 1,103) reported some type of forest fire alert, often associated with air quality. The Ministry of the Environment declared that this was the highest number of hot spots ever recorded for that month in Colombia’s Amazon region.
According to Semana Sostenible, in 2019, nearly 100,000 hectares were razed by more than 7,000 fires. However, from January 1 to March 31, 2020, at least 53,000 hectares of plant cover had succumbed to almost 3,000 fires. By February 2022, in Colombia, forest fire damage already exceeded 86,800 hectares.
The data varies, however, depending on the source, whether the Colombian Fire Department, the Institute of Meteorology, Hydrology and Environmental Studies – IDEAM – or the Territorial Environmental Information System of the Colombian Amazon – SIAT-AC. Nationwide forest-fire statistics were reported from 2002 to 2013 by the IDEAM, but current information is scattered.
For those reasons, we decided to compare data from the SIAT-AC hot spots’ portal for the period from January 1 to February 28, 2021 with the same period in 2022, which is the dry season. This agency defines hot spots based on Di Bella et al. (2006), as “thermal anomaly on the ground … in fact approximations to fires or potential fire points” (free translation).
That comparison revealed a considerable increase in hot spots in Colombia’s six Amazonian departments (Vaupés, Guainía, Guaviare, Putumayo, Caquetá and Amazonas) and in the Amazonian territories located in other departments that are not 100% in the Amazon (Vichada, Nariño, Cauca and Meta). In 2021, 17,714 hot spots were identified, compared to 50,625 in 2022. However, the municipalities where these trends are concentrated coincide in both years, with the particularity of being transition zones between the Andes and the Amazon, or the Orinoco and the Amazon, which is why they are of special ecological importance. These municipalities are major deforestation hotspots.
Researchers on fire and the dynamics of deforestation in Colombia have found that in the northwestern part of the Amazon, fires are strongly associated with the access provided by roads and rivers, as well as fragmentation of the forest. Camilo Correa, co-author of the study “Rapid loss of landscape connectivity after the peace agreement in the Andean-Amazon region” (free translation), suggests that “connectivity is the characteristic of a landscape that facilitates or hinders the movement and dispersion of ecological flows in a geographic space. These flows include everything from the movement of animals to the ecosystem’s biogeochemical cycles, such as the water cycle“. Fragmentation therefore affects the loss of biodiversity, evapotranspiration, water availability, among others.
Studies in Colombia show that fragmentation in the Amazon not only increases the occurrence and intensity of fires, but that there is a large-scale edge effect, in which the most intense fires, and the majority of fires, occur near the edge of fragments, regardless of the type of land management. Findings in the Amazon show the type of land management undoubtedly affects the occurrence of fires, with protected areas and indigenous reserves both having low fire densities compared to unprotected areas or areas with logging permits.
Although Amazonian fires in Colombia have not reached the magnitude of those in neighboring countries such as Brazil or Bolivia, the outlook for coming years is also one of mega-fires. As each year fires tend to get bigger, models in Colombia predict a greater number, extension, frequency, and intensity of fires in humid areas where they have not been common. The conditions for fire are heat, fuel, and oxygen, which usually materialize as an igniter (such as lightning, but often deliberate human action), vegetation and dry climatic conditions. Colombia, despite not having pronounced seasons, does have a dry spell from November to March. For these reasons, most terrestrial ecosystems in Colombia are sensitive to fire. Approximately 64% of the national territory is covered by trees, which can burn for up to 100 hours, with a large aerial biomass of more than 150 tons per hectare. The following graph shows the evolution of hectares burned since 2001:
This data and behavior show that the Amazon rainforest is being destroyed and land use is being modified for human activities. As in other countries in the region, forests are cleared to make pastures for unsustainable livestock. A survey of forest fire studies, based on an analysis of changes in land use over a period of nine years, “identified interactions between the use of fire, illicit crops and the establishment of pastures, with impacts on forest loss in the region”. Research by Armenteras et al. concluded that deforestation in the Colombian Amazon is mainly due to logging to establish pastures, but they stress that it is a more complex phenomenon in which other kinds of land use also employ fire. In that sense, the issue also demands consideration of Colombia’s convulsive social landscape.
Infobae (2022). Incendios en Colombia ¿Qué está pasando y por qué está ardiendo el sur del país? (7 de febrero de 2022) Available here.
See: SIAT-AC. Puntos de calor. Maps.
For 2021, Municipalities in decreasing order: San Vicente del Caguán, Cartagena del Chairá, La Macarena, San José del Guaviare, Calamar, El Retorno, Solano, Mapiripán, Cumaribo and Miraflores; for 2022: La Macarena, San José del Guaviare, San Vicente del caguán, Cartagena del Chairá, Mapiripán, Calamar, El Retorno, Solano, Miraflores and Cumaribo.
Armenteras D, Barreto JS, Tabor K, Molowny-Horas R, Retana J. 2017. Changing patterns of fire occurrence in proximity to forest edges, roads and rivers between NW Amazonian countries. Biogeosciences 14(11)2755-2765. doi.
Correa en Lizarazo, M.P. (2022) Estamos perdiendo la conectividad entre el Amazonas y los Andes. El Espectador (August 9, 2022) Available here.
Armenteras D, Rodríguez N, Retana J. 2013b. Landscape Dynamics in Northwestern Amazonia: An Assessment of Pastures, Fire and Illicit Crops as Drivers of Tropical Deforestation. PLoS One. 8(1):e54310. Available here.
Armenteras D, González TM, Retana J. 2013a. Forest fragmentation and edge influence on fire occurrence and intensity under different management types in Amazon forests. Biol. Conserv. 159:73-79. Available here.
Arbeláez, N. 2021 “En Colombia también vamos a empezar a ver megaincendios” La Silla Vacía, Available here.
UNGRD (Unidad Nacional para la Gestión del Riesgo de Desastres). sf. Causas, efectos y perspectivas de los Incendios Forestales en Colombia. Available here.
Plundering the land: Fewer rainforests, more social injustices
According to OXFAM, Colombia has the most unequal access to land of any country in Latin America, with 1% of agricultural holdings concentrating 80% of its farmland. Considering, however, that a country with an enormous potential for food self-sufficiency imports 30% of the food it consumes, we might guess that land tenure in Colombia does not tend to benefit its population.
Access to land has long been a factor for social injustice in the country, triggering successive waves of violence. Land has been used to leverage political power, to the detriment of a peasant population that for decades has demanded conditions to continue existing as they are. It has also been a sensitive issue for the political system, which has kept the country from carrying out real agrarian reform, despite many attempts by social organizations.
As a country with significant forest cover, it is not surprising that deforestation and the expansion of Colombia’s agricultural frontier have had major social impacts closely linked to landholding. Colombia has moved from a policy touting “Land without men for men without land” in the 1960s to criminalizing people living in areas that have now been declared protected. In short, Colombia’s conservative political system has made agrarian reform, or even a mere redistribution of land, impossible. And, with no regard for unsettled ecosystems and indigenous peoples, it encouraged many peasants to occupy and clear those territories, in order to grant them ownership. Today, under greater ecological pressure, the Colombian State has criminalized the occupation of the settlements it once promoted, and has persecuted the peasantry, now pushed into new areas.
That is how deforestation, forced displacement and land grabbing have been shaping Colombia’s national territory since the twentieth century. The National Historic Memory Center estimates that approximately six and a half million people have been forcibly displaced in Colombia, and land concentrated in fewer hands. As several researchers have shown, displacement is not a result but the motivation for violence and armed conflict. According to Valderrama and Mondragón: “Displaced people do not exist because of wars, but rather wars exist above all to displace people”.
The policy of distributing “vacant” land in Colombia has been a perverse incentive for deforestation, including the use of forest fires to take over land. Since 1821, environmental and agrarian rules have regulated the handover of territories not used by agribusiness and livestock, with no recognition of their ecological dimension, and as a way to avoid a real Agrarian Reform that could change the concentration of the rural population. This privileged policy of land distribution and use “has been both a response to and a cause of ongoing agrarian conflicts”, as well as of the loss of forest cover in Colombia, which went from being a country with two thirds of its land covered by forests twenty years ago, to only half in 2021.
With deforestation and forest fires gaining greater attention, the Colombian State has resorted to old strategies like creating scapegoats and enemies, this time embodied in peasants occupying ecologically sensitive areas (often with State support) to their livelihood. Or else, in recent years, clearing land to be leased and paid for by investors who will profit from the deforested lands, many of them landowners and other major political and economic players in the regions. They are the same ones whose land grabbing has given them power, as explained to us by an official in the National Environmental System who has asked not to be named. Peasants, the weakest link in the chain, have been singled out, stigmatized and deprived of their livelihoods, with no authority there to investigate underlying causes for forest loss, such as poverty, displacements, or political power.
The dynamics of dispossession by violent players obey the interests of large economic conglomerates aligned with the country’s politicians, since land in Colombia is rarely a productive asset, but rather a tool for political power and territorial control. Territorial control and its expansion materialize in greater deforestation throughout the country and the deterioration of nature’s life blood.
The expansion of pasturelands is a form of land grabbing by large ranchers, who need not even bring in any cattle, as they used to do most of the time in the past. In other words, the forest is being cleared, burned, and replaced by pastures in huge areas that are grabbed and taken over by parties about whom little is known, and of whom, it seems, there is no interest in having information.
Redacción Vivir – El Espectador. 2021. Colombia importa el 30% de los alimentos que consume. El Espectador. (March 4, 2021) Available here.
Free translation. Beltrán Bustos VM. (2021) Normatividad de la adjudicación de bienes baldíos: Un incentivo perverso a la deforestación en Colombia. Thesis for the degree of Master in State Law with Focus on Natural Resources. Universidad Externado de Colombia.
Caballero, A. 2021. Deforestación y alcaldes. Los Danieles (24 de abril de 2021) Available here.
Andrea Echeverri is a sociologist, specialized in Environmental Education and Management and a researcher in the area of Forests and Biodiversity at Censat Agua Viva – Friends of the Earth Colombia.
Diego Cardona is a forestry engineer, Master in Tropical Forest Sciences, coordinator of the area of Forests and Biodiversity at Censat Agua Viva – Friends of the Earth Colombia, and a member of the advisory group for the Global Forest Coalition.
John Fredy Gómez is a political scientist and coordinator of the Economía Digna study group.