Colombia’s high-altitude Andean wetlands ravaged by devastating forest fires

The devastation in Santander's páramo de Berlín/Twitter

Colombia is grappling with a severe environmental crisis as 21 forest fires burn across the nation, with high-altitude Andean wetlands – páramos – bearing the brunt of the ecological devastation. A prolonged dry season, elevated temperatures fueled by the El Niño weather pattern, and deforestation in the Amazon are contributing factors to this nationwide crisis.

Cundinamarca is at the epicenter of the calamity as the department grapples with the highest incidence of forest fires, according to the National Disaster Risk Management Unit (UNGRD). The department has confirmed fires in various municipalities, including Nemocón, Nimaima, Chocontá, Quebradanegra, Fomeque, Gachanchipá, Tocancipá, Sibaté, Suesca, Sopó, and Zipaquirá.

In Nemocón, Mayor Cristian Carrillo reported that a staggering 180 hectares of vegetation have already succumbed to the flames. Lacking its own Fire Department, Nemocón is relying on support from neighboring municipalities, including Zipaquirá, Cajicá, Sopo, Gachancipá, Cogua, Civil Defense, Army, and UNGRD.

The Ministry of Environment, given the latest report from the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology, and Environmental Studies (IDEAM), has declared a “red alert status” for 586 municipalities across Colombia due to the threat of forest fires – more than half of the nation’s 1,101 towns. The UNGRD also noted a surge from four to 21 active fires in just one day, with Cundinamarca being the hardest-hit department.

One of the many fragile ecosystems that have been destroyed by the fires is the Andean wetland of Berlín in the department of Santander. To combat the raging fires in this remote páramo, the Colombian Air Force’s Assault Air Division deployed helicopters in the Ucatá area of the municipality of Tona. Pictures taken by firefighters at the scene of the devastation show more than 50 hectares of scorched earth and charred remains of what was once a pristine forest of towering frailejón plants.

The Directorate of Colombian Firefighters also revealed a disconcerting 65.4% increase in the number of forest fires compared to 2023. The toll stands at 508 fires in the first 23 days of January, up from 307 during the same period last year. Other affected departments in 2024 include Antioquia, César, Córdoba, Boyacá, and Valle del Cauca.

With accusations that the national government of President Gustavo Petro slashed the budget for the maintenance of the Hercules C-130 firefighting aircraft, the leftist leader declared a state of emergency through a decree that would ensure resources for emergency response.

Bogotá, the capital, is grappling with a voracious fire in the Cerros Orientales, consuming 12 hectares of forest. Mayor Carlos Fernando Galán reports a 70% control of the fire but acknowledges the challenges posed by the rugged terrain. Wild animals have been spotted seeking refuge in urban areas.

“Manual work carried out throughout the night has allowed us to confine the fire. At this time, we can talk about 70% control of the fire,” announced Galán on “X “ Wednesday. As more than 350 emergency responders tackle the blaze that has been burning for more than two days, a new fire was reported by the Mayoralty in the Cerros Orientales, near Cerro del Cable, presenting yet another public health hazard for the residents of Bogotá’s Chapinero locality.

Confronted with unseasonably high temperatures and a prolonged El Niño weather pattern, which the Ministry of Environment warns may extend until June, Colombia is grappling with devastating fires that have already destroyed large swathes of the nation’s biodiversity.

As President Petro peddles his climate change agenda on the international stage during dozens of official trips, the national government must now step away from elusive narratives to defend endangered ecosystems and livelihoods of vulnerable farming communities. The longevity of Petro’s attention span to environmental conservation remains unclear, and the true commitment of the government to safeguarding the nation’s natural resources is facing a very real and dangerous threat.