Fires in Colombia's Amazon spark alarm over deforestation

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A view of a deforested area in the middle of the Yari plains, in Caqueta, Colombia March 2, 2021. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

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BOGOTA, Feb 4 (Reuters) - Intense fires in Colombia's Amazon region so far this year point to rising deforestation by people clearing land for ranching and other uses, alarming environment groups, while officials also warned of pollution caused by smoke.

The burning is occurring in Colombia's so-called arc of deforestation in Caqueta, Meta and Guaviare provinces, where it creeps into national parks and parts of the Amazon rainforest. Preserving the forest is considered vital for curbing climate change.

"The intensity of the fires is greater than we've seen for many years," Rodrigo Botero, director general of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS) said in an interview. "That is a very alarming sign."

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Deforestation occurs as land is cleared for cattle ranching and illegal mining, among other uses. Deforestation in Colombia rose 8% to 171,685 hectares (424,243 acres) in 2020. read more

Although no data on the area or number of fires was available, January had the most hot spots in Colombia's Amazon biome over the last 10 years, according to an environment ministry memo published on Monday. February is peak burning season in Colombia.

While hot spots can represent fires, they could also indicate climbing temperatures during the country's dry season, Vice Minister of Environmental Regulation Nicolas Galarza told Reuters.

"Of course, we are concerned," Galarza said. "We want to check because the increase is unusual but, as I say, there's no conclusion these heat spots are fires."

Yet in Guaviare's Calamar municipality, the mayor's office issued a red alert about fires on Wednesday, while Carolina Urrutia, Bogota's environment secretary, on Friday warned smoke could affect air quality in the capital.

Advocacy group Amazon Conservation has detected a large number of big fires using its own monitoring application.

"What we're seeing is a lot of major fires, which means we're seeing a lot of fires that are burning biomass," or organic matter, Matt Finer, Amazon Conservation senior research specialist and director of the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), told Reuters.

"These fires show that a large amount of forest has already been deforested," Botero said.

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Reporting by Oliver Griffin; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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