Forest Fires Raze Crops and Wildlife in Andean Highlands

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This once-colorful bird died in the fire in the Tambo River area of Junin.

Park rangers and firefighters have succeeded in putting out fires in four wildlife reserves in northern Peru, but several other forest fires continue to smolder or burn in other parts of the country.

The government has called for emergency measures in the highlands of Cajamarca and Lambayeque, where several fires have spread.  In Cajamarca, the wildlife reserve of the Cutervo National Park has suffered extensive damage, and in Tumbes fires have also affected the private conservation area of Cerros de Amotape, home to the spectacled bear and Andean deer.

So far, some 11,000 hectares of forests have been damaged in the highlands of Cajamarca, Lambayeque, La Libertad, Piura and Tumbes and also in Ancash, Lima and Ayacucho.

This week, fires were also reported in the Pasco region, at Antapirca, where hundreds of hectares of eucalyptus, pine trees, and fields of potato, corn and wheat have been burned. Strong winds and the heat helped spread a fire started by a farmer who was burning his fields.

Many of the fires, just as the fires that occur almost every year within the Machu Picchu wildlife sanctuary, are caused by farmers practicing slash and burn. But in the case of national parks and wildlife reserves, specialists this year attribute the fires to the extreme drought.  According to the national weather service, Senamhi, humidity in some areas of the highlands is as low as 3% or 6%.

The first fires were reported in mid-September but local and central government response has been slow.   Forestry and wildlife are overseen by the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, through Serfor, and by the Environment Ministry.

“We’re prepared for floods, but not for forest fires,” said the minister of Agriculture, Jose Hernandez.

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Scorched underbrush on the Andean slopes in Pasco, where fires have also destroyed corn and wheat fields. Photo: Andina

“We warned that climate change and the drought this year are of great concern,” said Steffi Rojas, of the Ashaninka Center of the River Ene, CARE, in an interview with the Peruvian Environmental Law Society, SPDA.  In early August “We warned them, we even published (the information) but we got no positive response on the issue from authorities.”

In August, some 24 scientists in Bolivia, Brazil and Peru wrote a joint  letter to their authorities warning of what they considered could be one of the most severe droughts in recent history.  Ernesto Raez, a tropical ecologist and founder member of Peru’s ProNaturaleza foundation, said the letter was sent in Lima to the Cabinet chief, and the Environment and Agriculture ministries.

Jose Luis Capella, head of the forestry program at SPDA, said the forest fires are the result of a lack of planning and execution of preventive measures.

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Cattle, foreground right, found dead after fires died out in Acocro, Ayacucho. Photo: La Republica

According to Capella, the issue of fires and of slash and burn practices is buried without any special priority within the new forestry and wildlife law, No. 29763 enacted in 2015, and even in previous legislation a national plan for the prevention and control of forest fires and diseases remained on paper only.

The few forest fire experts in Peru work in the national parks service, Sernanp, mainly at Machu Picchu, but their prevention work has not been replicated in other natural areas.

The main focus, Capella believes, should be within the Agriculture sector —“where policies are notably absent”—  to prevent the traditional practice of burning fields at the wrong time of year and without any safety standards or techniques.

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