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This project will examine the long-term resilience of Colombian forest ecosystems to environmental and climatic changes and improve understanding of the future implications of forest degradation for Colombian society. We focus on forests that are not pristine in that they are used by local communities and are affected by logging and fire. This fills a research gap in understanding how forests, which may be regarded as biologically ‘degraded’, have undergone changes in biodiversity, in ecosystem services, and in how they participate in local and global cycles of carbon and energy. The project will achieve this by building a network of permanent ecological monitoring plots across gradients of forest environment and degradation to allow evaluation of biodiversity and measurement of processes such as current and historical effects of fire, and carbon storage and changing climate. These data will be integrated with socio-cultural research, focusing on existing cultures of biodiversity conservation. This understanding is essential if the scientific evidence is to be integrated into long-term management plans and policy, as forest degradation in Colombia is strongly associated with changes to the fabric of social life, including the effects of sustained conflict. Participatory research and interviews will also allow the views and perceptions of key stakeholders, especially local communities, to influence our research priorities and outputs from the beginning.
This transdisciplinary work is critical to the implementation of international frameworks for biodiversity conservation aimed at reversing the effects of forest degradation. As Colombia emerges from decades of conflict, substantial changes are already occurring in land use, for example in the cultivation of areas that were previously inaccessible due to security issues. Our results will be scalable beyond the focus of Boyaca and Cundinamarca to the Colombian national scale and across the tropics. Tropical forest degradation affects an estimated 500 million ha globally and is an increasingly important driver in the global carbon cycle. However, in Colombia there is little information about change and recovery from degradation; over what time-scales changes occur; what are the major socio-environmental drivers of change; and to which baseline should forests be restored. Due to this high uncertainty, degradation is poorly quantified by climate policy such as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) with the result that global CO2 emissions-cuts scenarios may not be sufficiently ambitious and local projects may not benefit from carbon payment schemes.
We propose an innovative transdisciplinary methodology that will bring local knowledge, livelihood strategies and priorities into dialogue with multiple biophysical data sources, in order to evaluate change. We will supplement our existing plot data with new field, socio-environmental, and long-term ecological data to create a unique long-term network of degraded forest plots across Boyaca and Cundinamarca, covering variation in types and degrees of degradation (e.g. logged, logged+burned). We will, further, use these data with remote sensing approaches to evaluate the spatiotemporal variation in forests and assess drivers of change across the region to inform policy, conservation, and management. The project will provide critical information to improve climate and vegetation models that can help to assess whether forests and forest associated agriculture (e.g., coffee, cacao) will be resilient in the face of future climatic changes. This information will be used to inform policy recommendations and transformation pathways co-designed with a suite of stakeholders.
In summary, this project can transform understanding of the controls on forest biodiversity and ecosystem service, determine ecosystem resilience to climate and disturbance, and support socio-environmental planning for sustainable resource use.