Colombia human rights ombudsman urges action to prevent fires

By Oliver Griffin

January 27, 2024 at 1:00 PM

By Oliver Griffin

BOGOTA (Reuters) -Colombia's human rights ombudsman on Friday urged local authorities of high-risk areas for wildfires to take preventative action, while the environment minister warned the Andean country faced new climate dangers.

Earlier this week, the government of leftist President Gustavo Petro said it will declare a natural disaster to free up resources for tackling fires ravaging Colombia as a dry season has been exacerbated by a strong El Nino, a weather phenomenon that typically causes hotter and dryer conditions.

While shorter than some previous El Nino patterns, the intensity of this year's phenomenon is smashing temperature records, Environment Minister Susana Muhamad told journalists.

"This brings new risks that we are beginning to anticipate, which have not occurred in the past," she said, without labeling the risks.

Colombia and another eight countries in South America have seen their Amazon regions hit by a drought, which scientists say is driven by climate change.

The office of the human rights ombudsman called on the government to prioritize strengthening Colombia's disaster agencies.

"We urge the government to strengthen the logistical and operational capacities of official fire departments, as well as to carry out careful monitoring of all territorial entities in their functions related to the availability and operation of resources essential for risk management," ombudsman Carlos Camargo said in a statement.

According to the ombudsman's office, 17 of Colombia's 32 provinces do not have an official fire department.

So far this year, some 319 forest fires have swept across Colombia, which managed to put out 273 of them, equivalent to around 10 per day, according to a document seen by Reuters.

The fires have destroyed dozens of hectares (acres) of forest and moorland, with serious consequences for animals and plants, according to environmental authorities.

While 11 fires are classed as under control, 34 continue to burn, the document said. Active fires were reported in Tuparro national park in Colombia's Vichada province, and in the mountains bordering the east of capital Bogota, among other places.

Smoke drifted down into the capital from the burning mountains on Friday as helicopters carrying water flew overhead on missions to fight the fires.

Earlier this week, the environment ministry warned that close to 1,000 municipalities throughout the country were on alert due to the risk of fires, more than half of them on red alert.

(Reporting by Oliver GriffinEditing by Bill Berkrot and Sandra Maler)


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