In June 2019, researchers from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, the Universidad de la Amazonía and the University of Oxford met with rural stakeholders in the Colombian Amazon. Their goal was to capture how people understand the causes and impacts of forest fires in the region using mind maps. Charlie Tebbutt and Dr Imma Oliveras reflect on what it takes to turn mental models into shared visions that overcome geographical, linguistic and disciplinary boundaries.

The resulting research ‘Participatory Mapping Reveals Sociocultural Drivers of Forest Fires in Protected Areas of the Post-Conflict Colombian Amazon‘ and plain language summary ‘Local Knowledge Reveals the Need for a Holistic Approach to Reduce Wildfire in Protected Areas of the Colombian Amazon‘ are available online now.

A cattle rancher, a forest ranger and a politician walk into a room. What do they have in common? Well, quite a lot, as it turns out.

A look through the list of stakeholders who kindly offered us their time and expertise on forest fires might prompt you to ask what it is that connects them. Trying to build consensus between politicians, forest rangers, farmers and scientists is daunting in any subject area, let alone one as fraught as the growing number of fires in the Colombian Amazon’s protected areas.

(A) Ortiz, 2021
Large areas of primary forest are cleared for extensive cattle ranching in the Amazonian department of Caquetá – Yenifer Marcela Ortiz Guerrero, 2021

Certainly, discussing the issue in English with the country’s former President in hushed Victorian hallways on the opposite shore of the Atlantic feels very different to a Spanish-language conversation with three hatted and booted cattle ranchers in the Amazonian heat. Even battling traffic in Bogotá to snatch an interview at the national park service headquarters feels a world away from skidding over waterlogged roads to a regional office just the other side of the Andes.

But that’s exactly the kind of heterogeneity: geographical, professional and cultural, that we have been trying to capture in our work. Colombia is a diverse place (megadiverse, in fact), and decisions made by each of these actors across all of these locations can impact each other and the management of Colombia’s natural resources. Our challenge was to find a flexible yet comparable way of piecing these perspectives together.

(B) Tebbutt, 2020
Intact primary forest within the Macarena Special Management Area, Guaviare – Charlie Arthur Tebbutt, 2020

During a seminar on academic interview techniques, I remember pre-emptively cringing as the lecturer described how to cope with non-responsive participants. What would we do if the interviewees had nothing to say? Such situations can arise due to all sorts of factors, ranging from poor study design to lack of interest, or the fear of repercussions for speaking out.

In the field, it became clear that discussing a topic as burning as the Amazonian forest fires with people so critically affected by their increase was unlikely to suffer from this problem. From air-conditioned desks crowning skyscrapers to the leafy patios of mountainside fincas (ranches), each discussion yielded a wealth of information on how different people perceive fire, its causes and its effects.

(C) Tebbutt, 2019
Pastures cleared for cattle ranching lie alongside remnant Amazon forest in Guaviare – Charlie Arthur Tebbutt 2019

When provided with pens and paper (unfailingly accompanied by delicious fresh coffee), rangers, ranchers and representatives of the local community dedicated hours to thrashing out the complex system driving the fire increase. Though the interactions between factors such as pasture clearance, agricultural expansion and transport infrastructure would all be captured in the resulting visual mind maps, the conversations that took place around the mapping table were equally important.

When encouraged to discuss the roles that fire and forest clearance play in Amazonia, participants offered socio-cultural insights that would be difficult to capture using traditional scientific methods. Over the chittering of forest insects and under a shady canopy of palm fronds, one ranching family described how some historical attitudes to pasture management persist: ‘If you say to a traditional old-style rancher, or the large-scale ranchers, “what is a ranch?” [they will tell you] “Green pasture, soil. Blue sky above, and green below, no more”, […] The number one enemy of the large-scale rancher is the tree.’

(D) Tebbutt, 2019
Pasture cleared for cattle ranching in Guaviare – Charlie Arthur Tebbutt 2019

Though these large cleared areas among pockets of remnant forest are familiar to those travelling through Colombia’s agricultural frontier, the finca where this conversation took place is a testament to some of the potential alternatives. Through a partnership with international research organisations, these ranchers plant 10 trees for every individual they cut down. The result: more food for their cattle and the cool, leaf-topped room where we sat and talked for hours.

Not all smallholders are lucky enough to benefit from such partnerships. Another set of ranchers designated their profession a ‘necessary evil’ as they moved around the mind mapping table, adding arrows to the diagram that explained how different factors push local agriculturalists towards cattle ranching. In doing so, they predicted one of the key research outcomes, which identified extensive ranching as both an important fire driver and a result of many interlocking perverse incentives and a lack of sustainable alternatives.

(E) Visualised_map
Participative map of the most influential factors affecting forest fires. Central variables are in bold, transmitter variables are in turquoise. Relationship widths are determined by relative strength, and arrowheads by their direction. Positive connections are in blue (stronger) and grey (weaker). Negative connections are orange. To simplify the graph, we only included the highest-weighted relationships. The article’s supporting information contains all the relationships on the map – Charlie Arthur Tebbutt, 2021

So what do a cattle rancher, a forest ranger and a local authority have in common around forest fires in the Colombian Amazon? Across our participants there was certainly a shared desire to reduce fires and forest loss, as well as a general agreement on the factors driving these. Extensive and unsustainable cattle ranching, land-grabbing, untitled land, and the lack of governance and basic public services were mentioned across all interviews. Addressing these factors, while continually consulting the people of Amazonia, can help to take advantage of the collective will for change.

One of the fascinating things about academic science is that we get the opportunity to dwell on these topics these, and to bring objective answers to a research question through different perspectives. Doing so around such a sensitive topic as wildfires in the Amazon and in a post-conflict region like the Macarena Special Management Area brings no shortage of challenges.

Logistical issues entailed coordinating the resources and the work plan to carry out the project. When Charlie raised the idea for conducting such research, we arranged a meeting with Dolors to discuss feasibility, as well as key safety and economic considerations. Charlie managed to secure just enough funding to pay for fieldwork and the necessary resources to conduct the research. Maria and Laura helped us to meet Gustavo, who provided names and contacts, and all three of them organised the local logistics to enable safe travel within the region. Dolors provided supervision for all the research on-the-ground, and Imma and Tahia advised on methodology and data analyses.

The resulting work was awarded the best MSc dissertation of the MSc course Biodiversity Conservation and Management. However, this was only the beginning. In order to share the findings we had to publish, and that has taken almost two years of additional work. We worked as a team with the firm belief that this was the best way to have the voices of cattle ranchers, forest rangers and local politicians heard and condensed into a clear message: there are many narratives around fire occurrence in the region, and all these voices need to be taken into account to build effective bottom-up policies that will help to keep the Amazon rainforest free from fires.