Dolors Armenteras on saving the Amazon and fighting misogyny in science


  • She helped create the first geographic information system for the Humboldt Institute, one of the most important environmental research centers in the country.
  • She was also one of the first scientists to predict that, after the 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas, deforestation would increase rather than decrease in the country.
  • She founded a research group in landscape ecology at the National University of Colombia, made up mainly of women who are inspired to overcome the obstacles imposed by the cultural of machismo that still prevails in academia.

Recognized as one of the 50 most influential women scientists in fire studies in the world by the journal Fire, Dolors Armenteras is also a pioneer in Colombia in monitoring biodiversity using satellite data.

Being a woman, a scientist, and a foreigner in a country with a strong patriarchal culture like Colombia has not daunted Armenteras. A Catalan born in a small town near Barcelona, she works for the U.N.’s Science Panel for the Amazon, is a member of the panel of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), and serves as vice president of the International Association for Landscape Ecology.

Considered one of the highest authorities in research on fires and landscape ecology in the Colombian Amazon, Armenteras has had to fight against the difficulties of being a researcher in a country where science is underfunded. She’s also had to struggle with the prejudices against women in a profession dominated by men who, as she herself says, “have enormous egos, egos that do not allow them to accept that a woman knows more than them or that is better prepared.”

Her leadership in monitoring biodiversity using satellite data began in 1997 at the Humboldt Institute, a major center for environmental research in Colombia. She is currently a professor at the National University of Colombia, where she is the founder and leader of the Group for Research in Landscape Ecology and Ecosystem Modeling (Ecolmod). There, she has been in charge of numerous investigations in areas of ecology ranging from fires and deforestation, to the behavior of large mammals in the Amazon.

Many of these investigations have been conducted by women, since one of Armenteras’s main concerns is to bring gender equality to science, which is why she keeps encouraging women to get involved in this field.

In addition to her teaching and fieldwork, Armenteras has been published in the most important scientific journals on deforestation and fragmentation of the forests of the Colombian Amazon for more than 20 years, focusing mainly on fires, both from natural origins and caused accidentally or intentionally by humans. She has published more than 130 papers, many of them related to the Amazon.

Armenteras was also one of the first scientists to warn of the devastating effects that the signing of the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas in 2016 would have on the Amazon forest. In a study published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, Armenteras wrote that deforestation would increase dramatically, 52% in just one year in protected areas, due to the historical abandonment of the state and the lack of long-term strategies for socio-environmental sustainability in areas where it previously fought the guerrillas.

But despite her outstanding CV, and the fact that in recent years Armenteras has become a regular source of information for journalists and environmental media reporting on forest fires in Colombia and been cited in dozens of interviews and articles on deforestation in the Colombian Amazon, she is modest about her reputation.

“ I’d rather let my work to speak for itself”, she says.

Working in a tropical country

A map showing deforestation inside protected areas, based on data from UMD/GLAD, Hansen/UMD/Google/USGS/NASA, RUNAP, RAISG.

Armenteras arrived in Colombia somewhat unintentionally. Although her professional objective was to work in a tropical country, her options included African nations such as Tanzania, Kenya or South Africa. She even considered the possibility of traveling to Brazil or a Central American country. But never to Colombia.

Armenteras was the first of five siblings in her family to go to university. She studied biology at the University of Barcelona, the largest city near her hometown of Vic. Before graduating, in 1993, she was awarded one of the first Erasmus scholarships, which allow European students to study for a few semesters in different countries of the European Union. She picked the University of North Wales, Bangor (now known as Bangor University), where she obtained her bachelor’s degree and also completed a master’s degree in forest management and conservation.

“I chose to go to Bangor because there was the school of John Harper, one of the most famous ecologists, author of [A Darwinian Approach to] Plant Ecology, a mandatory book on this discipline. I was hoping to meet him personally, but when I got there I found out that Harper had retired a few years ago. It was a time when there was not as much information as now, so I only realized about it when I was already there,” Armenteras says with a laugh in an interview.

Despite that setback, Armenteras says her time in Wales was decisive for her career, as it was there that she grew more interested in forestry studies. “I changed my scale of work, as I went from observing the functioning of plants as individuals to studying them at the ecosystem level: the structures of trees, forests and landscapes. I discovered spatial ecology,” Armenteras says.

As she was finishing her master’s degree, Armenteras received an email with an offer to do a doctorate at King’s College London, modeling plant biodiversity in Colombia. The project consisted of evaluating plots in the district of El Tambito, in the department of Cauca in western Colombia.

The supervisor for the doctorate would be Mark Mulligan, director of the geography department at King’s College London, who was already in Colombia. Mulligan proposed to Armenteras that, before starting her Ph.D. studies, she could travel to Colombia to work at the Humboldt Institute, which was starting to set up its geographic information systems office, in the municipality of Villa de Leyva, Boyacá department.

Excited to work with Mulligan, and to be able to do it in a tropical country, Armenteras accepted.

Fighting against machismo

Dolors Armenteras in the field surrounded by colleagues. Image courtesy of Dolors Armenteras.

Armenteras arrived in Villa de Leyva, a municipality 160 kilometers (100 miles) from Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, in 1998 with a six-month contract. “When I arrived and saw the facilities of the institute, I was shocked. All geographic information equipment had been stored in boxes for a year. There was no fax or internet. There were blackouts 20 times a day,” Armenteras says.

But those logistical drawbacks were nothing compared to the obstacles she had to face for being a woman and a foreigner. “I began to learn my first machismo lessons in the professional world, as men who were less prepared than me earned more. I was a young woman, very well prepared, a foreigner who looked more or less presentable and very Mediterranean, but I began to feel invisible,” Armenteras says.

“There were official meetings in which no one spoke to me, even though I could contribute much more. I finished my doctorate while working at the Humboldt and I had my two children, Andreu and Miquel. In fact, I presented my Ph.D. exam when the oldest was 2 years old and the youngest was about to be born,” she adds.

“There are still those who ask me why I did not publish more during those years. The truth is that, although it is possible, it is much more difficult for women scientists to be prolific and publish, because there is still a very deep patriarchal culture, so we have to take care of many household chores and help our families. To this, we must add that doing international-level science from a tropical country is quite a challenge. However, my message to women is that it is possible,” Armenteras says.

Her legacy at the Humboldt Institute includes helping set up its first spatial and biodiversity database; coming up with the first methodology to make a detailed coverage map; and establishing the first bank of satellite images for biodiversity studies in Colombia. She also represented the institute in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

One of the people who can best account for Armenteras’s work during those years at the Humboldt Institute is its then-director, Fernando Gast, who says one of his goals at the time was for the institute to have its own capacity to process data without depending on third parties.

“Initially, we wanted to give a Colombian scientist the opportunity to do this work, but, after searching for a long time, we did not find someone to delegate such a great responsibility, so we began an international search. Finally, we found Dolors, and hiring her was one of the best decisions I made as a director,” Gast says in an interview.

At the time, he says, many people said Armenteras was very critical of his management. But he says this wasn’t the case; instead, he says he always appreciated Armenteras’s comments, since they were intended for the institute’s good.

“You can be tough on issues, but kind to people. She is like that, and I think that is part of her Catalonian strong character. She is the kind of person that, if you mispronounce her name she will correct you immediately,” Gast says. (Armenteras says that, in Catalan, the first “o” in “Dolors” is pronounced as a “u,” the “r” is silent, and the emphasis is on the last syllable.)In 2006, Armenteras accepted an offer to be a geography professor at the National University of Colombia, which she considers one of her best professional decisions.

Deciphering the fires in Colombian forests

The Colombian Amazon after the land was deforested and set on fire. Image courtesy of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS).

She joined the university in 2007, the same year she acquired Colombian nationality. At the time, she was already a recognized voice in Colombia’s environmental discussions. She had been in the country nine years by then, and the prejudices she suffered due to her gender and origin were a thing of the past.

“Or, at least, I was used to it,” she says.

But with the new job came new challenges. For example, during her first few weeks at the university, Armenteras did not even have an office of her own. “I arrived at the best university in Colombia, but the deficiency of its public infrastructure was evident; at the beginning, I didn’t even have a laboratory space,” Armenteras says.

She wasn’t discouraged by these difficulties, and, after a few months, she founded the Research Group on Landscape Ecology and Ecosystem Modeling, made up mainly of women, and where numerous pioneering investigations continue to be carried out in ecology, conservation of biodiversity, deforestation, and fragmentation of forests, among others. The group’s work has focused on deciphering the social, economic and political drivers of deforestation in Colombia, and on understanding the historical differences in the regions, with a view to providing tools for leaders to make better decisions.

One of the main findings of this team has been to prove that fire is used as a tool to deforest and grab land, and that fires have been a constant for years during the dry season, between the end of November and March. The Colombian Amazon is located in the wettest part of the basin, Armenteras says, and therefore there shouldn’t be so many fires. “Sadly, this area follows the same pattern of fires as the rest of the basin, and due to climate change it is expected that there will be even more fires in the future,” she says.

In fact, she and her team have found that unscrupulous illegal groups use fire to deforest land for pasture, grab land for large-scale farming, and build roads and infrastructure that raise the price of the land. According to Armenteras’s data, between 2001 and 2009, an average of approximately 400,000 hectares (988,000 acres) of vegetation was burned annually in Colombia, much of it in the Amazon. The figure for the past decade hasn’t been estimated yet, but as Armenteras herself states, it’s expected to follow the same trend.

“Although it seems paradoxical, until a few years ago, scientists and institutions insisted that this did not happen and that I was wasting my time studying fires in the Amazon,” says Armenteras, who has been monitoring the burning for more than 15 years.

Deforestation after the peace agreement

Deforestation in Colombia. Since peace was achieved between the Colombian government and FARC, both legal and illegal activities have ramped up, and deforestation has soared in former rebel held areas, threatening the country’s fragile biodiversity. Photo credit: Matt-Zimmerman on VisualHunt / CC BY

Another achievement of the scientific group that Armenteras leads has been to predict the deforestation in the Tinigua, Los Picachos and Macarena protected areas after the signing of the peace agreement between the FARC guerrillas and the government.

“Many people expected deforestation to decrease after the agreements; however, what we warned was that it would increase. And we managed to predict it with 90% accuracy. In fact, reality exceeded our calculation. Our findings were a reality slap about the country’s environmental future. I have always said that you have to be optimistic, but not blind. Our call at that time set off alarms that still ring about the environmental fragility of the agreements,” Armenteras says.

She usually obtains such data from cutting-edge tools such as the European Space Agency’s Sentinel satellites, and NASA’s VIIRS and Modis satellites. These devices acquire information from the Earth’s surface at different times of the day, such as heat in the form of infrared light emitted by fires. Another method is to observe the burned area, which can be identified thanks to the residual ash left from the burned vegetation.

Armenteras published these important conclusions recently, together with two other scientists, in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

“Dolors’s laboratory has been a pioneer in Colombia and Latin America in the analysis of remote sensors, a work that they have been doing since the 1990s,” Liliana Dávalos, a biologist at Stony Brook University in New York and co-author of the recent study, says in an interview. “Thanks to these studies, she has demonstrated, with figures, the importance of protected areas to curb the deforestation. Another contribution has been generating high-quality data and analysis on fires, since before they became a topic of discussion, in 2018.”

Support for women scientists

Dolors Armenteras in the field with a colleague. Image courtesy of Dolors Armenteras.

Today, Armenteras dedicates a good part of her time raising awareness about the importance of stopping deforestation in the Colombian Amazon. It’s an issue that she describes as being “of maximum urgency” because if the current rate of forest clearance continues, the so-called point of no return could be exceeded: that is, the percentage of deforestation from which, according to the models, the Amazon Basin would completely succumb to become a savanna like the African ones.

“If there were no climate change, the deforestation threshold would be 40% — however, under current global warming conditions, this margin drops to 20%. At the moment, deforestation reaches 17%, so we have little room for maneuver before forever damaging the biodiversity of this region,” Armenteras says.

She adds that all this awareness work would not be possible without the commitment of the dozens of students who have contributed to her research through the years. Armenteras also hopes to continue supporting her female students so that, like her, they can overcome the obstacles that they face daily in the professional world for reasons related solely to their gender.

“Dolors is a very intelligent and capable person,” Tania González, one of Armenteras’s Ph.D. students, says in an interview. “She has taught us how to move to get research resources, something fundamental in Colombia, which is a country where science is totally underfunded. Since our research group is made up mainly of women, we have had to face additional challenges, such as being told that there are academic spaces in which only men can participate.”

María Meza, another of Armenteras’s doctorate students, says that before joining the research group, she had already been removed from another group when she got pregnant. “In many circles they think that because you are a woman and have children, you will not perform the same. Dolors, on the other hand, was very empathetic in accepting me in the group, and this is something she has done with other female students,” Meza says in an interview. “This is a kind of support that is not found recurrently in the academy.”

Banner image: Dolors Armenteras. Image courtesy of Dolors Armenteras.

Article published by Genevieve Belmaker

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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