Peruvian peatlands are of huge environmental importance, not only locally but also globally. They not only house enormous stores of carbon, but are home to diverse flora and fauna, and provide essential ecosystems services that support local livelihoods.
Located in Amazonia, the Pastaza Marañon Basin stores an amount of carbon in peat soil equivalent to more than 100 years of the country´s anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG).
However, most of this carbon has only been partially protected and now, Peruvian peatlands are showing clear signs of degradation. At this vital crossroad, these peatlands can either become part of the problem, or the solution in the global battle against climate change. This depends greatly on the country’s actions towards their sustainable management.
Kristell Hergoualc’h, a scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), has been studying Peruvian peatlands as part of CIFOR’s Sustainable Wetlands Adaptation and Mitigation Program (SWAMP).
Based in Peru, Hergoualc’h was part of a team of scientists who recently published a pilot study that was the first one to attempt to map and characterize the degradation of palm swamp peatlands in the Peruvian Amazon. The study combined remote sensing data and carbon in biomass from inventories.
“Providing solid and credible estimations of the impacts of degradation is an essential step in planning and adopting conservation strategies,” says Hergoualc’h.
“Peruvian peatlands should be considered as priorities in any national conservation program for climate change mitigation.”
Forests News sat down with Hergoualc’h to discuss the study’s results and the pressing need for the country to develop strategies and policies that ensure their sustainable management.
What are peatlands and why are they important, particularly in the context of Peru?
Peatlands are wetland ecosystems located in depressions that remain flooded during most of the year. The continued oxygen-poor conditions in the soil lead to a slow decomposition of the dead branches, leaves and roots and result, over thousands of years, in the accumulation of a soil layer extremely rich in carbon.
This layer can be very deep. For example, in Peru, peat deposits with a depth up to nine meters were found in the Amazon basin. Peatlands are therefore very important in terms of carbon storage and cycling. Peru holds a substantial area of peatlands, most of which is located in the Amazon basin, but there are also peatlands in the Andes. Lowland peatlands are mostly forests hosting a high density of Mauritia flexuosa palms – locally known as aguajes.
What is causing the current degradation of Peruvian peatlands?
There are different types of activities causing peatland degradation, such as peat extraction in the Andes or illegal gold mining in the region of Madre de Dios. We’ve been looking more specifically at the degradation of the palm-dominated forests that spans the entire Amazonian basin.
People consume the fruit of the aguaje palm and a weevil – called suri– that develops inside the dead trunk of the palms. These products are important sources of vitamins and proteins, especially for rural communities. Unfortunately, the harvest of the fruit has not been very sustainable. It has been extensively cultivated in the past decades by cutting down the entire palm instead of climbing it.
What are some of the conclusions of your recent study into the drivers of Peruvian peatland degradation?
We’ve been working in an area of about 350,000 hectares in the region of Loreto and combined data obtained by remote sensing and data collected on the ground to evaluate the extent of degradation and the impact of degradation on the structure and composition of the forest.
We found that 73 percent of the area of palm swamp forest on peat was degraded. Our results suggest that degradation induces a shift in forest composition; the forest becomes dominated by woody trees instead of palms.
We also found that degradation translates into significant reductions in tree carbon stocks with initial stocks decreased by 11 percent and 17 percent following medium and high degradation.