South America may be sitting, unaware, on a pile of climate gold, ammunition in efforts to forestall global warming.
New maps of tropical and subtropical peatlands suggest these carbon-rich wetlands are more widespread in South America than on any other continent, with significant deposits in the Andean mountains.
These recent findings indicate the need for more research to validate their extent and location, and for a closer collaboration between scientists, local communities and authorities to sustainably manage them.
The IUFRO World Congress 2019 recently held in Curitiba, Brazil, convened scientists as well as policy-makers from Peru and Colombia around the role of tropical peatlands and ways to better manage these ancient landscapes.
“The massive scale, isolation and unavailability of most tropical South American peatlands have partially protected them from large-scale human degradation, in contrast to their heavily disturbed Southeast Asian counterparts” said Kristell Hergoualc’h, a scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
Hergoualc’h pointed out the need for more comprehensive assessments to inform the protection and sustainable management of peatlands, especially in the face of population growth and global warming.
Her research team, for example, studied a 350,000-hectare area in the Amazonian Ucayali-Marañón river basins that has natural stands of the Mauritia flexuosa palm.
The sweet, yellow fruit of the palm is harvested throughout the Peruvian Amazon for subsistence and commercial purposes, often by cutting down the tree. “What we found is that 73 percent of the peatlands in the area were degraded, largely due to the unsustainable harvesting of Mauritia flexuosa fruits,” said the scientist.
Hidden in plain sight
Erik Lilleskov, a researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture U.S. Forest Service, agreed with Hergoualc’h on the importance of better mapping peatlands, noting they are the most carbon-dense ecosystems globally.
“Their degradation is a really big deal, given that their carbon stock rivals what is in the atmosphere and they can continue accumulating carbon for millennia,” said Lilleskov, who participates in the Sustainable Wetlands Adaptation and Mitigation Program (SWAMP) alongside CIFOR.
SWAMP’s work involves exploring one of the least known types of peatlands.
“Until the last few years, tropical mountain peatlands were hidden in plain sight because they did not fit the same search image as lowland peatlands, so they did not even show up in global mapping efforts or national maps,” Lilleskov said.
The program’s research in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru has demonstrated that tropical mountain peatlands are much more widespread than previously thought, and that they store several times more carbon per unit area than rainforests, achieving depths of up to 11 meters.
Andean mountain peatlands provide pasture, farmland, and clean water for millions of people in the region, but they are under pressure from such practices as ditching and overgrazing. Hence the importance of developing accurate national peatland maps as a basis for better policies in the region, emphasized Lilleskov.
From evidence to impact
National research centers are playing an important role in furthering the understanding of peatlands; raising awareness of their importance among policy-makers, and fostering community engagement.
In Colombia, for instance, the Biological Resources Institute Alexander von Humboldt has produced the first map of the country’s non-coastal wetlands, noted former Director Brigitte Baptiste.
The study, conducted in collaboration with 17 universities and regional institutions, revealed that wetlands make up almost one third of Colombia’s inland territories — 27 million hectares as opposed to the 3 million accounted for in the previous national inventory.
The new data is unlocking a number of other research and management initiatives, including restoration of flood plains and the declaration of certain swamps as protected areas. “The scientific evidence and discussions with the Colombian Government (that resulted in the new map) have really provided a new source for decision-making,” said Baptiste.
Another example is the Research Institute of the Peruvian Amazon (IIAP). The institution is promoting the sustainable harvesting of the Mauritia flexuosa palms in the largest peatland in South America, the Pastaza-Marañón basin, while studying the drivers of peat accumulation in palm swamp forests.
“Our interdisciplinary research is raising the profile of peatlands among decision-makers and other stakeholders,” said IIAP expert Jhon del Águila Pasquel, noting the economic and cultural importance of these ecosystems. “Research is important because we knew there was a problem, but did not have the evidence to inform decision-makers,” he explained.
For Biodiversity director with the Peruvian Ministry of Environment José Álvarez another critical issue is communicating scientific evidence to decision-makers in a way that is understandable and actionable: “We scientists often have the data, but need to get better at making sure it reaches the right person at the right time.”
Álvarez highlighted the importance of involving communities, not only in resource management, but in all planning and decision-making around national ecosystems. “We need a joint effort by local actors and the authorities at various governance levels,” he said.
Advancing sustainable management
Peatlands store large amounts of carbon, but are not always included in national climate change strategies. Panelists mentioned a number of reasons beyond poor political will: the lack of national peatland maps, adequate political institutions and regulations, and adequate ways of financing the preservation and restoration of wetlands are some of them.
Other challenges are specific to each country. In Colombia, for instance, all wetlands are public property but, in the past two centuries, significant portions ended up in the hands of private owners. “One of the first duties of the government is to reclaim the ownership and management of these wetlands as mandated by the Constitution,” said Baptiste.
The sustainable management of peatlands is a pressing challenge, especially in the face of climate and land use change. Peatlands in the region are under pressure from large-scale infrastructures, urbanization as well as illegal mining and encroachment by agribusinesses.
Hergoualc’h pointed out that stopping the loss of peatlands is about fixing governance and getting the incentives right. “The key lessons on how to adequately manage a resource are always the same: Understand the drivers and the incentives that generate the current behavior; understand the vested interests in the ‘status quo’; and identify tradeoffs so they can be managed,” she said.
For Álvarez and Baptiste, it is important to foster economic activities that are sustainable from an environmental and a social perspective and cater to a global market of conscious consumers. Deforestation-free supply chains for cosmetics and foodstuffs and ecotourism are two of the possibilities they mentioned.
Another vital aspect highlighted by several panelists was awareness. Lilleskov noted that valuing wetlands requires an understanding of their ecological and economic value when left intact: “People need to better understand their value to support their protection.”
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