Peruvian peatlands: Carbon sinks only?

Peatlands play a significant role in tackling climate change thanks to their carbon storage capacity, which is considerably high below ground due to the waterlogged condition of the soil. Recent research (Draper et al., 2014) shows that they can store  ̶ including below- and above-ground carbon ̶  near half the amount of the above-ground carbon in all of Peru’s forests, even when these peatlands represent only 3% of the Peruvian forest area. However, their importance covers more aspects than the environmental. This article attempts to give a more comprehensive approach about peatlands, specifically from Peru, and how they fit into the country’s dynamics. Peruvian peatlands are shown from different perspectives, considering their ecological, social, economic, and cultural importance. Consequently, their conservation must be a national-level priority.

What is a peatland? Which types of peatlands can we find in Peru?

First of all, a peatland is a type of ecosystem (not necessarily vegetated) that presents a soil saturated continuously with water. This condition results in the absence of oxygen that promotes the accumulation of organic material (branches, leaves, animal remains, etc.) and, therefore, increases the concentration of stored carbon (International Peatland Society, 2017; Wetlands International, 2017; Gutierrez, 2017).

On a coarse scale, Peru has two main groups of peatlands, depending on the region where they are located: Andean peatlands and Amazonian peatlands. The most common type of Andean peatlands is locally known as bofedal or oconal (from the Quechuan[1]  word “ocko”: “wet”). Bofedales are vegetated peatlands whose soil is continuously damp throughout the year (Maldonado Fonkén, 2014). They are usually found above 3800 metres above sea level (a.s.l.), close to small water bodies (Rivas-Martínez and Tovar, 1982; Flórez Martínez, 1992; Maldonado Fonkén, 2010). Their year-round green appearance (contrasting with the drier land around them) depends on the predominant plant community (e.g. hard cushion, carpet), which can be used to classify them (Maldonado Fonkén, 2014). Unlike in other regions, peatlands in the Peruvian Andes are non-forested ecosystems.

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Figure 1. Examples of bofedales: (a) Distichia peatland in Huancavelica (4756 metres a.s.l.); (b) peaty meadow in Cuzco (4000 metres a.s.l.). (Maldonado Fonkén, 2014)

(You can take a look at the map of bofedales on this website: https://www.arcgis.com/apps/StoryMapBasic/index.html?appid=d4d04ce43b05476ab98cf849c52f1a26)

When it comes to the Peruvian Amazonia, there are three types of peatlands (from the youngest and closest to water bodies to the oldest and farthest from water bodies): open peatland, palm swamp peatland, and pole forest peatland, each representing a stage in the Amazonian peatland formation process. Among these, the palm swamp peatland is the most important and widespread peatland in Amazonia. It is characterised by the dominance of the palm species aguaje (Mauritia flexuosa), which is the reason why palm swamps[2] are locally known as aguajales (Draper et al., 2014).

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Figure 2. Palm swamp (aguajal)  in Madre de Dios. The predominant palms (the ones emerging from the canopy) are known as aguaje (Mauritia flexuosa) (South Adventure Peru Tours, n.d.)

(You can take a look at the map of aguajales on this website: https://www.arcgis.com/apps/StoryMapBasic/index.html?appid=e8d1571c6e0f4495b8b5b2c936095a93)

Because of the carbon storage due to their waterlogged condition, peatlands hold an environmentally important role in the mitigation of climate change. Moreover, if peatlands comprise forest vegetation there is also a significant amount of carbon stored above the ground[3]. Draper et al. (2014) highlight the considerable capacity of Amazonian peatland forests for storing carbon per unit area, which is ten times the capacity of terra firme[4] Amazonian rainforests, usually described as the “lungs of the world”. One of the examples of Peruvian Amazonian peatlands that is vitally important to Peru’s carbon dynamics is the Pastaza Marañón Basin (Northern Peru). According to the mentioned researchers, the amount of carbon stored both below and above the ground in this basin[5] (about 3 billion metric tons) is equivalent to nearly half of Peru’s above-ground forest carbon (almost 7 billion metric tons); however. this basin only comprises 3% of the country’s forest area (35 000 km2). On the other hand, research performed in Puno (the southern Andes in Peru) found that bofedales store an amount of soil carbon between 121.7 and 215.6 grams per kilogram of soil (Segnini et al., 2010).

Are there other reasons to conserve Peruvian peatlands?

First, from an ecological perspective, bofedales are essential for being a natural water storage area in the upper basins of the Andes, thanks to their “sponge” capacity to retain water from precipitation, melting glaciers, river, lakes, and groundwater (Maldonado Fonkén, 2014). The presence of bofedales allows water to run off slowly and even to be filtered through the ground, ensuring the soil stability (Maldonado Fonkén, 2010), which helps prevent soil erosion in these areas.

From the same perspective, both Andean and Amazonian peatlands help us conserve biodiversity. Bofedales are biodiversity hotspots since they are one of the few places in the Andes that haven’t been considerably disturbed by human activities (Maldonado Fonkén, 2014). They constitute a crucial resource for animals, providing them water, food, shelter and nesting sites (e.g., camelids as vicuña Vicugna vicugna, felids as pampas cat Leopardus colocolo) (Maldonado Fonkén and Maldonado, 2010, cited by Maldonado Fonkén, 2014). Similarly, Amazonian peatlands also contribute to biodiversity conservation. For instance, pole forest peatlands in the Pastaza Marañón Basin are found in white-sand forests, a very rare ecosystem in South America that is usually distributed as patches along the Amazon (Draper et al., 2014). In these scattered ecosystems, many endemic species can be found and are still to be discovered, such as the plant Platycarpum loretensis (Dávila and Kinoshita, 2016). Also, palm swamps are home to thousands of animals and plants, such as macaws who nest in the dead trunk of aguaje (Brightsmith and Bravo, 2006), and play a role in the food chain thanks to the fruits provided by palms (especially the dominant aguaje) and trees. For example, herbivores such as white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari) and tapir (Tapirus terrestris), both threatened, frequent this ecosystem looking for the fruit provided by the palm aguaje and other palms and trees.

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Figure 3. Peatlands as support for wildlife. (a) South American camelids drinking water from bofedales (Blue Channel 24, 2015). (b) Aguajes (red fruits) eaten by tapir (Tapirus terrestris) (Del Castillo Torres et al., 2016)

Moreover, one of the social benefits of bofedales is that they allow cattle raising (because of the provision of water), activity through which people can obtain food (meat). Besides that, Andean people can also find other types of food thanks to bofedales, such as the cushuro or llullucha (Nostoc commune), which consists of colonies of cyanobacteria that resemble spheres with a gelatinous layer. The also called “eggs of the rivers” are usually found on the shores of highlands’ lagoons, wet areas, and wetlands (such as bofedales). According to Ponce (2014), this food used since colonial times is a source of calcium and proteins, with the potential to stop cholesterol synthesis (Rasmussen et al., 2009, in Ponce, 2014). During the last years, this algae-like food has been used by top-rated Peruvian restaurants, being also referred as “the Andean caviar” (Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, 2017).

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Figure 4. Cushuro or llullucha (Agois, 2015)

Video 1. Presentation of a Peruvian dish with cushuro. (Central Restaurante, 2014)

As to peatlands in Amazonia, aguajales are a vital source of food for most of the Amazonian dwellers. The fruit of the palm M. flexuosa, known as aguaje too, is rich in vitamins and proteins and is very common in the Amazonian diet. This fruit has the highest natural concentration of beta-carotene in the world, hence the reason why it is a major source of vitamin A, which can be around five times the concentration found in carrots and spinach. Also, a weevil locally called suri (Rhynchophorus palmarum) can be found inside the decomposing trunk of this palm. Suris are edible in their larval phase and are a source of fats and proteins (Pacheco Santos, 2005; Del Castillo Torres et al., 2016).

From an economic perspective, Peruvian peatlands also benefit people from the Andes and Amazonia. Bofedales, as above mentioned, play a role in livestock breeding, which provides meat and fibre to local people. Aguaje constitutes a crucial source of income for Amazonian dwellers, who usually sell the fruit products in different presentations (e.g., beverages, pulp, ice cream, yoghurt, jelly) in urban markets in many cities. Iquitos (the most commercial Amazonian city in Peru) has a daily demand of 50 metric tons of aguaje, which provides jobs to local people. Additionally, its seed is used to produce hand-made crafts which are usually bought as souvenirs by tourists (Del Castillo Torres et al., 2016).

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Figure 5. The commerce of aguaje. (a) Sale of aguaje, as a fruit, in an Amazonian city market. (b) Crafts made using aguaje seeds. (Del Castillo Torres et al., 2016)

Peruvian peatlands are also part of the cultural knowledge of local people. Bofedales have been a core element in the traditional breeding of camelids (alpacas and llamas), as well as cattle and sheep (after Spain colonised Peru). The constantly wet soil can lead to a higher-quality forage, which translates into healthier animals, and more meat and fibre. For this reason, it is expected that there is a local knowledge regarding bofedales management that originated even before the arrival of Spanish people. As an example of this expertise, it’s worth mentioning the construction of irrigation channels (Maldonado Fonkén, 2014). In the case of aguajales, indigenous peoples, such as the Maijuna, exhibit traditional knowledge regarding the usage of species of flora and fauna that occupy these ecosystems (Gilmore et al., 2013).

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Figure 6. Maijuna man harvesting resin from copal (Protium sp.), one of the tree species found in aguajales, which can be used to seal canoes or as a fuel to start fires (Gilmore et al., 2013). (Plowden, 2009)

Because of these ecological, social, economic, cultural and environmental roles played by Peruvian peatlands, it is imperative to take action in conserving these ecosystems. They are not just carbon sinks, but they also constitute habitats for many species, contribute to people’s welfare and health, guarantee a regular income, and are part of the traditional knowledge. Moreover, Peru has one of the most significant peat deposits worldwide, the Pastaza Marañón Basin (Draper et al., 2014; Gumbricht et al., 2017), which reinforces the global significance of Peru in these ecosystems. Grave threats to Peruvian peatlands, such as clearance, drainage, or land-use change (e.g. palm oil plantations, as mentioned by Fraser, 2014) can bring severe implications to this country from different sides. Peru lacks a national legal definition of peatlands (Gutierrez, 2017), which is the first thing that should be addressed to control activities around them and guarantee their conservation in the long term.

Footnotes:
[1] Quechua is a native South American language family originated in the Central Andes. It is mainly spoken in the highlands of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, and it is an official language in the first two countries. Quechua is mostly known worldwide for being the official language of the Inca Empire.

[2] It is important to mention that not all palm swamps are peatlands. However, more research is still needed to tell them apart.

[3] Around 50% the dry weight of a tree’s wood is carbon, depending on the species, climate, and site.

[4] Terra firme refers to forests located in well-drained soils and at elevations, which allows them to be unaffected by flooding.

[5] The carbon stored above the ground relates to the carbon stored in the vegetation, excluding roots, which was 10% of the total amount stated in this case.

References:

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