Researching tropical peatlands with the Urarina of the Peruvian Amazon

Swamp forest ecosystem called ‘alaka’ by the Urarina people of Nueva Union; probably equivalent to ‘aguajal’ in Spanish.  

In recent years, researchers at the University of St Andrews, their colleagues at the Peruvian Amazon Research Institute (IIAP), and others have highlighted the crucial role that the Amazon’s largest tropical peatlands, located in the Loreto Department of Peru, play for the global climate due to their role as a carbon store and sink. But what about the people who inhabit these spaces? Are they aware of the existence of the peat below their feet? Does it matter to them? Do they see any threats for peatland conservation?

The collaborative project “Valuing intact tropical peatlands” (St Andrews-IIAP) aims to look at these questions for the first time, in a pilot social science research project on tropical peatlands in Peru. The peatlands in question are located to the southeast of the Amazonian city of Iquitos, and span territory inhabited by native communities and more  recent mestizo settlers. One indigenous group inhabiting spaces near peatlands are the Urarina. The Urarina have their own language, culture, governance, and customs and maintain a relatively independent lifestyle, based on subsistence agriculture, hunting and fishing. They have been living near peatlands for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Our social science research team, consisting of Christopher Schulz (School of Geography and Sustainable Development – University of St Andrews), Manuel Martín, Cecilia Núñez, and Margarita del Águila (Sociodiversity Programme – IIAP) visited an Urarina community near the Chambira River for 10 days at the beginning of April. Despite some language barriers, we were well received by the inhabitants of Nueva Unión, with whom we carried out participatory mapping exercises, interviews, and site visits to the peatlands surrounding their community.

One of the most important uses of peatlands for the Urarina are the fruits and fibres of aguaje palm trees that grow in swampy, probably peaty, areas. The women are skilled in spinning threads from aguaje fibre, which they then weave over months to produce the cachihuango, a traditional textile product among indigenous communities of the Amazon. The men frequently visit peatlands during extended hunting trips, not least because Nueva Unión is surrounded by peatlands in almost every direction; they have to be careful not to be trapped by the baainu, the evil spirit that inhabits peatlands and may make them lose their way home.

We left Nueva Unión with a positive outlook on the future of the community, and of the surrounding peatlands. Without exception people, including the young, reported being happy and satisfied with their lives in the community and planned on staying there. They did not report any major threats to peatlands, although conventional development is encroaching the area in the form of oil exploration activities and the timber trade. Nevertheless, we were also left wondering how life in Nueva Unión may change in the future, once mobile phone reception, internet, and television reach this outpost in the Peruvian Amazon, and may create a desire for change.

New paper: Continuous human presence without extensive reductions in forest cover over the past 2500 years

A new paper by Tom Kelly and other members of the Tropical Wetlands Consortium has just appeared in Journal of Quaternary Science.

Dr Tom Kelly and IIAP research assistant Julio Iriarica coring on Quistococha

As part of his PhD work, Tom showed that the lake at Quistococha, on the outskirts of Iquitos in Peru, contains a remarkable pollen and microcharcoal record. The data show an increase in pollen of the disturbance indicator Cecropia over the past century and a half, presumably reflecting the growth of Iquitos. Prior to that, the pollen record suggests little change in forest cover, despite a continuous microcharcoal record suggesting the presence of human populations.

A critical piece of evidence supporting our interpretation of the microcharcoal as an indicator of human presence was provided by co-author and archaeologist Santiago Rivas Panduro, who had previously published the results of excavations at an archaeological site adjacent to the lake. There, pottery, plant remains, and radiocarbon dates provide unequivocal evidence for prehistoric human occupation.

We suggest that the new record helps to support an emerging understanding that, in the wettest parts of Amazonia, there may have been little deforestation before modern times. This is an important qualification to the growing body of evidence from more seasonally-dry parts of the Amazon Basin which suggest that there, much of the forest had been cleared, at least episodically, in pre-Columbian times.

The article is published here.

New project to investigate the human dimension of Peruvian peatlands

We are pleased to announce the start of a new project at St Andrews entitled “Valuing Intact Tropical Peatlands”, funded by the Scottish Funding Council (ODA). The project takes the interests of the interests of the Tropical Wetland Consortium in a new, interdisciplinary direction – aiming to improve our understanding of how people use and value peatlands in the Pastaza-Maranon Foreland Basin of Peru. We welcome Dr Christopher Schulz, the postdoctoral research assistant for the project. Over the coming months he will work closely with colleagues at the Instituto de Investigacion de la Amazonia Peruana and local people (including indigenous communities) in two peatland areas to begin investigating the human dimensions of these carbon-dense ecosystems.

New paper on Amazonian peatland forests

Freddie Draper and colleagues have a new paper in Ecography, online as an accepted article.

The paper, Peatland forests are the least diverse tree communities documented in Amazonia, but contribute to high regional beta-diversity, uses floristic data from a network of plots to show that peatland palm swamps and pole forests host distinctive floras.

Although, at the plot level, peatland forests are typically much less diverse than dry-land forests, the paper argues that they make a substantial contribution to regional beta diversity which, together with their dense below-ground carbon storage, enhances the case for conserving them.

This paper grew out of data and analyses conducted by Freddie during his NERC-funded PhD.

NERC project “Carbon Storage in Amazonian Peatlands: Distribution and Dynamics” begins

Our new NERC-funded project officially begins today, with the appointment of Dr Greta Dargie as a PDRA at St Andrews. Greta will be leading field and lab data collection, initially working with colleagues at IIAP in Iquitos.

Greta has been in the news recently in relation to her pioneering work in mapping Congolese peatlands: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/nov/12/congo-basin-swamps-peatlands-carbon-climate-change.

Scottish Funding Council award

Dr Katy Roucoux, together with Prof. Nina Laurie, has been awarded £29,981.88 for a new project, “Valuing Intact Tropical Peatlands”. The project will focus on understanding the ways in which the peatlands of the Pastaza-Marañón Basin, Peru, are used and valued by the communities who live around them. The project will run from January to May 2018.

New NERC grant

Ian Lawson, Katy Roucoux, Tim Baker, Ed Mitchard and Mat Williams have been awarded NERC funding to continue their research into Amazonian peatlands. The project, “Carbon Storage in Amazonian Peatlands: Distribution and Dynamics”, will run for three years and aims to improve our understanding of the distribution and functioning of these globally-significant ecosystems.

Tropical Peatlands at EGU

Ian Lawson convened a session on “Peatlands in the tropics and beyond”, along with Claudio Zanelli, Sue Page, Hinsby Cuadrillo-Quiroz, and Jorg Kaduk, at EGU in Vienna. The session took place, appropriately, in the basement, in a packed room. Talks spanned a range of topics, including conservation, biochemistry and palaeoecology, from sites across the tropics (and one site in the Mediterranean as well). The talks were followed in the evening by a very well-attended poster session, including a poster by Ian and Katy Roucoux.