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.

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