Monitoring tropical wetlands as a tool for the conservation of Amazonian biodiversity

Harvesting fruits of ‘aguaje’ (Mauritia flexuosa) palms is a profitable activity for local communities in the wetlands of the Peruvian Amazon, and potentially the key to the long-term conservation of these ecosystems. However, expanding and ensuring the sustainability of this activity depends on maintaining the ‘health’ of aguaje populations,

Mauritia fruit

Aguaje fruit, ready for harvest

Aguaje is dioecious – which means that there are separate male and female individuals – and therefore sustainable harvesting depends on maintain a balance between the number of individuals of both sexes. However, typically, female trees have been felled to harvest their fruits, and in many areas, few fruit-producing trees remain.

The Peruvian Protected Areas Authority (SERNANP) is keen to promote sustainable forest management by local communities within protected areas, and aguaje fruit harvesting in Pacaya Samiria National Park is one of the most promising opportunities to achieve this goal. We are therefore working with SERNANP to support this activity, as part of our project ‘Monitoring the protected areas of Peru to increase forest resilience to climate change (MonANPeru)’ led by Tim Baker, and funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Climbing an aguaje palm

The ‘Makisapa’ climbing system, makes scaling palms easy!

Specifically, following a request from SERNANP, Karina Banda has developed a monitoring protocol for Mauritia flexuosa populations within the national system of protected areas. This protocol uses data from the network of long-term forest plots in wetland forest established by Euridice Honorio (IIAP), to identify indicators, design a sampling strategy and establish baseline values for monitoring the health of Mauritia flexuosa stands.

The plots provide crucial data on variation in two key indicators of forest health: overall aguaje density and the proportion of female aguaje trees. These data are being used to define the thresholds for these indicators, which will be used, in conjunction with regular monitoring, to identify how fruit extraction is affecting the health of aguaje stands. Implementing a clear and reliable monitoring system will help SERNANP expand aguaje harvesting to additional communities, and increase the value of the harvested fruit. For us, it is exciting to see how ecological monitoring data can be incorporated into biodiversity management to support both conservation and sustainable development in these landscapes.

New publication on the floristic composition of Peruvian wetland forests

Study sites

Location of wetland forest study sites near Jenaro Herrera, Rio Ucayali, Loreto, Peru (Figure 1; Honorio et al. 2015)

The floristic composition of the seasonally flooded and peat swamp forests of the Peruvian Amazon is poorly known in comparison to many other vegetation types in the region. But this lack of knowledge is not really due to a lack of fieldwork – there have been many environmental impact assessments related to the oil industry that incorporate floristic work as well as assorted inventories by different organisations. The problem is that these data remain hidden from public view and therefore knowledge does not accumulate and advance. This is the reason that this new publication by Euridice Honorio and colleagues at the Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonia Peruana is important: it provides open-access, baseline data on the structure and composition of Peruvian wetland forests. The availability of this information will help us to learn more about spatial variation in the composition of these ecosystems, as well as evaluate how they change over time.

Our carbon and vegetation map of Peruvian peatlands – in action


River levels are dropping in Loreto, northern Peru at this time of year, and that means that access is briefly possible to some of the fascinating peatland forests that we have been working on over the last few years. And for the first field season ever, the vegetation and carbon map published by Freddie Draper last year is available to guide our thinking about where to go and what to look out for. Many of these fieldtrips one way or another involve the Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonia Peruana, key members of the Tropical Wetlands Consortium, and it is exciting to have a framework that can be used to suggest places to go – and interpret the results as they come in. Our old friend Victor Chama who has worked with the RAINFOR plot network for many years, has taken an auger with him to the upper stretches of the Rio Corrientes where he is examining the state of the forests that are close to areas that have been impacted by the oil industry; we look forward to finding out how deep the peat is in this unstudied region. Other researchers at IIAP have reported new records of the unique pole forests (‘varillal hidromorfico’; the most carbon dense vegetation type in the Amazon) that was mapped for the first time last year, and these reports will help us improve our understanding of how these habitats have developed. The Carnegie Institute and CIFOR are also undertaking fieldwork in the region this year, with the support of IIAP. Finally, the Field Museum of Chicago is completing its report about their recent Rapid Inventory of sites along the Rio Tapiche; this report together with other rapid inventories from the southern area of the peatland complex will improve our understanding of this region. Doubtless, the current map will be improved as more field data becomes available. However, what is most exciting is how the map is allowing us to develop a truly landscape-scale perspective on how these special habitats have formed.

Results featured in El Peruano

Peruano logo 7Pg carbono

The results of Freddie Draper concerning the high carbon stocks of the peatlands of Loreto, northern Peru were featured in El Peruano – a Peruvian national newspaper. The article is based on our presentation on the margins of COP20, Lima, Peru in December 2014, and emphasises the role of the Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonia Peruana in leading research in tropical wetlands in northern Peru.