Impressions on my session at the INQUA Congress, Dublin 2019

This summer I convened a session at the 20th congress of the International Quaternary Association in Dublin. A large international conference of over 2000 delegates, the focus of the conference was the Earth and its ecosystems from 2.6 million years ago up to the present (the Quaternary period) and into the future. My session was entitled: Quaternary science and the arts, humanities and social sciences and included (as I had hoped) presentations and posters representing a diverse range of projects, united by their use of cross-disciplinary approaches and commitment to communication and engagement beyond these disciplines. Three presentations in the session stood out to me. Firstly, Suzie Richer and Ben Geary presented their argument for a need for “ecocritical palaeoecology” that is, palaeoecological research which considers the debate between realist and constructivist epistemologies, acknowledges that perception is mediated through language, understands that data are never neutral, thinks about what our narratives communicate (unintentionally), and appreciates that once we speak we are interpreted. These considerations are interesting (to me) in their own right, but they are also useful because they enable us to communicate better, more clearly and, importantly more relevantly beyond our own discipline and beyond the academy; points which Lydia and Althea also made in their presentations about the importance of integrating socially-oriented enquiry into palaeoecological research. Secondly, Blas Lorenzo Valero- Garcés presented the results of recent work by a network of scientists, artists and citizens in the Spanish Pyrenees who have not only produced palaeoenvironmental reconstructions records from Pyrenean lake sediments (in the usual way of Quaternary scientists) but also interpreted the findings as music (translating time-series lake sediment and pollen data into melodies and harmony using a specially designed code) and used the results to engage local musicians (who made the music sound beautiful) and the local community (through discussion of the music and its origin). It’s hard to explain so here is the link in case you’d like to read more and hear the result Another, possibly even more original, interpretation of these lake records were also produced, in the form of a genre-defying art form I can only describe as “dancing-painted-hands-animated-to-illustrate-landscape-reponses-to-climate-change-film”. Thirdly, Julian Ruddock and Henry Lamb presented their recent science-art project entitled, 2A earth core: the hominin project (, a collaboration between palaeoclimatologists and Ruddock, an artist, working at first in the field in Ethiopia (with scientists drilling a dry lake bed and the artist documenting the field work in photographs, film and audio) and later to produce a gallery installation with interactive elements which served as both artistic response and interpretation of the work, and communication of the science and its beauty for the general public.
These works, at the interface between art and science, made me think again about what art is, what science is and how they differ. Why, when an artist shows a picture of a sediment core (albeit enlarged and projected on to a wall and scrolled past over the course of 24 hours to an eerie sound track of slowed down drilling machine sounds) is this art, but a photograph of a core section belongs to science? Does the artistic interpretation (whether an art exhibition or a symphony) help the science to be accessible or relevant? Is this “artistic interpretation” more accessible than the way a scientist might present the same information, or less accessible (as conceptual/contemporary art is often said to be)? Perhaps it makes the audience (including the scientists) look, and see, in a way they might not otherwise and thus pay attention. If science becomes culture and culture is more open to all than science, then perhaps such engagement with artists and musicians will be a productive way forward to make our science heard, albeit one that is open to (re)interpretation by viewers and listeners. Those who presented in this presentation certainly found that it had been.

Fieldwork in Veinte de Enero, by Dael Sassoon

Dael tries out the method for measuring hydraulic conductivity (honest). 

The 4th of May marked the beginning of fieldwork in the Peruvian Amazon for many of us. In the first week of our trip, it was a pleasure to spend time with the researchers from IIAP organising logistics and discussing fieldwork plans. After a week of method trialling and eating delicious Loretan dishes, we set off to the small community of Veinte de Enero to begin our research. The many ongoing projects, ranging from understanding the uses of the palm swamps (‘aguajales’) to the diversity and structure of the forest, created a stimulating and fun environment which allowed us to bond as a team and support each other in the challenges of fieldwork. Trekking through the sinking ground (‘chupaderas’) of the palm swamps and open peatlands was a testing yet memorable experience, often involving insect bites, wet boots and tripping over roots and vines. The help of the field assistants was indispensable to carry out our fieldwork safely and successfully. It was great fun to spend time with them as we recorded data in the forest, as well as getting to know them over a fresh beer at the village’s shop after a day of hard work. I am missing Peru now, but looking forward to start looking at my results and begin planning my next trip. A great ¡buena suerte! to everyone that is still in the field, and hope to meet the team again soon to hear all about their trip to Chambira.

A visit to the Urarina in the Chambira basin, by Luis Andueza

Photos: the new settlement of Nueva Union (top) and Nueva Pandora (below).

During the last weeks of February and the first weeks of March a team of 7 people from different institutions—including the University of St Andrews, IIAP, the Universidad Católica de Lima, and the Ministry of Culture—made a 10 day visit to the Chambira river basin. For the St Andrews team, the aim was that of presenting the ‘Valuing Tropical Peatlands’ project proposal to the communities we would potentially be working with, asking whether they were interested in participating, and of getting a better sense of the changing situation in the area. We were specially concerned about the community of Nueva Unión, with whom some in the team had worked before, and whom we had heard had resettled from its original location on one of the small tributaries of the Chambira, to the now flooded banks of the Chambira river itself. The trip was very enlightening as it gave us a clearer sense of the sort of transformations and pressures Urarina communities and their territories are currently facing, and allowed us to continue to develop the project’s initial approach and research questions—related to the cultural values and meanings of peatlands—through an ongoing dialogue with local experiences and concerns. Of particular relevance were those issues related to the operation of oil companies in the area, and how these articulate both with rapid changes in indigenous economies, and with long-standing Urarina strategies in relating to national society, extractive capital, and the Peruvian state. The process of resettlement had been part of this situation, as, according to local accounts, it responded to local negotiations with PlusPetrol, the company operating the area.

We also got to visit communities along the Tigrillo river, a tributary of the Chambira. Among these, was the community of Nuevo Pandora, to whom we presented our project, and manifested their interest in participating.

In general, what became clear, is that the changing local relations to the landscape, and to peatlands in particular, must be understood in the fraught context of racialised strategies of extraction, and indigenous strategies of adaptation and resistance. In this context, this project can contribute to make local relations, values, and meanings attached the landscape more visible in novel ways—something which can hopefully aid local efforts to defend of indigenous territories and ways of life in a context of rapid and uneven social and ecological transformations.

Luis Andueza, March 2019

‘Aguaje and apple’, anyone?


The CIFOR organised meeting ‘El contexto científico y el marco institucional para la gestión sostenible de las turberas en el Perú’ proved a good opportunity to catch up with the latest peatland science and efforts to manage peatlands in Peru. Organised by Kristell Hergoualc’h and Natalia Malaga, it brought together a novel combination of people working with the peatlands in the Andes and Amazon and demonstrated the important convening role that CIFOR can play in bringing scientists and policymakers together.

Three things stood out for me. Firstly, there was a notable alignment among speakers from national and regional government organisations to support peatland management. Of course, there is plenty to do to align the various official conservation strategies and initiatives to integrate peatlands effectively in national policy. However, I hadn’t heard such consistent enthusiasm and understanding of the issues before from such a wide range of organisations.

Secondly, there is tangible action as well. José Alvarez, (now Director General de Diversidad Biológica at the Environment Ministry), described the soon-to-be-released ‘aguaje and apple’ drink by AJE (itself a fascinating Peruvian success story that emerged from the troubled 1980s) as part of their new Bio range. Increasing the market for aguaje-based products is undoubtedly one part of the solution to managing the peatlands sustainably.

Thirdly, it was encouraging from my own ecological perspective, to see how the relatively new concept of the ‘peatland pole forests’ – the forest type that is found on the oldest, ombrotrophic peatlands in Amazonia – is being understood, accepted and integrated within discussions about peatlands. Jose Alvarez gave a warm appreciation of the unique bird species contained in these ecosystems, and their links to the better-known pole forests that grow on white sand soils.

So, it was a good meeting; but of course it is all underpinned by getting out and working to understand these peatlands. In that context, its amazing to think of all the fieldwork that is now kicking off by the remarkable collective of people leading and involved in the Tropical Wetlands Consortium. Teams will map aguaje populations using drones, understand how communities use these ecosystems and how they are degraded, validate maps of peatland extent based on remote sensing images, and address a whole range of other questions. Truly interdisciplinary and very exciting.

Valuing Intact Tropical Peatlands: Leverhulme project meeting 1

The Leverhulme project team met in St Andrews 1st – 4th April for the first planning meeting of the project. Although we’ve been emailing, and Skyping, and meeting to discuss project plans since January, this was the first time all of us (with only a couple of exceptions) met together in person. Manuel Martin Branas, Cecelia Ninez Perez and Euridice Honorio Coronado joined us from IIAP in Iquitos, Peru. It was great to have other Tropical Wetlands Consortium members Donna Hawthorne, Adam Hastie, Dael Sasson, Anna Macphie, Gabriel Hidalgo, at the meeting too; thanks to everyone for coming aong and participating with such enthusiasm. A day in the field, learning about UK peatlands and trying out some of the methods which will be used in Peru, was a welcome break from two and a half days of intense discussion in wood-panelled meeting rooms. We look forward to meeting again in Iquitos in May to begin the fieldwork in earnest.



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IIAP hosts stakeholder workshop on Peruvian peatlands

On 4th September 2018 the Tropical Wetlands Consortium (TWC) hosted a one-day stakeholder workshop, “Ecology, uses and management of wetlands and peatlands in Peruvian Amazonia”, at the Institute for Research in the Peruvian Amazon (IIAP) in Iquitos, Peru.

Organisers and some of the participants of the stakeholder workshop pose after the day-long meeting at IIAP, Iquitos

The aim of the workshop was to provide an opportunity for members of the TWC to present the latest research on peatlands and wetlands in the Pastaza-Marañón region and discuss with stakeholders avenues for future collaboration in the management and conservation of these environments. The wetlands and peatlands of Peru store large amounts of carbon, are economically important to local people and host unique biodiversity.

The workshop was timely as peatlands and wetlands are emerging as a conservation priority, being written into international policy instruments (such as the criteria for RAMSAR site eligibility) and attracting the interest of international donors.

The day began with an overview of peatlands and their importance, and of the latest research presented by members of the TWC (Dr Dennis del Castillo, Dr Euridice Honorio and Jhon Del Aguila of IIAP, and Dr Katy Roucoux of the University of St Andrews) with opportunities for questions and discussion. This was followed by presentations by most of the stakeholders about the work of their organisation. In the afternoon, the discussion was focused around the needs of stakeholders (what can researchers offer to support their work?) and the possibility of future collaborations to expand conservation and management efforts.

The workshop was funded by NERC, the Scottish Funding Council, and the University of St Andrews.

On the 3rd August, we had a research catch-up meeting, with a marvellous lunch.

CongoPeat project formally begins

Campsite in a peat swamp forest

Camping in an RoC peat swamp forest in 2012

A new NERC-funded five-year project to study the peatlands of the central Congo basin has been announced. The project, led by Simon Lewis at the University of Leeds/UCL, involves a multidisciplinary team from the UK and the RoC. Dr Ian Lawson of the University of St Andrews is leading Work Package 1, which aims to understand the genesis and history of the Congolese peatland complex.

The project kick-off meeting took place at Leeds on 6-7 September 2018.

The project is creating several new posts, including a PDRA and PhD studentship focusing on the palynology and other palaeoecological aspects of the project. The deadline for applications for the PDRA position has passed but for further information about the studentship, please contact Ian Lawson ( or see the description online. Please note that full funding is only available to UK and some EU citizens – NERC eligibility requirements are here.

More information about this exciting project is available at the project website.

New postdoctoral research vacancies at the University of St Andrews

We are pleased to announce three vacancies for postdoctoral research fellows, based at the University of St Andrews, to work on newly-funded projects about tropical peatlands. For further information about the posts and how to apply, please follow the link below (and narrow the search by “School of Geography and Sustainable Development.”

One of the posts is to work on the CongoPeat project, a NERC-funded Large Grant which will study the newly-described peatlands of the Congo Basin, Africa. This three-year PDRA position will focus on researching the long-term ecology of the Congo Basin peatlands (see the link for details).

Two of the posts are to work on the Valuing Intact Tropical Peatlands project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The project will investigate the ecology and socio-cultural value of peatlands; one of the posts is for a social scientist, the other for an ecologist (see the link for details). One further post associated with this project (in remote sensing) is currently being advertised at the University of Edinburgh.

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.

Setting up intensive measurement plots in Peru

From April to July 2018 Greta Dargie, Jhon del Aguila Pasquel, Julio Iriarica and Ian Lawson have been busy in the swamp forests of the Pastaza-Marañón Basin setting up monitoring sites.

At two key sites, at Nueva York and Veinte de Enero, we have installed a suite of equipment and initiated measurements aimed at measuring litter production and decomposition rates. At 14 further sites we are installing automated dipwells and litter decomposition bags. The aim is to better understand why carbon-rich peat soils accumulate in some places and not others.

A basal peat core from an open peatland at Veinte de Enero

Commuting to work through the flooded forest at Nueva York

Measuring the height of a palm tree

Setting up a litter transect

Installing a rain gauge at Veinte de Enero

One of the inhabitants of the aguajale: a skink