From steaming swamp to blanket bog: an exhibition of photographs taken during field work in the peatlands of the Peruvian Amazon

                                                                                           

The peatlands exhibition ‘live’ at the St Andrews Botanic Gardens, Fife, Scotland. Credit: Joanna Hale.

This autumn, a touch of the tropical has come to southeast Scotland. From early August until late October, 2021, the St Andrews Botanic Gardens are hosting a photography exhibition all about Peru’s lowland tropical peatlands. Three members of the Tropical Wetlands Consortium, Lydia Cole, Katy Roucoux and Althea Davies, in collaboration with the Botanic Gardens and with funding from the British Ecological Society and The Leverhulme Trust, have curated a collection of photographs that take you on a tour of the steaming swamps of the Peruvian Amazon.

                                                                                               

An open peatland ecosystem in the Peruvian Amazon. Credit: Lydia Cole. For more details on this image, and the others featuring in this exhibition, visit: https://peatlands.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/.

The selected photographs were taken by researchers from the Universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Leeds, and the Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonía Peruana (IIAP, Institute for Research on the Peruvian Amazon) across ten years of fieldwork in Peru’s peatlands. The exhibition explores three key themes: ecosystems – highlighting the “ecosystem engineers” responsible for carbon storage; fieldwork – describing experiences of data collection in the swamps; and people – illuminating the communities and activities associated with the peatlands.

In addition to the physical exhibition, a virtual gallery is housing the photographs and captions to provide online access to audiences near and far: www.peatlands.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk. The website is also available in Spanish and will be live beyond when the exhibition closes at the Botanic Gardens at the end of October 2021. When accessibility improves in Peru and COVID-cases stabilise, colleagues from IIAP plan to display a Spanish-language version of the exhibition in a National Reserve in the Amazonian region of Peru.

Peatlands make up over 20% of the land area in Scotland. The most common type of peatland is a blanket bog, where layers of peat carpet the bedrock, forming waterlogged, mossy and shrubby landscapes. In the Peruvian Amazon, peatlands look very different as they are generally forested and often flooded; they are the archetypal ‘swamp’. Over 80% of Scotland’s peatlands are thought to be degraded, whilst Peru’s peatlands are mostly still in an intact state.

                                                                                             

Indigenous Urarina women harvesting Mauritia flexuosa palm shoots from a peatland palm swamp in the Peruvian Amazon. Credit: Lydia Cole

Researchers at the University of St Andrews and other members of the Tropical Wetlands Consortium, are measuring and mapping the distribution of carbon within the Peruvian Amazon peatlands, the biodiversity they contain and their long-term dynamics, to understand how they develop over centuries to thousands of years. Other projects, as many of the photographs highlight, are exploring the value, meaning and cultural importance of the peatlands to the communities who live there. The photographs in the exhibition have been selected to provide an insight into not only these peatland ecosystems and the people who live in and around them, but also the experience of doing research in these carbon-rich environments. You can find out more about the different projects and team members at www.tropicalwetlands.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk.

If you do have a look at the exhibition and it leaves you with questions or comments, the curators would love to hear them. Please email Lydia Cole (lesc1@st-andrews.ac.uk) if you have any feedback.

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