Field Work in the Rio Chambira, by Manuel Martín

Acabo de regresar de un viaje de campo a la cuenca baja y media del río Chambira. Si tuviera que poner una banda sonora a los recuerdos de mi viaje, sería sin duda triste y poco esperanzadora. La marginación y la pobreza real en la que viven las comunidades urarina de esta olvidada zona del departamento de Loreto son difícilmente descriptibles.

El viaje ha estado lleno de contrastes y sobresaltos. Por un lado, hemos sido testigos de las operaciones de la compañía PlusPetrol, que opera el oleoducto norperuano que atraviesa el territorio de varias comunidades urarina de la zona. Helicópteros, cuyo flete cuesta miles de dólares, sobrevolando comunidades que no tienen acceso al agua, ni sistemas adecuados de saneamiento, ni escuelas o alguna infraestructura que les permita tener una educación pertinente y una buena calidad de vida.

Dos de las comunidades con las que trabajamos, decidieron abandonar sus asentamientos tradicionales para acercarse más a la orilla del río Chambira. Muchos dicen que para facilitar los proyectos de desarrollo con los que la empresa petrolera los seduce de manera permanente, con el beneplácito, por supuesto, de asesores externos de las comunidades y silencio absoluto de federaciones e instituciones que deberían defender los derechos básicos de estas comunidades. La negociación de la empresa con las comunidades por el derecho de servidumbre siempre se realiza de forma privada, legalmente, según el ordenamiento jurídico del país.

El oleoducto norperuano se rompe a pedazos. Tuvimos la oportunidad de visitar un derrame producido el año 2014, que nunca fue informado y, por lo tanto, tuvo una remediación tipo maquillaje. El crudo ha penetrado los suelos inundables donde estas comunidades se han asentado. Con cada crecida del río el petróleo accede a las cochas y los ríos. La gente ingiere agua y come peces contaminados. 

Solo cuando se convive con los urarina, se consume el agua que ellos beben, se comen los pescados que ellos pescan, se entiende la situación en la que viven todas estas comunidades. Los derrames seguirán (a pesar de las promesas de sustitución de los tubos) y la situación será cada día más crítica.

¿A quién le importa la vida o la muerte de pueblos que no hablan nuestra lengua? A mí me importa y es por este motivo que escribo estas líneas. Algunos asesores dicen que la decisión es siempre tomada libremente por las comunidades. ¿Si vieran que su vecino pretende saltar del tercer piso de su vivienda, no harían nada por evitarlo? El dinero corrompe terriblemente, compra voluntades y borra la capacidad de mirar al futuro. La situación es crítica, es preciso hacer algo. Basta de entregar dinero a las comunidades y prometer proyectos que no sirven para nada. Intentemos mejorar la calidad de vida de las comunidades generando capacidades en los jóvenes, fortaleciendo la identidad, recuperando las reivindicaciones tradicionales en los procesos de diálogo. Basta de seducir con dinero a las comunidades. Basta de ejecutar proyectos inadecuados para lavar nuestras consciencias. Realicemos un diagnóstico participativo con cada comunidad, entendamos su realidad, convivamos con ellas, aseguremos el futuro de los niños y niñas urarina que viven en el Chambira.

  • Manolo Martín

Sucked in (to the swamps)

Lydia Cole describes her recent experiences of ‘walking’ through/being sucked into the peat swamps of the western Amazon.

A colleague, being sucked in.  (She is entering a type of palm swamp dominated by Mauritia flexuosa, locally known as an aguajál and important for the fruit that can be harvested there.)

At the end of June, I got back from two months of fieldwork in the Peruvian Amazon.  The swamps, the Amazon, Peru, and indeed South America, were all new to me, having spent most of my research career to date searching for remnants of intact peatlands in Southeast Asia.

In the Pastaza-Maranon Foreland Basin (PMFB), a large area of the lowland Amazon within the Department of Loreto, Peru, you’re pushed to find any land that isn’t swampy to walk on.  Mapping projects to date have estimated the peatlands of the PMFB to cover 100,000km2.  One of the reasons I was there, along with six colleagues (from the Universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Manchester) and a bunch of exceptional assistants, was to help improve the accuracy of this estimate.  We each had slightly different data gathering agendas, but overall were trying to find out more about the evolution, ecology, condition and value of these peatlands, both from a local and global perspective.

Washing clothes in Veinte de Enero, on the banks of the Yanayacu river, on one of the many fine evenings after coming back from a sweaty day in the swamps.

My focus, along with that of Luis Andueza (fellow St Andrean) and Charlotte Wheeler (Edinburgh), was to investigate how people value the wetland ecosystems of the PMFB.  Luis formed a key part of the social science team, made up of a great bunch of co-investigators and assistants from the Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonía Peruana (IIAP).  They spent many hours asking many questions of the members of three communities, Veinte de Enero, Nueva Union and Nueva Pandora, living on the banks of the Yanayacu, Chambira and Tigrillo rivers, respectively.  They, incidentally, drank a variety of liquids during the interviews, to facilitate their social integration with the communities!

The ecological crew I was with, busy measuring what we measure in a plot. Spot the agile one up the tree. Never have I seen such heights scaled so quickly, and with such ease! (I might need to adapt the Risk Assessment for the next trip, however.)

Concurrently, Charlotte and myself, led by our brilliant botanist, Nállarett, and two courageous Field Assistants, Julio S and Julio I, were out exploring the many ecosystems that surrounded these communities.  Our work was, in essence, a big treasure hunt.  Our mission (that I questioned why I’d chosen to accept at various points of inundation!) was to find the gold – the code-word for peat.  We ventured into the environment surrounding the three communities in order to “ground-truth” information of two sorts: (i) ecosystem types/resource extraction locations marked on participatory maps generated by the communities in workshops run by the social science team, and (ii) maps generated through remote sensing (using Landsat imagery) that depict changes in land cover, with the different ‘covers’ yet to be confidently identified or understood from an ecological perspective.  We spent approximately 20 days cutting our way through swampy forests of all shapes and sizes.  When we came across a new ecosystem type, and felt that we could work at that location for two hours without sinking, we gathered data on various above- and below-ground characteristics.  One of the most challenging plots was half a meter under water, at a location aptly named “31 Devils”.  Thankfully, I’ve had previous experience of snorkelling in bogs.

Now that we’re all back on solid ground, we’re starting to explore all of the ecological and interview data collected from the swamps, to try to understand how people use, and importantly, how they value the wetlands ecosystems of the PMFB, as well as understanding the physical characteristics of these ecosystems from a western scientific perspective.  Our initial findings suggest that there are a whole range of forested wetlands used by these communities, composed of a huge diversity of flora on both peat and non-peatlands, and on a confusing mix of peaty-lands in between.  And, not unsurprisingly, people tend to avoid the deeper, looser, more “sucking”, mosquito-ridden swamps, when and where they can!  Sensible folk.  But we still have much to learn about the nuances of how each community values these carbon-rich, biodiverse and beautiful ecosystems.

Some of the great team, fresh-faced and smiling at the start of our fieldwork campaign!  (One member of the team may have been carried over the swamps in some parts.  Many other members of the team wished someone would carry them over the swamps in all parts.)

In the pole forests of the Rio Tapiche-Blanco, Peru

As part of our ongoing research on understanding the distribution and dynamics of Peruvian peatlands, I spent part of July with a IIAP-St Andrews-Edinburgh team exploring the floodplain of the Rio Tapiche and its tributary, the Rio Blanco.

Thinly-spaced pole forest near the Rio Blanco

Pole forest near the Rio Blanco

IIAP research boat “Tornillo II” moored in the seasonally flooded forest at the start of a day’s fieldwork.

The Tapiche is a right-bank tributary of the Ucayali, in the south of the Pastaza-Marañón Basin. It’s not exactly remote – our field sites are around eight hours by speedboat from Nauta – but there are only half a dozen small communities between the little service port of Requena and the headwaters of the Blanco, and essentials, especially fuel, are hard to come by. IIAP’s research boat, the Tornillo II, was near its limit with six on board plus food for a week, gasoline and all our sampling equipment.

The logistical pains paid off as we set out to collect field data to test and refine our predictions about the distribution of carbon stored in peat. Gratifyingly, everywhere we thought we would find peat, we did. Our field days involved arriving at a pre-defined point at the river bank, cutting a rough trail through the (usually non-peaty) seasonally-flooded forests bordering the river, then working inland as far as we could within the time constraints of the 12-hour tropical day. Along the way we took samples and recorded the characteristics of the vegetation and soils. This season we are using a combination of the rapid survey techniques we have used in the past, and a more comprehensive inventory that takes a couple of hours for the team to complete (but is still quicker than the four to seven days it takes to set up a permanent census plot).

Sampling peat in the Rio Blanco basin

These techniques are helping us to see nuances in the vegetation that we were not so aware of in the past. Along the Blanco we saw many variations on what the team is now thinking of as ‘jiiri’ – an Urarina word (see our recent publication here) that refers to all ‘open’ peatlands, where ‘open’ can mean anything from totally lacking trees, to a fully closed tree canopy made up of short, thin trees (a ‘varillal’ or ‘pole forest’). It’s becoming clear to us that these environments are very variable, forming a gradient (or several gradients) of varying canopy height, stem density, and canopy openness. There seem to be big differences too in the importance of flooding, and in the character of the substrate (though we have always, so far, found peat underneath them).

Dense pole forest

Pole forest showing clear flood marks

Floristic and geochemical data will hopefully provide a more solid description and functional understanding of these various environments, as will palaeoecological analysis (the chosen topic of PhD student Dael Sassoon). In the medium term, this understanding of how different ecological units inter-relate will help us to understand how and where carbon is stored in the peaty soils of the western Amazon.

We were very generously hosted and assisted in our work by the community of Nueva Esperanza.

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.

Christopher, Cecilia, Manolo, Ian and Margarita at Nueva York

Fieldwork in the Congo

Travelling on the UbanguiCampsite in a peaty swampGreta Dargie, Ian Lawson and Simon Lewis spent several weeks in the Republic of Congo searching for peatlands. Greta’s PhD research, in collaboration with WCS Congo, aims to make the first systematic study of peatlands in the Congo Basin, developing the same kinds of themes that our group has been working on in Peru. Recent political developments mean that it is now safe, though still challenging, to work in the sparsely populated wetlands of the Congo Basin.

Elephant tracks in peatThe fieldwork involved long journeys on foot and by river, thousands of bees, dozens of tins of sardines, a very damp campsite, and some amazing scenery. The first sighting of peat came when the team stumbled across elephants’ footprints, 30 cm deep in the peat layer of a palm swamp…

Peru Fieldwork Round Two

Tom at workHugo and surface sediment
This summer saw the completion of our second round of fieldwork in the Peruvian Amazon.

Tom Kelly, Ian Lawson and Katy Roucoux spent three weeks in Loreto, continuing their work on the peat swamp at Quistococha and surveying the wetlands around Jenaro Herrera on the Rio Ucuyali.

The majority of this work will form part of Tom Kelly’s PhD research; new peat cores and lake sediment samples were collected from Quistococha and will form the basis of Tom’s study of peat initiation and vegetation succession. Tom also measured the hydrological properties of the peat and the team collected samples of modern reference pollen material.

The trip culminated in a presentation at IIAP in Iquitos by Katy and Tom, which resulted in useful feedback on our preliminary pollen data from Quistococha.

The team received help and support from many colleagues in Peru, not least Jhón del Aguila Pasquel, Hugo Vásquez and Julio Iriaca, who gave invaluable assistance in the field; Dr Santiago Rivas Panduro and Victor Reategui, who took the time to show us some of the archaeological and zoological highlights at Quistococha; and Dr Luis Campos-Baca, Ricardo Farroñay and Dr Ángel Salazar Vega, who provided much support and hospitality at IIAP.

Graeme Swindles, Ed Turner and Chris Williams also undertook fieldwork at Aucayacu on the Rio Marañon in July as part of Graeme and Katy’s Royal Society-funded pilot study of the testate amoeba fauna.

Santiago with potteryKaty presenting at IIAPNorden in JH Herbarium

First fieldwork completed

A team led by Katy Roucoux took sets of cores from three sites:

  • Quistococha, near Iquitos: a Mauritia flexuosa palm swamp encircling a shallow lake (cores were taken from the swamp peats and from the lake)
  • Buena Vista: a tahuampa (seasonally-flooded forest)
  • San Jorge: a forested raised mire

Team photoAs well as taking cores, the team established a new permanent forest plot at each site, took surface samples for pollen analysis, and installed pollen traps to be recovered in future years. The team, which included Tim B, Tim J, Euridice, Ian, Julio, Hugo, and Ruby, spent time at IIAP and stayed at the Tahuayo Lodge for part of the trip.

Coring at San JorgeCoring QuistocochaSetting a pollen trap