In the southernmost part of South America, on the island of Tierra del Fuego, 735,500 acres of breathtaking nature thrives in Karukinka Park, a private protected area owned and managed by WCS in Chile. About a third of the park is covered by peatlands, globally important wetlands that extend as rust orange blankets, surrounded by forests and accompanied by guanacos and Magellan goose. Unlike peatlands in Europe and Asia, Patagonian peatlands, particularly the ones in Karukinka, remain largely intact.
However, these 11,000-year-old peatlands have a violent history. The Selk’nam people inhabited the peat bogs of Tierra del Fuego for 8,000 years until the colonists responsible for their genocide arrive. While some histories depict an erasure of the Selk’nam population, a small community remains today, with hopes to be formally recognized as a living culture with its own language.
WCS Chile is working alongside the Selk’nam people to protect the important cultural heritage of their ancestral peatlands. Much like the growth of peatlands, this work is slow and steady, as it relies on the development of caring and strong relationships with local people and institutions, in which all play a committed role. Through this work with the local community, WCS Chile has observed how the conservation of peatlands is intrinsically linked to the future well-being of humanity, planetary balance, and, in Tierra del Fuego, to the empowerment of the Selk'nam people. While as conservationists, we are often concerned with the protection of biodiversity, the conservation of these peatlands cannot be considered a real success if it fails to also protect the cultural heritage of its native people.
Peatlands are gaining increased attention for their valuable contribution as carbon sinks. Karukinka’s peatlands alone store over 200 million tons of CO2. The vitality of these peatlands is increasingly threatened, degrading their services for climate mitigation, hydrological management, species habitat, and cultural values.
WCS Chile is committed to their partnership with the Selk’nam people, to be active stewards of these ancient peatlands and humble companions of those returning to reclaim, revive, relive, and reconnect to their ancestral territories. An integrated ecological and cultural restoration process will ensure that all services of these globally and locally fundamental wetlands are preserved.
Tierra del Fuego, an island at the southern end of the Andes Mountain Range, is home to a concentration of peatlands that store over 315 million tons of CO2. The enormous water-holding capacity of the peat helps irrigate other ecosystems in times of drought, playing a key role in climate change adaptation and mitigation. Like many peatlands, the peninsula is home to a diversity of species and a place of exceptional cultural value.
95% of these peatlands can be found in the Peninsula Mitre area. For more than 30 years, several citizen groups of Tierra del Fuego have sought to transform the Peninsula Mitre into a protected area. While many efforts have failed up to this point, recent recognition of peatlands as important carbon mitigation solutions to the climate crisis has brought increased public and media attention to the cause.
In Tierra del Fuego, peat has been commercially exploited for horticulture and gardening during the last 20 years, but the activity was geographically restricted to a few localities. The landscape has changed during recent years, and local demands for peatlands exploitation have increased in both Argentina and Chile, resulting in the need of new conservation and management tools.
In response to these threats, recent regulations to prohibit peat mining in the area were successfully enacted. Also, the Tierra del Fuego province approved a bill in June 2021 that bans salmon farming in open pen nets. The ban will help to protect the fragile marine ecosystems of the province, and makes Argentina the first country to introduce such a ban.
A policy for integrated land management focused on the conservation of these globally unique ecosystems is an urgent necessity.
As a World Heritage Site, citizen groups and conservation scientists are asking that Peninsula Mitre receive the highest possible protection at both provincial and national levels. The legislature of Tierra del Fuego is currently slated to vote on a bill to protect Argentina’s Peninsula Mitre – more specifically, to protect 300,000 hectares of land and 200,000 hectares of coastal waters.
The momentum of recently enacted regulations and the increased recognition of the value of peatlands provides hope to these citizen and scientist groups that they will be successful in enacting more formal protections.
The peat swamps in the Pastaza-Maranon basin contain more carbon than the rest of the forests in the Peruvian Amazon combined. Yet, this area is also home to a critical economic resource – the aguaje palm fruit. This is the story of how that fruit came to be sustainably managed, ensuring a win-win for the ecosystem and the community.
In 1997, a group of people from the Parinari native community, concerned about the future of the aguaje palm fruit resource, decided to form an organization called "Esperanza Association for the Management of Natural Forests - AMBNE", dedicated to the sustainable use of aguaje palm fruits. The aguaje palm forest is located within the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve - one of the largest national reserves in Peru and home to critical forests and peatlands. The association ensures sustainable harvesting of the aguaje fruit by using a technique that doesn’t require them to cut the palm tree, which was the primary harvesting method in the past. The association now has a management plan for the palm fruit, and they sell their aguaje fruit oil with a seal called "Aliados de la Conservación" (Conservation Allies), granted by the National Service of Natural Areas Protected by the State - SERNANP.
For many years, the production of aguaje oil was 100% handmade, using a variety of materials and homemade utensils. For the fruit ripening process, plastic pots or trays were used, achieving non-uniform ripening. Obtaining the pulp was done manually in wooden trays using mallets of the same material. Later the mass was cleaned, separating the shell and seeds. The process took a long time, generating high costs and the product did not guarantee quality.
The AMBNE members, concerned about the sustainability of the aguaje palm and wanting to improve the quality of the product, decided to work with WCS, and began a semi-industrialization process for producing aguaje oil. They switched the rafts and mallets for an automatic pulper, which works with electricity. They changed the plastic trays and pots for steel tubs for maturation, achieving an efficient use of space and a uniform ripening of the fruit. They also began to use better kitchens and shortened the times in the process, reducing costs, improving quality, increasing the production of aguaje oil by 340%, and generating an economic increase of 370%.
The AMBNE members are motivated and committed to community management of resources, providing a natural product with benefits for the population, and becoming references in the management of the aguaje for other associations and communities in Loreto. AMBNE’s commitment as well as other communities for sustainable management is extremely important to maintain the integrity of tropical peatlands, such as aguaje palm forests, and therefore for climate change mitigation. Aguaje forests are not only important to support people livelihoods, but also for biodiversity conservation, including species as tapirs, peccaries, jaguars and paccu fish.
The Congo Basin Cuvette Centrale is the largest tropical peatland in the world, storing three times the carbon emitted by fossil fuel combustion on the entire planet annually. Lac Télé Community Reserve is one of just a few protected areas in this enormous area. Twenty thousand people live in the reserve, in 27 villages, alongside the highest densities of gorillas in the world. This is a story about the conservation efforts within the community.
“Everyone started out untrained,” tells Bola Madzoke, bluntly, as he explains how it all began in the Lac Télé Community Reserve. In September 2001, he was selected to undertake transects to estimate the density of wildlife in this remote northern part of the Republic of the Congo. This was the first time he was part of a scientific study.
“We were trained in the data collection methods, and we learned a lot in the field. At that time, I was 23 years old and I was a temporary teacher at the elementary school in my village”, Bola recalls, “it was a great opportunity.”
A native of one of the 27 villages that make up the Reserve, Bola has had the opportunity to work for the Reserve since the very beginning. It has now been more than 20 years, and Bola has become the head of ecological monitoring of the Reserve, where a 2017 study proved that the southeastern part of Lac Télé has the highest estimated gorilla density in the world.
“We have worked a lot on large mammal and bird surveys, and studies have also been conducted on fish and snakes. Today we are working with new methods involving camera traps. I have also worked on crocodiles, and we have just started a new study on hippopotamus” says Bola, who has become one of the people best able to understand the complex ecosystems of the Reserve, which covers more than 4,400 km2 and includes a wide variety of landscapes home to exceptional biodiversity: flooded savannahs, dry land, swamps, and peatlands.
“We all received training before each activity. That's how we evolved.” Bola learned and grew up along the Reserve, and was not expecting it: “my parents could not afford to give me a secondary education. Back when I was still living in my village, I didn't think I could go further. This has been really powerful for me.”
The Central African Basin Peatland is the largest tropical peatland in the world, storing an estimated 30 billion tons of carbon. The Lac Télé Community Reserve is one of three protected areas sitting on this critically important peatland for global warming mitigation, but also for its fauna. “Peatlands are an ideal place for conservation: it attracts large mammals because it contains plants and fruit trees which they feed on, and it is difficult for poachers to access and move around with their game” explains Bola.
Yet poaching, over-fishing and bushfires remain threats to protecting the Reserve, which harbors about 20,000 people. “We must always continue our activities, do missions constantly to be as close as possible to the communities, so that they feel involved in conservation” claims Bola.
Today, the Reserve employs more than fifty people, the overwhelming majority of whom are, like Bola, natives from the villages that make up the Reserve. It offers unique employment opportunities in this region, and has allowed, little by little, to locally create the human resources necessary for such an operation. Thanks to Bola and his colleagues, the Reserve will continue to be a force for locally-driven conservation of this exceptional landscape.
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