“This is the perfect land—flat, fertile—all we need to do is drain it,” a farmer thinks upon approaching a peat forest. Draining the area turns waterlogged, carbon-rich soil into arable land, but in the process releases tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Only 15% of peatlands worldwide have been drained, but this alone is responsible for 5% of total anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions.
Draining peatlands is not only dangerous, but it is a lost opportunity for local people. Enter Dennis del Castillo, the Director of Forest Management and Environmental Service Program at the Peruvian Amazon Research Institute (IIAP).
For over 15 years, Dennis has been finding ways to grow the market for crops that thrive in the peatlands of the Peruvian Amazon. Promoting these lands as an agricultural resource keeps Peru’s peat carbon stores in the ground and puts money in the pockets of local people.
“It’s important not to see peatlands as a wasteland, but as a resource,” says Dennis del Castillo.
But what crop will grow in these infertile, swampy soils?
It is seen as the ‘tree of life’ to many Amazonians, because it can be cultivated in otherwise infertile conditions. In fact, aguaje thrives in these extreme anaerobic conditions because of a special adaptation in their root system. Pneumatophores—specialized aerial roots—allow the plant to breathe in flooded soil. The trees themselves can be as tall as 35 meters, and the forests span 500 million acres in Peru alone. They are the foundation of this rainforest’s food chain.
The best thing about the aguaje fruit: it’s incredibly nutritious. It has about five times the Vitamin A content of a carrot or a bowl of spinach. IIAP is working hard to expand the market for these fruits, which they hope can spread as far and fast as the açai berry trend did.
Unfortunately, the traditional method of harvesting these fruits—which involves chopping down the entire female tree–is quite unsustainable. However, Dennis de Castillo has been working with locals to develop harvesting methods that allow the tree to live for multiple fruiting cycles.
According to IIAP, “[i]n addition to not killing the tree, the methods of harvesting by climbing allow for economic exploitation of all the fruit branches as well as prolonging the life of the tree for up to forty years.”
The story of the lowland Amazonian ecosystem mirrors the holistic promoted by the Global Landscape Forum (GLF). The GLF brings together economic, environmental, agricultural, and social researchers, policymakers, private sector actors, and stakeholders from their respective niches to collaborate on landscape-scale solutions to peatland problems. Productive, liveable and beautiful landscapes have a diverse range of stakeholders. It is absolutely critical to view environmental problems with this holistic approach.
The story of the aguaje proves that one does not always have to drain a wetland to have a thriving agricultural resource. This indigenous plant is, in the words of the IIAP, “one of the most important Amazonian resources from the ecological, social, and economic point of view”