From steaming swamp to blanket bog… We’re live!

After many more hours, and months of work than initially anticipated, our exhibition of Peruvian peatland pics is live. I sketched the article below with colleagues for publicity purposes; this press release adds a few more details. And the exhibition itself is available to everyone everywhere fortunate enough to have an internet connection: https://peatlands.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/. Compiling the exhibition has very much been a team effort, with colleagues Katy Roucoux and Althea Davies. I’ve learnt a huge amount from their invaluable input and feedback on all aspects of this ‘outreach’ project. I hope we’ve created an accessible narrative that will inspire people to look twice at peatlands, temperate and tropical, and to consider what role they play in all of our lives. I’ve also learnt, the hard way, about the need to balance what can be a very diverse portfolio of work in academia, with publications still being the unit of currency and stamp of expertise for the (academic and employment) world. Now to learning how to achieve that balance before it’s too late…

An open peatland ecosystem in the Peruvian Amazon. Credit: Lydia Cole. To view the caption to accompany this image visit: https://peatlands.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/.

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. Lydia Cole, Katy Roucoux and Althea Davies, lecturers from the School of Geography and Sustainable Development at the University of St Andrews, 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.

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 are a distinctive type of ecosystem where the surface vegetation contributes to, and lives on top of, layers of accumulating peat. Peat is made up of leaves, roots and partially decomposed organic matter, which builds up when waterlogged, low-oxygen, low-nutrient conditions prevent decomposer organisms from recycling dead plant remains. Over hundreds to thousands of years, a thick layer of carbon-rich peat accumulates. With climate change a key challenge faced by global society, conserving the carbon stored in peatlands is becoming an international priority for mitigation efforts.

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.

The future of Southeast Asia’s tropical peatlands

Nine years, five jobs, four cities and three paper rejections….and I’ve finally got the ultimate chapter of my PhD published. It’s been a journey! There’s so much I could write here about haphazard directions, happenstance, failure, resilience, the importance of ice-cream, etc., but I won’t. I hope there’ll be time for any helpful reflections in non-Zoom person soon. For now, here is the article: The future of Southeast Asia’s tropical peatlands: Local and global perspectives, free to download for the next 50 days (thanks for the token, Elsevier). And thanks to all of those people, both acknowledged in it and not, who have been ‘there’ over the last nine+ years.

The “graphical abstract“.

And paper’s “highlights”:

  • People have occupied Sarawak’s coastal peatlands for c. 200 years.
  • In the last century deforestation & peatland conversion have been widespread.
  • Local stakeholders perceive few challenges & many opportunities in using peatlands.
  • This conflicts with the international community promoting peatland conservation.
  • Differences in knowledge between local & global communities need to be addressed.

If any one of you out there reading do actually read this overly wordy piece and have feedback to share, I would love to hear it.

Talking transdisciplinarity

Last December (2020), Alex Chausson and I ran a workshop at the British Ecological Society’s virtual Festival of Ecology. After running a workshop the previous year on interdisciplinarity, this seemed like a natural next step. I learnt a huge amount from the process, not least about how to increase the likelihood of “having impact” through research. Here is a short post Alex and I put together for the IIED blog, to share our key learnings from the event.

A word cloud from the event, demonstrating which words sprung to mind for participants at the end of the workshop when they thought about “transdisciplinarity”.

Tools of the interdisciplinary trade – the write-up!