In the last ten years, the extraction of Sphagnum moss from the “Turbales de Chiloé” (Peatlands of Chiloé) is an activity that has been significantly increasing. This has generated an ecological impact on specific ecosystems as well as on the whole island, mainly due to the role of the peatlands in the regulation of natural processes. This situation has opened the discussion of moss protection and the effect this may have considering the large number of farmers who make their living from this resource. Thus, this column proposes that productive activity can become a key opportunity for conserving the landscape of Chiloé’s peatlands and the local identity related to this economic activity.
Originating thousands of years ago, peatbogs are a type of wetland characterized by accumulated organic matter, known as peat. These ecosystems cover less than 3% of the planet’s surface; however, they store twice the carbon content of all the world’s forest biomass, which makes them vital for mitigating climate change. (1). At the same time, they are fundamental for the hydrological regulation of the ecosystems where they are located, thanks to the predominance of Sphagnum moss (Pompón) that, due to its water retention capacity, plays a fundamental role in these functions. In spite of this, both the peat − organic decomposing material − and the living upper layer of the moss are extracted for the purpose of commercialization, which has led to a sustained increase in their exploitation, threatening their existence throughout the world.
(1) Parish et al., eds., Assessment on Peatlands, Biodiversity and Climate Change, (Global Environment Centre, Kuala Lumpur & Wetlands International, Wageningen, 2008).
In Chile peat bogs are found from the Los Lagos Region, in the form of patches, to the Magallanes region, where they develop with greater extension. Specifically in Chiloé, they present a dispersed distribution surrounded by fields and forests, constituting one of the few long-term water reserves. This is because the Big Island, not having high summits, does not obtain meltwater, depending exclusively on rainfall. In addition, population increases, deforestation and peat extraction have developed a water crisis that has become increasingly relevant. (2)
(2) “Crisis hídrica obliga a reforzar entrega de agua” (Water crisis forces water delivery to be reinforced) La Estrella de Chiloé, February 2, 2016.
Although the extraction of peat on the island is only done in a couple of places, the harvest of moss (Sphagnum) has spread enormously. Sustainable extraction of this moss is possible as has been shown by local scientists (3) though in the majority of cases extraction is being carried out to excess. The high global demand together with the lack of standards and regulations linked to the exploitation of wetland resources in general is initiating a delicate ecological problem. In fact, in instances of extraction, generally moss and peat are not differentiated. Peat is not a renewable resource and its exploitation generates irreversible damage to the ecosystem.
(3) Carolina León, Francisca Díaz, Christel Oberpaur and Erwin Domínguez (among others) have studied and published on the topic of Sphagnum moss and its regeneration possibilities. They have also conducted field trials on sustainable production of Sphagnum moss in Chiloé and in other regions of the country, which have been compiled in manuals of the INIA, part of the Ministry of Agriculture.
In this context of misinformation, in Chiloé the extraction of moss is carried out mainly by small farmers in rural sectors who use traditional harvesting methods, with manual processes and techniques that denote a close relationship with and direct understanding of the place (4), but which often exceeds the parameters of a sustainable harvest. Fortunately, recently an effort has been made to train these producers, who have begun to assess the renewable potential of the resource and to understand the recovery time associated with the volume of extraction.
(4) Local farmers understand that, due to the type of soil, the introduction of machinery to the site is not feasible. As for animals, they use them only in the summer when the water table falls; however, this is not typical because of the furrows they leave in their path and because of the risk of soiling the product. Farmers enter on foot, sometimes with boards or logs to move around more easily, and with no other tool than a pitchfork and a sack. (Conversation in the field, July 2015)
While some advocate total protection of peatlands by eliminating any intervention, it has been shown that the conservationist approach to this landscape has not been successful (5). The fundamental problem is that in the absence of active control of the site and the lack of tourists and visitors for much of the year, the peatlands, supposedly sheltered, are vulnerable to illegal extraction of moss or dumping of garbage within them. This situation worsens inside the forests due to the level of visual isolation, making its protection complicated and expensive.
(5) An emblematic case is the Chiloé Turberas Botanical Garden in the Teguel park, Dalcahue, which remains closed with caretakers for most of the year and can only be visited with special permits, (e.g. visits from schools). In conversation with the environmental officer of this park, he commented on the dumping of garbage and unauthorized moss extraction (visit in July 2015).
The truth is that today the extraction of moss or Sphagnum is one of the productive activities of the inhabitants of Chiloé and is an activity upon which hundreds of families depend. The activity is strongly inserted in the local economy and culture and therefore forms part of the Chiloé identity. It is thus important to consider that harvesting in the peatlands is a dimension that builds landscape, and there is an opportunity for its long-term conservation.
Assuming this mixed condition, which includes both the aesthetic and ecological elements, as well as the productive and sociocultural ones, is key to the survival of the peat bogs in Chiloé. The appropriation of these sites by local communities, the training of their owners, and the introduction of a tourism or educational component could allow, on the one hand, a sustainable local development and, on the other hand, their protection through their consolidation as attractive and characteristic places on the Big Island of Chiloé.
This points to the importance in countries like ours, where the economy is highly based on exploitation of natural resources, of reflecting on and creating instruments to assess and regulate the relationship we establish with our environment. The invitation is to achieve a greater harmony and cooperation among the productive interests, conservation, and different uses as a vital act of survival for this and other landscapes. To do this, all the elements, actors, processes, and dynamics need to be considered.
Maayan Navon. Student of Landscape Architecture at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. Maayan is currently working on a thesis project related to the productive practices involved in Sphagnum as a landscape element in the peatlands of Chiloé.