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Cycle 9 (2020 Deadline)

Climate mitigation potential of Colombia’s lowland peatlands: distribution, emission factors and conservation priorities

PI: Juan Benavides (, Pontificia Universidad Javeriana
U.S. Partner: Erik Lilleskov, U.S. Forest Service
Project Dates: April 2021 - October 2023

Project Overview:
9-116_Benavides fieldtrip
 Researchers Paola Alarcon (left) and Alejandro Delgado measuring CO2 and CH4 soil fluxes in flooded forests with peat soils in the Colombian Amazon. Photo courtesy Dr. Benavides
9-116_Benavides tropical peatland interior
Interior of tropical peatland where chambers for monitoring will be temporarily installed.
9-116_Benavides_meeting with local community
The meeting held in Chorrera on  December 13, convened 22 indigenous community representatives, including community guardian, women leaders, and grandparents of each community
Peatlands are the most carbon dense terrestrial ecosystems, harboring several times the carbon of non-peatland tropical rainforests per unit area. In addition, they are a major sink for greenhouse gases over millennial timescales, with global peatlands storing the equivalent of pre-industrial stocks of atmospheric carbon dioxide in just 3% of the land surface. However, these carbon stocks are vulnerable to land use changes (especially drainage) and consequent decomposition and burning, as well as to the warming and drying impacts of climate change. Therefore, understanding the distribution of, and threats to, peatlands is a critical part of our fundamental understanding of the earth system, as well as our ability to manage ecosystems to minimize impacts to climate, and to enable participation in international agreements that manage greenhouse gases.

Colombia has extensive lowland areas that are known to harbor peatlands, yet very little research has been done to characterize their extent and threats from land use/land cover change, disturbance, and climate change. Existing global mapping efforts of tropical peatlands by Gumbricht estimated about ~75,000 km2 of peatlands for Colombia, second only to Brazil in South America, and an area equivalent to that of Peru, a country that has been extensively heralded as a major peat-harboring country in South America. Yet this estimate has not yet been validated by ground truthing, begging the question of the validity of these estimates. Additionally, it is known that deforestation is substantial in this region (Armenteras et al. 2013) and that both forest fragmentation and fire can have major impacts in the lowlands of Colombia. However, because of the lack of information on peatlands, the intersections of these land use change and disturbances with peatlands is virtually unknown.

The goal of this project is to fill this gap, using a combination of mapping approaches based on remote sensing and ground truthing. In addition, the team will estimate the carbon stocks in these peatlands and provide the first information on the relative importance of soil efflux of methane and carbon dioxide from sites under different land uses. This information will enhance capacity to manage these ecosystems effectively and support national policy on greenhouse gas fluxes, as well as serve as a basis for building a more intensive study network using state-of-the-art ecosystem-scale greenhouse gas flux methods such as eddy covariance. The direct effects of the project will provide information on more precise accounting of carbon losses associated with deforestation and forest degradation in the Colombian Amazon by including the losses associated with large organic deposits of peat. Most of the national GHG emissions from Colombia are associated with deforestation in tropical lowland forests (IDEAM et al. 2017, Houghton and Nassikas 2018, Krause 2020). The reduction of projected emissions of GHG associated to deforestation is the main instrument for achieving the National Determined Contributions (NDC) agreed after the COP21 (IDEAM et al. 2017, Pistorius et al. 2017). The inclusion of peatlands as a separated land cover that is integrated with the national deforestation monitoring program will provide a more complete evaluation of the potential GHG emissions and will emphasize the role tropical peatplands play in climate change mitigation (Murdiyarso et al. 2019).

Project updates

During October-December 2022, the project team continued project activities, which included data collection and carbon content analysis of peatland mapping from field visits to the departments of Guainia, Vaupes and Amazonas were carried out. The analysis of data from the aerial biomass activities of all monitored peatlands (Flooded forest, flooded savanna, pole forest, herbaceous
swamp) was also performed. The peatlands dominated by palms were classified.

As part of the Amazonian peatland mapping activities in the month of December the team visited areas in the lower Vaupes where soil samples were collected at different depths, the vegetation of the sites was described and the geographic point was taken with GPS and soil samples were processed.
The analysis of the data corresponding to the aerial biomass determination activities was carried out to determine the carbon content in the vegetation of all the peatlands monitored. the aerial biomass determination was carried out using the allometric equation generated for the tropical rainforest.
The analysis of the data corresponding to the GHG measurements in the monitored peatlands has been carried out. 
Multiple meetings were held with different indigenous communities in different sites of the Colombian Amazon region, to socialize the objectives of the project and carry out activities related to the mapping activities of Amazonian peatlands. A meeting was held with the leaders of the surrounding communities of Rio Caqueta and Solano within the departments of Caqueta. In addition, conversations were held with national parks to obtain permits to enter the Chiribiquete national park located in the departments of Caqueta and San José del Guaviare. Finally, a meeting was held  with the leaders and the community of Chorreras located in the northwestern part of the department of Amazonas (Figure 4-5)

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