What are Peatlands?

By members of the Patagonian Peatland Initiative (Eguren, A., Saavedra, B., Püschel, N., Jaramillo, A., Tabilo, D., Urciuolo, A., Iturraspe, R., Burmeister, J., Peters, J.).

South America’s peatland marshes represent approximately 11% of the world’s peat reservoirs. They are largely intact and therefore have significant carbon-trapping potential, being situated in sparsely populated areas such as Patagonia.[1]

Peatlands in Chilean Patagonia, for example, contain approximately 4,800 million tons of carbon accumulated over ~18,000 years, which represents ~4.7 more carbon than the air biomass of the entire country’s forests.[2] Peatlands in Argentina complement and expand these numbers, especially in Tierra del Fuego, which (according to existing data) contains 95% of this country’s peatlands, concentrated on the eastern side of the island.[3] In both Argentina and Chile, these peatlands provide water services that are critical at a local level and are substantial contributions for mitigating climate change. At a local scale, peatlands represent massive water reserves and play a fundamental role in maintaining these basins’ hydrological cycles, in addition to being a habitat for diverse species of animals, plants, fungi and microorganisms.

Despite their local and global significance, there are still important knowledge gaps regarding peatlands. The exact location and taxonomy of these ecosystems remains unknown, as well as their size, carbon contents, hydrological processes, and ecological processes, among others. Patagonian peatlands are facing diverse threats, including peat mining, the unsustainable extraction of moss, the invasion of beavers, and the effects of climate change. The degradation of peatlands generates an emission of greenhouse gasses and alters the entire basin’s ecology. Peatlands have a long geo-ecological dynamic and can take thousands of years to come into existence, so their destruction is generally irreversible.

© Rodolfo Iturraspe

Chile and Argentina have taken firm steps towards the awareness, appreciation, protection and sustainable use of peatlands in Patagonia. Both countries have incorporated peatlands as one of their NDCs (National Determined Contributions), as adaptation based on ecosystems such as peatlands is one of their most important components. The effective implementation of said commitments requires the generation of inventories, along with policies and investment in protection, among other things. Chile recently launched a Strategic Roadmap for the conservation and sustainable use of peatlands,[4] and Argentina is in the process of updating its Action Plan regarding peatlands in Tierra del Fuego. In both countries there is increasing scientific awareness and interest, as well as interest from the community regarding the use of peatlands, all of which offers opportunities for the expansion and integration of conservation efforts in Patagonia.

With the Patagonian Peatland Initiative, we envision a Patagonia in which peatlands are studied, appreciated, protected, and restored, ensuring their biodiversity and maintaining their contributions to people’s wellbeing. This can be realized through collaborative and integrated operations on both local and regional levels, with effective policies, relevant knowledge, and inspiration for their protection.

Peatlands are ancestors

Peatlands capture and store carbon indefinitely as long as they remain wet.

They hold cultural and climate knowledge dating back several millennia - ancestral artifacts and burial as well as seeds, pollen, and atmospheric chemicals are archived in peat.

[1] Iturraspe R (2016) Patagonian Peatlands. In: CM Finlayson, Milton GR, Prentice C & NC Davidson (Eds.) The Wetland Book. Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht.
[2] Iturraspe R (2016) Hoyos-Santillan J, A Miranda, A Lara, M Rojas, A Sepúlveda-Jauregui (2019) Protecting Patagonian peatlands in Chile. Science 366: 1207-1208.
[3] Rabassa J, A Coronato & C Roig (1996) The Peat Bogs of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. In: E Lappalainen (ed): Global Peat Resources: 261-266. International Peat Society Publisher.
[4] Wildlife Conservation Society (2020) Diseño de una hoja de ruta para la conservación y gestión sustentable de turberas de Chile. Informe final. Ministerio de Medio Ambiente, Chile.