Thursday, 01 September 2011 12:21

Peruvian Paramos in Peril Featured

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By Emily Kirkland* The word “paramo” comes from the Spanish word for "desolate territory”. These high-altitude wetlands act like sponges, soaking up precipitation during the rainy season and releasing it slowly over time. Rivers originating in the paramos provide water for cities and for large-scale irrigation projects. The IUCN has estimated that 100 million people in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela ultimately depend on water from the paramos. Quito receives 85% of its water from paramos, while Bogota receives 95%.
The paramos also support a vast array of plant, insect, bird and mammal species. In some paramo areas, 60% of all species are endemic. Spectacled bears - the only bears found in South America - are highly dependent on the paramos. (Paddington Bear was actually a spectacled bear!) Climate change makes paramos more vital than ever as glacial melt and increasingly erratic precipitation have put a premium on the environmental services they provide including water storage. Peat soils are also important for their ability to store large quantities of carbon. Unfortunately, the paramos are also extremely vulnerable to climate change. Higher temperatures exacerbate fires, which can devastate them during dry seasons.  Water availability is also a serious problem, due to changing precipitation patterns and melting glaciers. Global warming is not the only threat. At the local level, deforestation and overgrazing further endanger the paramos as poor famers, driven by the need to feed their families, expand their fields and pastures into these fragile ecosystems. “The need to eat brings them to the forest,” said Sotomayor. “They wouldn’t like to do it…but they need to give their family food.” Deforestation and over-grazing must be reduced if the paramos are to survive the impacts of global warming. In this case, conservation and adaptation are heavily intertwined. That said, the needs of local people cannot be disregarded. Jorge Yerren Sanchez, who heads Peru’s weather and climate agency for the Piura region, said that many stakeholders would like to forbid entry into the paramos altogether. But that response is unrealistic. “These aren’t virgin areas without people,” he explained. As Sotomayor explained: “[Local communities] are the ones most interested in conserving the paramo…For them it’s very important, it’s part of their identity.” The Mountain Institute has led the way with a community-based conservation program for the paramos. Sotomayor and her colleagues have been visiting the same small villages for years. They began by spreading the word about the importance of the paramos. Then, through meetings and workshops, they helped local leaders create holistic management plans. Although the plans were aimed at protecting the paramos, they ultimately touched on everything from youth groups to sustainable tourism. It was not necessarily a simple process.  “Sitting and thinking all together, in meetings, at night, for more than two years…this has been hard,” Sotomayor said. Most communities, she explained, were not used to engaging in long-term planning. Still, she said, now that the process is over, they are “extremely proud”. The Mountain Institute has also offered technical training to help farmers improve their yields. As agricultural productivity goes up, the pressure to expand into the paramos goes down. So far, the program has remained small, restricted to a handful of communities in northern Peru. (The Mountain Institute has also partnered with other organizations in Ecuador). But it will hopefully serve as a model for similar projects in other areas. The paramos can be protected only with the cooperation of the poor farmers who live on their edges. Those farmers, in turn, need support and assistance to make conservation a reality. Protecting these irreplaceable ecosystems will not be easy. But it is a vital task. *Emily Kirkland is an undergraduate at Brown University studying Economics and Latin American Studies. She spent the summer traveling through Peru on an AT&T New Media Fellowship learning about adaptation to climate change.
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