This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Last October geographer Luis Andueza clambered into a battered, motorized dugout canoe in Nueva Unión, a village on Peru’s Chambira River. The boatman yanked a starter cord, and the rusty outboard sputtered to life. “Watch out for snakes,” called a villager in Spanish from a dock. “Are there many?” Andueza yelled back.

Andueza was heading out for a slog through a swamp where pit vipers patrol the undergrowth and carnivorous caimans, hidden in dark pools, eye passersby. Andueza, a researcher at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, studies how the Urarina people, a tribe of several thousand individuals, use the wetlands here. Scientists have discovered that this Kentucky-size territory contains an enormous underground cache of carbon, in the form of peat—partially decomposed plant matter. Katherine Roucoux, principle investigator of Andueza’s research, says keeping that carbon in the ground “is a very important thing.” If the peat dries, it will decompose—or catch fire—releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

And Andueza’s work shows that the peatlands’ fate might rest on whether the Urarina continue their traditional harvesting of the trees for food, fiber and fuel, or leave that life behind as young adults are tempted to move out and join Peru’s encroaching modernism.

Woman in an Urarina village in Peru walks behind her home while another (in the background) holds up a palm thatch. Credit: Dado Galdieri

Don’t Drain the Swamp

An event two decades ago on the other side of the globe alerted scientists to just how greatly peatlands can exhale carbon when they are developed. In 1997—and again in 2015—huge tracts of peat in Indonesia went up in flames. Palm oil farms had drained the perpetually soggy, carbon-rich soil, and dry peat burns easily. A carelessly quenched campfire can ignite a raging wildfire. According to calculations published after the fires, the 1997 conflagration gave off between three billion and almost 10 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, measurably increasing the concentration of the climate-warming gas in the atmosphere. Climate scientists began issuing warnings that the world’s other two big tropical peat deposits—in the Congo and Amazon basinscould suffer the same catastrophic fate.

Researchers have determined that the Peruvian region known as the Pastaza-Marañón Foreland basin contains the largest peat swamp in the Amazon, stabilizing about three billion metric tons of captured carbon. That amount is twice as much as what the U.S. releases each year by burning oil, gas and coal.

No one had previously tried to gauge the chance that the basin’s lands could suffer the same fate as those in Indonesia. “They’re not ideal candidates” for industrial agriculture, says Roucoux, a paleoecologist at St. Andrews. “It doesn’t seem like a very likely thing to happen now.” The wetlands are remote and distributed in patches between higher dry ground. But, she warns, new highways on the drawing board for the region could make them accessible, and future demand for arable land might make them desirable. “It can happen,” Roucoux says. “If it’s economically viable, people can do it.”

The key question is: Would the region’s indigenous residents—the Urarina that Andueza studies, along with the Kichwa, Achuar, and Kandoshi and other indigenous groups—allow development? Manuel Martín, director of the Research of Amazonian Societies program at the Research Institute of the Peruvian Amazon and one of Andueza’s collaborators, says that although the Urarina find swamps unpleasant, they need the land for hunting and for obtaining culturally important plants. Urarina women weave intricate sleeping mats and death shrouds with fiber from the leaves of the aguaje, a palm tree harvested mostly in peat swamps. Learning this craft is a rite of passage when girls reach puberty. As long as their traditions remain intact, Martín says, they “won’t let anyone in who will damage” their soggy jungles.

Urarina village called Nueva Unión lies on the Chambira River, which runs through vast peatlands in Peru’s Pastaza-Marañón Foreland basin. Credit: Dado Galdieri

A Bountiful Tree

An hour upstream of Nueva Unión, Andueza’s boatman, José Inuma Macusi, shut his engine, grabbed his machete and leaped onto a dirt bank, slinging a single-barrel shotgun over his shoulder. Andueza, trailing behind, could have passed for Indiana Jones if he shaved his beard and picked up a whip; he wore a chocolate-brown safari shirt and a wide-brimmed waxed hat. The two sloshed through thickets of short, wrist-thick trees, along muddy trails that Inuma said had been worn down by tapirs (somewhat akin to wild boars). He had brought the gun, he said, hoping he might spot one.

At intervals, the walkers came across aguaje trees as straight and stout as telephone poles and twice as tall. In season, they hang heavy with clusters of a sweet, plum-size fruit that the Urarina eat and sell to traders. Inuma spied an aguaje with a spear-shaped bud enclosing the palm’s immature leaves. Urarina women boil the juvenile fronds to extract the filaments they twist into balls of weaving twine. With a few powerful machete whacks, Inuma felled the tree and carried off an armload of prizes.

Andueza says that indigenous uses of peatlands—harvesting fruit, fiber, medicinal plants and edible grubs, as well as hunting tapirs and monkeys—generate powerful incentives for the Urarina to protect their waterlogged territory. They are also tied to the land through their belief that stern spirits, known in Spanish as dueños (owners) or madres (mothers), exist there.

But Andueza is seeing indications that the Urarina are becoming unmoored from their traditional ways—after centuries of holding out against modernism brought in by successive waves of Jesuit priests, evangelist missionaries, rubber barons and the Peruvian state. Most young people now appear to reject drinking a hallucinogenic potion called ayahuasca,a practice Andueza calls “an important part of what being Urarina is.” Now “they don’t know anything. They don’t know our life,” laments Medardo Arahuata Manisari, one of Nueva Unión oldest inhabitants. Andueza’s collaborator Martín says the Urarina risk losing their identity, which has global consequences. “If they lose their knowledge, the peat is in danger,” he adds.

Apart from the local activity of the Urarina, other indigenous groups and some nonindigenous people, the Pastaza-Marañón peatlands remain in nearly pristine condition. National and regional parks already protect 24 percent of the basin’s peatlands. No companies appear poised to drain the land for industrial plantations, as had occurred in Indonesia. But Roucoux worries that someday oil palm harvesters or other farmers will target the area for development. The healthy indigenous communities and their attachment to the land could determine whether its carbon will stay safely stored in the ground.

Roucoux adds that climate change could also potentially dry the peat and release the cache of carbon. Some of her colleagues are building computer models to study that possibility.

Woman in Nueva Unión makes masato, a brewed beverage derived from the yucca plant. Credit: Dado Galdieri

Ripe for Change

In late 2018 the entire population of Nueva Unión, including 50 families, relocated from a more isolated site on a small tributary of the Chambira, several hours upstream. Andueza says the community’s younger residents favored the move, which the elders opposed. The new generation wanted easier access to nonindigenous trading towns downstream, such as Ollanta and Nauta. And South American oil company Pluspetrol, whose pipeline crosses Urarina territory, offered them incentives to move. The old town had highlands that remained dry year-round, where the Urarina farmed staples such as yucca and plantains. The new location floods completely for months every year, so such crops cannot grow there. Now the community buys these necessities from traders, accelerating what Andueza calls a “commodification of their existence.”

Beyond collecting rent for the pipeline’s right-of-way and payments for keeping that corridor clear of brush, Nueva Unión’s residents have few sources of money. But their needs for cash, for buying everything from outboard motors to music downloads for flip phones, is increasing. In the future, what might they trade for goods?

The cruel irony, Martín says, is that the Urarina have been “more resistant” to pressure to abandon their customs and language than any of the other indigenous peoples occupying the peat swamps. If they cannot withstand the gravitational pull of modern Peruvian society, it is hard to imagine that any local group can, Andueza says. “It’s all in flux right now.”

Andueza says that maybe the Urarina will find a way to support themselves without abandoning or degrading their swamps. One entrepreneur in Iquitos, a city on the edge of the Pastaza-Marañón region, is promoting the market for aguaje fruit, which, he predicts, could be the next superfruit. He says that increased aguaje harvesting could both preserve the peatlands and support the people who live by them. Andueza has his doubts about that assertion, though. Indigenous people have rarely come out on top in more than 100 years of rubber and timber booms. “Who’s likely to end up using this environment for their advantage?” he says. “I don’t think it is likely to be the indigenous people.”

This story was reported with support from the Frank B. Mazer Foundation.