This year’s Global Landscapes Forum, held in Jakarta, focused on peatlands and the importance of their continued and successful conservation.

The Forum is led by the Centre for International Forestry Research, and has been held yearly since 2013. The aim of the event is to shed light on the significance of peatlands not only for climate change mitigation, but also for community development and livelihoods.

Senior programme officer for Forests and Climate Change with the UN Environment Programme, Tim Christophersen, described them as “one of the least-understood ecosystems”.

A new global wetlands map shows South America housing most of the world’s peat by area and volume. The peatlands are great for the environment in that they store such large amount of carbon, but until recently it was uncertain how the areas could be used and what could be grown in these infertile, carbon-rich and waterlogged soils. Amazonian farmers found a way around this by growing aguaje, the fruit of the mauritia flexuosa palm.

“We are lucky that we have that plant and everybody likes it,” says Dennis del Castillo, director of the Forest Management and Environmental Service Programme, Peru, and one of the panelists on the Forum. “What we are doing is looking for new markets for the fruit. We believe that it’s going to help the economy and people and help preserve those environments,” he says.

Agricultural specialists around the world are looking to follow in Brazil’s footsteps and are beginning to harvest the plant themselves.

Most recently, Indonesia, whose 2015 forest fires spread toxic haze across South-east Asia – drawing attention to the country’s habitual abuse of their vast peatlands, most of which have been drained to develop plantations and agricultural fields. Whether by big corporations or small-scale farmers, the damage to the environment has been palpable and a direct link has been made between these activities and the forest fires that have become a seasonal phenomenon.

The aguaje plant offers a new and profitable way to use this land whilst at the same time conserving these valuable eco-systems.

Aguaje fruit can be used to make juice, jam, ice cream, a fermented “wine”, desserts and snacks as well as threads and cords. The palm tree is also very important to many animal and bird species who use it for nesting and food.

In 1800, when travelling through the Llanos region of Venezuela, famous explorer Alexander von Humboldt documented the tree and the ecosystem it supports. He “observed with astonishment how many things are connected with the existence of a single plant” and called it the “tree of life”.

The trees can naturally reach very high densities and, in Peru, require harvest of more than 50 tonnes per day, making them a profitable option for farmers.

It’s undeniable that wetlands and peatlands play a vital role in climate change management as they store huge amounts of carbon. Knowing how to protect and utilise them successfully will have positive effects on both the environment and the future of the Amazon rainforest.

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