Bofedal: Endangered High Andean Ecosystem

Author: Claudia Grey

Infographics: Treyssi Mantilla

Bofedal in the Carampoma district, Huarochiri Province, Lima Department. Photo: SPDA

In Peru exists a certain kind of ecosystem that is yet to be well-known among their people, that being called bofedal, which is, actually a type of wetland that covers an approximate area of 0.42% (548,174.41 ha) of the national territory, distributed in the departments of Cajamarca, Piura, La Libertad, Ancash, Lima, Junín, Pasco, Huancavelica, Ayacucho, Apurímac, Arequipa, Cusco, Puno, Moquegua and Tacna (MINAM, 2019). While in the international scene it is found in countries such as Chile and Bolivia.

Before providing a more specific definition of bofedal, reference will be made to the definitions of wetland. Usually, a wetland is considered such if the phreatic zone —which is the accumulation of underground water —is above, or very close to, ground level and has the permanent presence of vegetation. The feeding of the phreatic zone depends on the flows of groundwater, surface water flows, such as rain, and the exchange between evapotranspiration —meaning the loss of moisture from a surface by direct evaporation together with the loss of water by transpiration of the vegetation— and precipitation. Therefore, emphasize that the fundamental component, both in wetlands and in bofedal, is water.

As mentioned before, bofedal is one kind of wetland. So, in order for wetlands to be considered as bofedal, they must meet certain conditions (MINAM, 2018):

  • Must be Andean: The wetland must be located in the Andes mountain range, that is, they must be more than 3000 meters above sea level.

  • Must possess hydrophilic vegetation, which are plants that live rooted in areas of stagnant water that may be either fresh or saline —an average term between the proportion of salt contained in oceans and fresh water such as rivers—, and shallow such as mangroves.

  • Flooded or water-saturated soils

  • Cushion-shaped vegetation, for example, Distichia muscoides —known as "champa" in Peru—, Oxychloe andina, Werneria pygmaea, Plantago tubulosa, Juncus stipulatus, Puccinellia oresigena, Calamagrostis curvula and Distichlis humilis, among other species.

Concepts associated with bofedal: peat and peatland:

  • Peat, sometimes known as turf, is composed of organic matter, with a minimum of approximately 30% organic matter. It should be noted that one of the components of organic soil is carbon.

  • Peatland: It is a type of wetland that accumulates peat approximately 30–40cm deep in the soil profile. The peatland is a wetland that accumulates peat, meaning they are important carbon reservoirs.

Then, what exactly is bofedal?

The word bofedal or oconal are both colloquial terms, whose origin stems from the neighboring inhabitants of the Andean area. In this issue, the Peruvian National Institute for Glacier and Mountain Ecosystem Research (INAIGEM in Spanish) seeks to create an official technical definition of this type of wetland —known as bofedal among the Andean population— in order to enable its recognition.

Generally speaking, the importance of a wetland consists in (INAIGEM, 2020):

  • Provisioning services: Soil, fuel, forage and medicinal plants.

  • Regulating services: Water purification and regulation, carbon storage, climate regulation and soil protection.

  • Supporting services: Peat formation, biodiversity and nutrient cycling.

  • Cultural services: Recreation, beauty and tourism.

Although the importance of the wetland varies according to the perspective of a certain group of people:

  • For the inhabitants of the high Andean areas, the wetland serves as fodder to feed livestock.

  • In some areas of Peru, especially in the central and southern areas, the soil of the bofedal is used as fuel for cooking.

  • For the academic world: Carbon storage

  • In Peruvian National Parks of places like Huaraz: The growth of tourism due to the scenic beauty of the wetlands.

  • In general, the wetland is tantamount to water store thanks to its ability to retain water derived from deglaciation, and to buffer floods or huaico.

However, these ecosystems, like many others, are in a constant state of vulnerability, under the threat of variables such as climate change that affects the water cycle, which resonates in certain areas having low rainfall, as in the southern highlands of Peru. There is also the loss of water, especially affecting the inhabitants of the high Andean areas, due to causes such as deglaciation, changes in the inflow to the wetland to feed irrigation canals, hydroelectric plants, and mines. Also road construction that changes the way in which water circulates in and towards the wetland, or through the creation of artificial channels that drain the water reservoir from the wetlands. Moreover, the lack of information that hides the importance of its existence, as mentioned above.

Degraded bofedal of Paucarani, Tacna Province. Photo: La Republica

According to the Director of Research on Mountain Ecosystems at INAIGEM, Beatriz Fuentealba Durand, during a personal interview, "the economic activities that threaten the wetlands depend on the part of the country where you are so as to know what their main threat is." In that regard, mining stands out over livestock activity. She also indicated that as the wetlands are located in flat areas, precisely the ideal area for the settlement of mining tailings, mining itself, more than a threat, de facto wipes out the existence of the wetland.

A threat to its total destruction would be the extraction of vegetation —better known locally as champeo—, which is an environmentally unsustainable activity since it consists of the uncontrolled predation of peat —or champa— for commercial purposes. Later on it will be sold in nurseries, garden stores, markets and supermarkets as compost or organic soil for energy purposes. A clear example of this situation is Santiago de Carampona —the story of a village community in light of the repercussions of peat sales, well documented by OjoPublico.

One of the consequences of this is the degradation of the ecosystem. According to a study by the Consortium for Sustainable Development for the Andean Ecoregion (Condesan in Spanish), the existence of approximately 2,637 hectares of degraded wetlands was identified in the basin of the Chillon, Rimac, Lurin and Mantaro rivers. While data from Conservation International (CI) research published in 2018 indicate that peatlands take between 100–200 years to regenerate their peat.

Another consequence of extraction is that this activity favours the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG). “Peat is an element that occurs in some types of wetlands. Not all wetlands have peat, but a large proportion of them do (…)” (Quijandria, 2020). As previously mentioned, peats are large deposits of organic matter, therefore, wetlands in general, have two features in this regard. First, the release of CO2 in large quantities into the atmosphere due to the decrease in hectares of wetland soil, which contributes to environmental pollution and GHG emissions; and the second, the absorption and storage of carbon, which would positively be in line as a mitigation measure against climate change.

And finally there is the cattle activity and the construction of infrastructure. In livestock farming, the negative impact within the wetlands, according to biologist Beatriz Fuentealva Durand, depends on the type of animal that is raised in these areas —whether it be native animals, cattle, sheep and equids. While on the other hand, in order to reduce costs in the construction of highways in the high Andean areas — which are mostly irregular spaces— road projects are purposely flattened out, and designed in such manner that they cross the wetland; in addition to this, they would be dried out as to cushion the impact of wear due to the moisture contained, thus affecting the very basis of their existence.

Some possible recovery strategies for the wetlands could be to build dams to try to retain the water and therefore recover their natural hydric regime, as carried out in a pilot project by INAIGEM. Although in the event of a very drastic hydric alteration of the wetlands, it is most likely that the wetlands will definitely degrade despite the efforts made.

For the scarcity of rainfall, the qocha —traditional custom of planting and harvesting water through rustic dams— could be implemented for its importance lies in ensuring the sustainability of the water resource. The qocha is a technique that aids in the conservation of wetlands, although the results are not immediate and may take at least a year to see any progress, as is well known by the inhabitants of the departments of Arequipa and Cusco.

In case of alterations in the vegetation due to the presence and trampling of excessive livestock, a possible solution would be to exclude the livestock, especially cattle, since the trampling generated by these when entering the mud of the wetland in high quantities causes a lot of damage. Vice versa, alpaca farming could be stimulated because their footsteps cause less damage, as long as the number of camelids is controlled, and also, because at more than 4000 meters above sea level, one of the few economic activities available to the families that live there is animal husbandry.

Overall there is no strategy for the conservation and recovery of wetlands on the side of the Peruvian State, yet there are measures whose planning and implementation will depend on each wetland in which it will be developed.

After an exhaustive investigation, it can be seen that the biggest obstacle of bofedal, and wetlands in general, is in the legal framework, or rather, in the legal loopholes. Despite the fact that at the international level Peru has ratified an important legal instrument, the Ramsar Convention of 1971, and by which the State has defined 13 RAMSAR sites; on the contrary, at the national level, it was not until 2018 that the Framework Law on Climate Change was enacted, the objective of which is to implement adaptation and mitigation measures to climate change in line with the international commitment to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which provides in article 3, the mitigation and adaptation approach based on hydrographic basins, which theoretically encompasses wetlands.

Nevertheless, there is no national legal regulation that covers this ecosystem independently. Therefore, as a result of the legal loopholes, the voluntary participation of citizens is greatly restricted. Without going too far there is the problem of the extraction of vegetation, since this activity is not punishable by the Penal Code. This means that if someone dies while trying to stop the extraction caused by third parties, whoever is directly guilty of the death will go unpunished. And no matter how much the residents make the respective complaints, they will see no effects on the illegal extraction of peat.

On this subject, as a first step, there is a draft Ministerial Resolution under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Environment (MINAM in Spanish), pre-published on November 2, 2020, which seeks to define the competencies of the authorities relevant to the management of wetlands, and that it is expected to serve as an applicable legal instrument without differentiating the type of wetland. However, a review of Chapter II allows us to understand that there is a problem in State institutions. This section mentions MINAM, the National Forest and Wildlife Service (SERFOR), the National Water Authority (ANA), the Ministry of Production, the National Forest and Wildlife Service (SERNANP), INAIGEM, the Evaluation and Inspection Agency. Environment (OEFA), Regional Governments and Local Governments; that is, up to 10 state institutions would intervene in the management of wetlands, each with different tasks for each aspect of the same type of ecosystem. At least this project mentions the creation of the National Inventory of Wetlands, a list of prohibited activities, such as the extraction of peat, in article 30; and the fact, that the norm could be consigned within the framework of SDG 6 (target 6.6 ) and SDG 15 (target 15.1).

Despite the great difficulties, inconveniences, discrimination and underestimation of the capacities of the human being living in the Andes, they play a fundamental role as defenders of this ecosystem. In mountain areas, life is not easy, there is a reduced framework of economic activities that allow survival, the extreme temperatures, the considerable decrease in the youth population because they migrate to urban areas, the substantial need for water resources, crimes or harmful actions generated by extractive, construction and mining activities that are not necessarily framed in Peruvian legislation and that discourage people from taking action against them out of fear of reprisals, the threats, and lack of hope as a result of all this, for feeling that things will never change.

But beyond rural areas, although it may seem that there is not much to do for the urban population not specialized in topics such as biology, hydrology, ecology, among others, what is possible is the dissemination of knowledge. Remember that the illegal sale of peat or bofedal vegetation is a day-to-day case.


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