How much carbon is stored within the transformed landscapes of the Amazon?

How much carbon is stored within the transformed landscapes of the Amazon?

Within the project Sustainable Amazonian Landscapes (SAL), we are going to answer this question by using test plots to estimate the amount of carbon and vegetative biodiversity that exists under different land use scenarios present within the anthropogenically transformed Amazonian landscapes of Peru and Colombia. The fieldwork for this work began this past May and we expect to finish in September of this year.

Who do we work with? 

This activity is a joint effort between the organizations CIAT, Instituto Amazónico de Investigaciones Científicas (SINCHI), Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonía Peruana (IIAP), and Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina (UNALM), falling under the framework of the SAL project. All of these organizations have made their expertise available in order to develop a common methodological approach to estimating the carbon content of aerial biomass, soils, detritus, and fallen leaves, for use within the project worksites of Caquetá, Colombia and Yurimaguas, Peru.

SAL’s area of intervention in Colombia 

SAL-Colombia’s study area in the department of Caquetá consists of the highly fragmented landscapes within the municipalities of San José del Fragua, Belén de los Andaquíe, Albania, and Morelia. Within this project’s study area, we prioritized the hilly and the mountainous landscapes:

The hilly landscape corresponds to the beginning of the Amazonian plains, it has a flat to rolling terrain and the predominant land use is as pasture for extensive livestock farming. It is present in the municipalities of Albania, Morelia, and Belén de los Andaquíes.

The mountainous landscape ecologically corresponds to the transition between the Amazonian plains and the Andean ecosystems. Years ago, this area was covered by an almost continuous layer of dense forest, but today it has been converted into a mosaic of forests, pastures, and subsistence cropland, as a consequence of agricultural expansion, illegal logging, and illicit cropping. It is present in the municipality of San José de Fragua.

SAL’s area of intervention in Peru

SAL-Peru’s study area in the district of Yurimaguas consists of highly fragmented landscapes. The landscapes prioritized by the project within this study site were:

The alluvial (floodplain) landscape is made up of recent alluvium sediments which have been deposited by river flows. This landscape includes all flatlands with slopes less than 2% that annually suffer periodic flooding.

The low-lying hills dominated by pastures landscape is characterized by a rolling terrain and principally composed of clay material of poor consolidation. The height of the terrain does not exceed 40 meters. In this landscape there is a dominance of pastures, agriculture, and fish farming.

The low-lying hills dominated by permanent crops landscape is characterized by a rolling terrain with heights of <40 meters and various degrees of dissection. In this landscape there is a dominance of permanent crops such as palm oil, heart of palm, and papaya.

Highlands landscape: Making up the highest levels of the terraces, the height of this landscape fluctuates above river level between 30–50m. This landscape originated from ancient materials formed by fine elements, and has a uniform terrain and slopes between 2-8% with various degrees of dissection. In this landscape there is a dominance of forests, secondary vegetation, and agriculture.

Carbon stored within ecosystems

Terrestrial ecosystems play a significant role in the global carbon cycle. Tropical forests account for the majority of carbon storage and exchange between vegetation, soils, and the atmosphere. However, changes in land use through deforestation processes – wherein forests are transformed into pastures and farmlands – have been for years one of the principal sources of carbon dioxide emissions (carbon dioxide being a greenhouse gas which contributes enormously to global warming).

The project SAL seeks to generate scientific evidence that would allow us to understand how – through agroforestry strategies and the implementation of more sustainable and environmentally friendly production options – it can be possible to go back to increasing the carbon reserves of the Amazon’s degraded landscapes, which for centuries were dominated by natural forests and now are a heterogeneous covering of forests mixed with secondary vegetation, pastures, and farmland (Figure 1).

Measuring vegetative biodiversity

The wild flora of this region is very diverse and for centuries has provided a series of benefits to both natives and settlers. This is is why it is fundamentally important to determine the biological richness of these landscapes aside from just their carbon content. Applying the experiences of SINCHI and IIAP, the project is advancing with the measurement and characterization of vegetative biodiversity within the prioritized landscapes. This measuring is carried out beginning with floral studies using floral diversity as the principal indicator, from which it is possible to find out the density, abundance, dominance, ecological importance and even the capabilities of species useful as medicines, fibers, decorative materials, and foodstuffs.

What do the farmers think of this work?

The agricultural producers within the study areas have been very receptive to the work and have participated in an active manner in all of the activities undertaken so far. Starting in the beginning with the process of mapping boundaries and land covers of their farms, to the co-design and implementation of more sustainable production systems, the sampling of soils and macrofauna, the selection of isolation and conservation areas, and now with the establishment of plots targeted towards carbon and biodiversity, the producers have always been involved.

It’s possible that before, the producers had not heard the terms ‘carbon’ or ‘biodiversity’, but regardless, they are absolutely aware of the importance of the forests and secondary vegetation in the provision of ecosystem services for the local population, as well as understanding of how the process of deforestation directly affects their well-being.

Thanks to the forests we have water and clean air, which is why we must care for the forests and study them. Leonardo Jiménez

One of the beneficiaries from the SAL project


Translation by Natalie Orentlicher, Ecosystem Services CIAT
Content and design by Karolina Argote, Ecosystem Services CIAT