‘Ecosystem services’ might be a relatively recent term, but people have been exploiting bogs in many ways for centuries. Most obvious, and unfortunate given our present day knowledge of the value of peatlands, is the use of peat for fuel, which continues to this day both domestically and at a much larger scale to fuel power stations in places like Ireland and Finland. In Canada during the 19th century, blocks of peat were even used to power cross-continental locomotive trains! In the 1970s peat also became a key component in a number of industrial processes; as an absorber of used oil and crude oil and for insulating blocks of cement. Peat from bogs is regrettably still commonly harvested as a source of agricultural or horticultural compost, an issue highlighted elsewhere on Bogology, and in Russia also has a use as bedding for cattle and poultry. Many people also appreciate the taste of a peaty Scottish whisky, its flavour derived from peat fires used to dry the malted barley used in the whisky.
In its natural environment peat acts as an excellent water purifier and peat bogs are used across the globe for this purpose, not only the peat itself but also the plants providing the purification. In Uganda, where I work, the natural purification service of the swamps and bogs around the capital city Kampala saves the government millions of dollars a year. In rural areas, fresh water from the swamps is collected and used for cooking, bathing and drinking, but increasing degradation and pollution of these ecosystems means that often the water is not clean enough to use.
My research is in Kabale, South Western Uganda, where a lot of the valley bottom papyrus swamps are being converted for cultivation. In rural Uganda many communities are dependent on bogs for a whole range of things, some of which people don’t really realise are provided by them. The climate in Kabale used to be really cold, because of the way the swamps and vegetation trapped moisture. However, as they have been cleared the change in vegetation and water levels means that the local temperature has warmed and as a result, incidences of malaria (which used to be very rare) are increasing as the micro-climate regulation previously provided by the swamps is lost.
Funnily enough, there isn’t much harvesting of the peat itself in Uganda, as there has been in Europe, but many indirect uses of the peatlands instead, especially of the plants. Historically there were a lot of cultural attachments and dependencies on wetlands, with papyrus being used for making mats, roofing thatch, ropes and baskets, medicinal plants providing local healthcare solutions and fish providing a key source of protein. With a change to cultivation, areas of papyrus and natural vegetation are decreasing significantly, meaning that people either have to change their ways or move to areas with remnant papyrus. These ladies I met selling their grass and papyrus baskets and mats had already moved home once as a result of the loss of natural vegetation.
Then there’s the assortment of species we find in these areas. Fish, birds, insects, reptiles, mammals – a wealth of biodiversity. Loss of natural vegetation coupled with extensive drainage means the habitat for most of these species is lost. That means a substantial loss of protein for a lot of rural communities. It also means a reduction in bees, affecting small-scale beekeepers. Uganda’s national bird, the grey crowned crane uses these areas as its breeding ground – now greatly threatened by land use change. The loss of habitat for migrating birds has wider reaching implications.
The drainage of bogs has huge implications for the global community as well. Carbon in the peat which is stored due to the waterlogged conditions is released rapidly when the soils are drained. I measured this in Indonesia and discussed it in my previous Bogology blog. In Uganda we are seeing the same problem. With the swamp drained, there is a release of soil carbon into the atmosphere as microbes decompose the soil organic matter, releasing carbon dioxide which contributes to global climate change.
However, the drainage of these areas means that they are then used to support livelihoods in different ways. The main use of the organic soils in south west Uganda is now for potato cultivation. The potatoes from this region are transported across the country and provide valuable income and food security for those who cultivate them. Secondary crops such as cabbages, maize and beans also serve to supply families with their food needs.
The work of our research project, ALTER, is trying to look at the relationships between the soils in the swamps and how people are benefiting from them. We are looking at sites still covered with intact papyrus, some which have been turned to cultivation and some which have been partly restored. We hope to make linkages between the peat and people’s poverty levels and livelihoods, and to be able to identify options for more sustainable management of the bogs and swamps that are of benefit to everyone (including the swamp biodiversity and climate!).
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