Experiences From the Workshop “Building a Regional Network to Study Carbon Dynamics, the Role of Environmental Factors, and Human Use in Cushion Peatlands Along the Andes”
article written by Mary Carolina García Lino, Maaike Bader, Alejandra Domic, Miguel Fernández, Isabell Hensen, Arely Palabral, Edson Ramírez
29.12.22 | 11:12

In October 2022, almost 30 expert participants from nine countries met to discuss current topics of Andean peatland ecology and to develop a joint methodology for the long-term assessment of C cycling in these ecosystems. The workshop aimed at initiating a regional research network encompassing all countries with high-Andean tropical cushion peatlands.

Peatlands are one of the world’s main carbon (C) reservoirs. High-Andean tropical cushion peatlands are a particular type of mountain peatlands that provide important ecosystem services and serve not only as C storage but also as hydrological regulators. They are also strongly linked to traditional use by local communities. These cushion peatlands constitute key grazing areas for domestic animals and wild camelids. Andean pastoralists possess traditional ecological knowledge to manage, maintain and even increase the extent of these ecosystems.

Given that Andean cushion peatlands are highly vulnerable to climate change and overexploitation, a joint action of different stakeholders is needed to improve our understanding of peatland C dynamics and the role of environmental factors and human land use practices. This knowledge would enable us to predict the peatlands’ response to ongoing climate change and to adapt management practices.

In October 2022, almost 30 expert participants from nine countries met to discuss current topics of Andean peatland ecology and to develop a joint methodology for the long-term assessment of C cycling in these ecosystems. The workshop aimed at initiating a regional research network encompassing all countries with high-Andean tropical cushion peatlands. The five-day workshop was held at the Institute of Ecology at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, Bolivia, and included two days of hands-on field experience in a mountain region close to La Paz.

This included the following aspects: (1) Identifying gaps of knowledge and what information is needed to fill these gaps to understand C dynamics and cushion peatlands’ response to ongoing climate change; (2) Learning and assessing feasible methodologies to be implemented across the different regions of the Tropical Andes that can also be expanded to other cushion peatland regions; (3) Identifying which are the different types of land use, how do land use practices differ along the Tropical Andes and assessing what type of information is needed to understand how land use practices affect C dynamics?

Workshop Activities

Day 1 – What do we know about C dynamics (accumulation and loss) in cushion peatlands of the Tropical Andes?

The workshop was formally inaugurated by the Director of the National Herbarium of La Paz, Dr. Carla Maldonado, who welcomed all participants. The first contribution summarized the current state of knowledge of C dynamics of tropical Andean cushion peatlands (M. C. García Lino). In the following, a variety of topics were addressed. Estéban Suarez presented a study on carbon accumulation and fluxes in eleven peatlands of the Ecuadorian Andes, highlighting the importance of cushion plants for overall peatland productivity. Andrea Izquierdo and V. Varietti presented data on the composition and activity of microorganism communities in Andean peatlands in response to an increase in ambient temperature. They, as did several other speakers, emphasized the importance of considering peatland heterogeneity.

Juan Carlos Benavides advised caution when studying carbon dynamics, since carbon flux measurements mirror the current situation, while peat is the result of a couple of years or thousands of years of accumulation, whose dynamics depend on past climatic oscillations (Karsten Schittek). The temporality of peatlands also helps to understand their resilience to climate change and drought, which can be reconstructed using paleoenvironmental data. For example, A. Domic showed how peatlands in northern Chile responded to variability in precipitation and land use changes over several millennia, which is important for better predicting carbon storage. In an interesting methodological contribution, M. Pélaez presented how temporal carbon accumulation can be measured by calculating historical and recent net primary productivity using 210Pb and 14C dating combined with Constant Rate of Supply and Bayesian accumulation models.

Another contribution focusing on carbon fluxes was that of G. Alavi, who presented a cost-efficient method to quantify CO2 emissions in peatlands from the Bolivian Andes. Finally, M. Maldonado Fónken briefly introduced the UN-coordinated Global Peatlands Assessment and how the Latin American chapter was prepared.

In several presentations, the spatial and temporal variability of water supply was highlighted with consequences for peatland ecosystem functions. Based on these experiences, break-out group work was carried out to discuss the following question: What type of information needs to be generated to study C dynamics and their response to ongoing climate change?

Peatlands Synthesis Workshop Figure1

Pictured above: Figure 1: Impressions from the presentations and group work during the workshop. Photos: Héctor Aponte (a, c, d, e), Maaike Bader (b).

Day 2 –  Methods to study C dynamics and use and management of Andean peatlands and their influence on C dynamics

During the second day, we exchanged experiences on concrete methods (e.g., collection of drone imagery, carbon flux measurements, water level monitoring), both in classroom presentations and in the field.

We learned about isotopic approaches for constraining the sources of C loss and the mean age of the lost C, and for tracing the fate of C in ecosystems. Michael Bahn also highlighted the potential of radiocarbon (14C) for identifying the mean age of C stored in the different fractions of the soil organic matter and of the C released to the atmosphere. The use of open-top chambers in a long-term experiment to study the effect of warming on soil processes was illustrated by E. Lasso. Hector Aponte quantified total C accumulation in a coastal wetland site and showed how this was extrapolated to the total area of this type of ecosystem in Peru and how this method can be applied to Andean peatlands. Another study showed an experiment to investigate the contribution of microorganisms to wetland eutrophication (D. Acha).

Emphasis was also placed on methods such as using 3D modeling for the estimation of productivity in Andean peatlands (R. Jaramillo). The use of remote sensing (drones) and its benefits for mapping and capturing peatland heterogeneity was illustrated by M. Bader. A concrete example of mapping the distribution of Bolivian peatlands using satellite imagery was shown by G. Zeballos. In addition, the use of neutron radiation sensors for large-scale soil moisture estimation was highlighted by E. Ramirez. Details and practical explanations of several of these methods and others were subsequently put into practice during the field trip (Days 3 and 4).

The second part of the day focused on understanding land use and management practices of Andean peatlands and their influence on C dynamics.

In this session, anthropological aspects of the traditional use of peatlands were explained by J. Capriles. Further presentations of this session were related to current management practices and their effects on peatland ecology and C dynamics. Fabien Anthelme showed how the exclusion of native camelids leads to changes in vegetation composition and how this could affect carbon accumulation and mobilization. Other contributions presented the negative or positive impacts of human land use of peatlands (B. Fuentealba, Perú and M. Liberman, Bolivia). These presentations were the starting point of the discussion that local communities and policymakers perceive Andean peatlands primarily as water reservoirs and livestock grazing grounds. Therefore, C dynamics should not only be considered as the single point of importance in Andean peatlands.

Day 3 – What kind of information is needed to understand and include land use variables and their effect on carbon dynamics?

During the first part of day three, we focused on understanding how to define relevant variables to conduct C dynamics studies in Andean peatlands. Miguel Férnandez presented a general concept of how to integrate the so-called essential biodiversity variables in Andean peatland ecosystems. Incorporating this concept would provide better information to integrate different research scales and decision-making. Using the same concept of defining relevant variables, V. Martinez presented an example of a definition of variables that capture changes in vegetation cover and the degree of disturbance through livestock grazing. Later, the two presentations built the base to discuss what type of information the network should generate.

Day 3 and 4 – Hands-on practical approach to methods for assessing C dynamics

The hands-on practical session was certainly one of the highlights of the workshop. It took place in Tuni, a small village in the Cordillera Real. A scheme with the relevant methods was elaborated together with J.C. Benavides and tasks were assigned to the different researchers (e.g., application of drone imagery, carbon flux measurements, water level monitoring), so that each person could prepare his/her “lesson” and bring the necessary equipment. Students and researchers were thus able to see how data are taken and what problems can arise, and even could try by themselves to use the respective equipment. Besides that, we jointly set up a comparative study on decomposition across the Tropical Andes.

Peatlands Synthesis Workshop Figure3

Pictured above: Hands-on practical training. a) Procedure to collect a peat sample. b) Peat strata identification for paleontological studies and also for use of isotopes for dating peat layers. c) Preparing leaf litter of Distichia muscoides for a joint study on decomposition in Andean cushion peatlands. d) Demonstration of the crank-wire method to measure cushion growth. e) Explanation of how to measure gas fluxes. f) Use of 3D modelling to calculate cushion volume and thus estimate biomass production. Photos: Maaike Bader (c, e), Esteban Suarez (f), Héctor Aponte (a, b, d).

Day 5 – Network organization

Before starting the round table regarding network organization, two presentations were given. One focused on exploring, based on questionnaires, the participants’ motivation to be part of a network (A. Palabral). The second presentation by K. Yager showed the importance of multiscale evaluation in peatlands. Her study showed, based on climatic scenarios and long-term studies, how local management decisions influence on rapid loss of carbon storage in the National Park Sajama in the Bolivian Andes.


To establish a network of researchers, we developed ideas and strategies of how to form collaborations and put into practice a joint research action. This goes beyond just forming a network with its name and its logo, as all participants stressed the importance of translating intention into action. It was felt that this way participants would develop a strong commitment and put collaboration into practice.

Participants of the workshop will carry out a study on a larger geographical scale as a starting point for this new network. To this end, we elaborated a protocol to study decomposition in cushion peatlands along the Tropical Andes. Researchers from Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia already agreed to participate and worked out the experimental design. Additionally, we will extend the invitation to researchers, conservationists, and other people interested in being part of the network.

Furthermore, we identified gaps of knowledge on C dynamics in Andean cushion peatlands and defined research priorities for studies at the regional level. It became evident that we need to update the classification and typology of Andean tropical peatlands so that we all use the same terminology. Thus, we agreed on jointly working on such a document. We assigned tasks to certain participants, who would take the lead in preparing the respective manuscripts.

In the medium term, we plan to collect all information generated by each working group in a database. Terms of use will be defined so that data can be shared and used by other network members. This database will also be useful to define knowledge gaps that can then be systematically filled. Furthermore, a “horizon scan” may be published in certain intervals to inform about topics with probable impact on Andean peatland ecology.

We felt that we accomplished our main aim: we brought together researchers on Andean peatlands C dynamics and built or strengthened relationships between countries and working groups. First concrete ideas of working together on a regional scale are taking shape – the network is already gaining momentum.


We acknowledge the Mountain Research Initiative (MRI) and the Federal State of Saxony-Anhalt for providing funds to carry out this workshop.

We thank all participants for their active and fruitful participation. They were highly motivated, some of them covering their own expenses, and open to sharing their knowledge, resulting in a highly inspirational workshop and promising a productive research network. We also thank their institutions for temporally releasing them from their working duties.

Cover image: workshop participants on an excursion in Tuni Condoriri, Cordillera Real, La Paz, Bolivia. Photo by M. Bader.