Extracting moss from Aysén’s peat bogs: a dangerous no man’s land

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By Patricio Segura
Translated by Rebecca Neal
Between 500 and 1000 pesos per bag. This is the amount of money received in Caleta Tortel by those who work to extract Sphagnum, the cushiony moss that springs up in the peat bogs that cover vast landscapes in the Aysén region. In this southern zone, it also has the colloquial name of pompón.
Peat bogs are a kind of wetland which have a high volume of carbon because of the characteristics of the partially decomposed organic material that they contain. The vegetable compound which grows on their surface is highly valued today because of its capacity to absorb water, filter liquids and insulate against heat and noise. For this reason, it is used in construction, agriculture, health services and a range of industries.
This versatility poses a threat to sustainability. Peat bogs are home to rich biodiversity, and the fact that they contain significant amounts of fresh water and carbon means that they play a fundamental role in the regulation of the water cycle. In addition, the decomposing organic material that they often contain is the result of thousands of years of accumulation, which makes them practically non-renewable. It has been established that some of Patagonia’s peat bogs came into existence ten thousand years ago. For this reason, they are legally considered to be fossils, and their extraction is regulated by the Mining Code (as they represent the first stage of the transformation of a plant into carbon), which takes priority over a number of other standards related to this resource. Consequently, a mining concession is needed to access it.
Sustainable extraction?
Along the length of the Camino Longitudinal Austral leading to Caleta Tortel, as well as in other parts of Aysén, the visitor can see hundreds of bags filled with pompón, which will be sold elsewhere in Chile and across the world. In the village, it is explained that, now that the Crux Australis ferry has started sailing to Puerto Natales, the purchasing power of this elemental and sensitive resource has increased. This is significant, considering that the area contains almost 400,000 hectares of peat bogs, 96% of which are on taxable land.
A number of initiatives have been established with the aim of implementing mechanisms to make the extraction of Sphagnum sustainable. In 2009, the Fondo para la Innovación Agraria (Fund for Agrarian Innovation) published a document on the use, management and protection of Sphagnum, based on a project for the evaluation of these elements. The initiative was developed between 2004 and 2007 by the Centro Trapananda of the Austral University of Chile, in collaboration with the Municipality of Tortel.
The Ministry of Agriculture has considered the possibility of incorporating peat moss into Aysén’s productive development. As such, it has been included as an area of work in the Table of Non-Wood Forestry Products, which encourages environmental education activities such as field trips and visits to wetlands of this type.
In spite of this progress, it remains unclear which organisation should oversee the protection of these particular and essential ecosystems (and not only with regard to extraction), given that neither the Ministry for the Environment nor the Ministry for Agriculture have the tools to guide an activity which has been carried out for years in Aysén, but which could become more extensive in the coming years as a result of greater connectedness.
In the meantime, the bags taking the moss far away will keep piling up, without anyone knowing whether or not this is destroying the peat that has remained in the subsoil for thousands of years. This moss was recently described by a Chilean newspaper as “the unknown treasure of Chilean Patagonia”, and a leading ecologist and the director of the national chapter of the Wildlife Conservation Society called it “the most valuable type of wetland. No other ecosystem has the capacity to serve as a reserve of water and at the same time capture carbon and methane in the same place”.
By extracting peat moss, are we respecting Asyén’s role as a reserve of life? No doubt many people ask themselves this question as they drive along the increasingly crowded Camino Longitudinal Austral.