Drying Peatlands in the Bolivian Andes Threaten Indigenous Pastoral Communities

The  Andes  are the longest mountain range in the world, stretching 4,500 miles long and spanning seven South American countries: Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. Andean ecosystems include peatlands, grasslands, shrublands, salt flats, forests, and alpine regions. Mountain peatlands, or bofedales, play a particularly central role in the rearing of llamas and alpacas, which provide wool and meat to Andean, pastoral communities.

Alpacas at Sajama National Park, Bolivia (Source: Karina Yager)

Alpacas at Sajama National Park, Bolivia (Source: Karina Yager)

In order to remain productive and green, bofedales require continuous water supply from precipitation, groundwater, and glacial outflow. Without adequate water flow, bofedales are likely to dry up. Climate change and poor irrigation exacerbate the drying of bofedales.

A recently published research article in Springer Nature analyzes bofedal changes due to decreased water availability in Sajama National Park (PNS) in Bolivia. Karina Yager, NASA researcher and Stony Brook University professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, leads the scientific investigation.

Using satellite image analysis, vegetation studies, and traditional ecological knowledge, Yager and fifteen of her colleagues, from institutions in the U.S. and South America, study land cover changes over a 30-year timeframe and identify communal perspectives on drying bofedales.

Yager shared to GlacierHub: “traditional ecological knowledge gives voice to the human dimensions of land cover and land use change which are often overlooked; in this case with the bofedales, locals help us to understand both the climatic and social drivers of bofedal change, from shifting weather patterns, to water access, to herd management.”

Highlighting the Study’s Findings

Yager and some of her colleagues completing a vegetation survey of plant species growing in bofedales in Sajama National Park
(Source: Karina Yager)

PNS contains five pasture areas, where Andean communities reside. The pasture areas include: Sajama, Lagunas, Caripe, Papelpampa, and Manasaya. Members from all five communities participated in focus group sessions to share information regarding bofedal condition, climatology, and potential irrigation actions.

A Manasaya herder shared to the researchers: “the pastures of the bofedal are dying because not enough water is entering any longer. In some places that are dry, you can hear how the water runs below and you can see that there are places where the bofedal is sinking. There are holes; we cover them so the livestock do not fall in.”

Through field work and data collection, the researchers find that three communities within PNS—Sajama, Lagunas, and Manasaya—show significant loss of healthy bofedales. These land changes will likely result in decreases to animal health and communal livelihoods. In addition, completely dried bofedales are difficult to restore and likely take generations to recover.

Yager states to GlacierHub: “These are peatland systems that are relatively slow growing and have developed in many cases over several millennia. Some of the systems in Sajama are over four thousand years old, and unfortunately some have become completely desiccated within the last five to ten years.

Some bofedal systems would take generations to recuperate, and others may just be completely lost.”

On the other hand, increases in healthy bofedal land cover is observed in the two other, irrigated PNS regions of Caripe and Papelpampa. This finding signals that proper irrigation management and communal-based pasture management are critical to the conservation of bofedales.

Photo Friday: A Visit to Sajama, Bolivia

This Photo Friday, journey to Sajama, Bolivia, through photos taken by Karina Yager, a professor at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, on her recent trip to the country.

Joining two Bolivian scientists, Rosa Isela Meneses and Humber Alberto, from the Bolivian National Herbarium and the Natural History Museum, the trio conducted a field survey at Sajama National Park, monitoring vegetation change in bofedales (high Andean peatlands). In Sajama, glacier retreat, climate change and local changes in land use and livelihoods are impacting the bofedales, which are key to sustaining pastoralism in the region. Indigenous Aymara herders, who have a centuries-long tradition of raising llamas and alpacas in the region, maintain and extend these peatlands through the careful construction of irrigation canals. In addition to supporting domesticated animals and local livelihoods, the bofedales also help regulate water resources for mountain biodiversity, including vicunas and many Andean birds.

Yager expresses her gratitude to NASA ROSES LCLUC for financial support for the project, to her Bolivian colleagues and local residents, and to Apu Tatay Sajama, who all contributed to the success of the trip.


Mount Sajama, wetlands and waterfall (Source: Karina Yager).


Llama, with Aymara herders in the background, Mount Sajama (Source: Karina Yager).


Polylepis tree on slopes of Mount Sajama (Source: Karina Yager).


Ice on stems of native grasses, Mount Sajama (Source: Karina Yager).


Sunset at Sajama, Bolivia (Source: Karina Yager).


Quinoa growing at Patacamaya (Source: Karina Yager).