How do the Páramos store water? The role of plants and people

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
Department Name: Natural Capital and Plant Health

Abstract

Páramos are high mountain grassland-peatland biomes (3000m-4000m) that cover a total area of circa 35700km2. They are crucial for the livelihoods and wellbeing of millions of people living in Colombia and neighbouring Northern Andean countries (Venezuela, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru). Páramos are the main source of water in these regions, are used for crop cultivation and grazing and contain a unique source of untapped genetic diversity. While the Páramos have the potential to support, through the exploitation of its biodiversity, local and regional development, the combined pressure of land use and climate change has already degraded many Páramo areas and their potential demise is a cause for concern for many, including local communities, regional and national policy and decision makers and researchers in Colombia. All agree that any future exploitation requires a sustainable approach and that the management of these systems should enhance the Páramo's resilience to climate change.
However, there is still very much which is not known about the functioning of the Páramos and without this knowledge there is a risk that interventions which are designed to achieve sustainability and enhance resilience are not effective or worse detrimental. Páramos are described as sponges that capture and store water from the atmosphere. Few quantitative studies have investigated the mechanisms behind this process and even less is known about the relative role of the plants and the soil of this complex system. Also, Páramos are socio-ecological systems that have been shaped by the human populations that have inhabited them over several centuries. This interaction is continuing to date with local communities relying solely on the Páramo for their livelihoods.
This interdisciplinary 3 year project aims to, jointly with Colombian collaborators, establish how the diversity of habitats and of plants within the Páramos contributes to water regulation, via direct storage in live agetation and via the supply of organic matter in the soil. We will carry out a large field and drone campaign in the Colombian Páramo Guantiva-la Rusia to collect and analyse data on plants, soil and hydrology. We will carry out satellite image analysis to map landscape scale land cover and peatland condition and improve models so that they better represent the hydrology of the ecosystem. The project will also identify how local Páramo inhabitants, particularly crop and livestock farmers, interact currently with the Páramo ecosystem through their day-to-day farming practices. We will invite local people to participate in workshops and storytelling to jointly discover how they understand they are affecting and are affected by the Páramos' water regulation. We will, as we learn more about the functioning of the Páramo, feedback our findings to the local people and so help them initiate more sustainable solutions.

Planned Impact

Our project's high level goal is to safeguard the sustainable use of the Northern Andean Páramos and so ultimately improve the livelihoods and wellbeing of people living in Colombia and other Andean countries. The proposed research, which aims to substantially enhance current understanding of the Páramos' socio-ecological system, forms a core step towards this goal. The project aims to achieve measurable impact in terms of real changes in people's knowledge, skills and behaviours associated to the Páramos.

Stakeholder groups which we have identified and targeted are:
1.The Páramo Guantiva-la Rusia local farming communities, who rely on the Páramo for their livelihood, will benefit from this project by learning more about their role and impact on the functioning of the Páramo, information which could help support their decision making.
2. The Páramo Guantiva-la Rusia local decision makers, who have a direct impact on the local economy and sustainable use of the Páramo, will benefit by learning about the role of plants and people in the functioning of the Páramo. They will also benefit from the land cover and Páramo status maps and the Páramo valuation the project will produce which will help them in their decision making.
3. Colombian early career scientists and students and who are seeking opportunities for exchanges in expertise within Colombia and between Colombia and UK through collaborations and training. Through the field work bursaries we will be providing opportunities for Colombian early career scientist and students to join the project's activities and so expose them to the expertise of UK and Colombian senior scientists. They will also gain skills and knowledge through informal and formal training that will occur during the planned field campaign and workshops. The four months research visits to the UK offered to 2 Colombian early career scientists will further enhance the exchange of expertise and skills and facilitate international networkie Colombian community of practitioners and researchers who are interested in Drone technology and are keen to exchange drone experiences through an informal national drone network. This community will benefit from sharing with the UK experiences and from evaluating the collected drone imagery collected by the project.
The project will also be relevant to a variety of other stakeholder groups who will be: for example, national and international NGOs who are concerned with the preservation of the Páramo, or who are interested in the welfare of the local communities; regional and national decision makers and policy makers who are concerned with the sustainable use of the Páramo within the context of the national green economy agenda; private companies for whom the Páramo is a resource of genetic diversity, water or minerals; and the general public (Colombian and UK).

Publications

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Title Geolocation of study plots in the Guantiva - La Rusia Paramo Complex 
Description This database contains information on the geolocation (geographic coordinates, elevation and toponyms) and date of establishment, for each of the 145 study plots, which will be used for the characterization of vegetation and soil properties. The plots were established in 12 catchment areas within the Guantiva - La Rusia Paramo Complex, and represent the most relevant hydrological response classes in each area. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact The plots will allow gathering point information on plant and soils composition and structure of the main hydrological response classes across the entire complex. They were established in a way that will allow the team to monitor and resample them through time, even after the completion of this project term. 
 
Title Preliminary plant survey of established plots based on photographic record 
Description This database contains the photographic record of plants registered at the 145 established plots in the Guantiva La Rusia Paramo Complex (Colombia). Metadata of photographs include EXIF and IPTC data with geolocation (with geographic coordinates, elevation and toponyms), plot code, keywords and plant identification (family, genus, species) when possible. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact With already more than 3,000 photographs taken, this database represents a notable outcome to produce a preliminary inventory of the flora found in the plots. The plant diversity and composition of the study plots will be used as input to generate attributes for the hydrological response classes of each of twelve catchments, for which hydrological models will be developed. Also, we are planning to produce photographic field guides for easy plant identification. 
 
Description Project display at Kew's Orchid Festival featuring Colombia 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Display of panels with the project summary and highlights at Kew's Orchid Festival featuring Colombian biodiversity. The exhibition, opened for one month (9 February - 10 March), receives more than 130,000 visitors. Website: https://www.kew.org/about-us/press-media/kew-orchid-festival-celebrate-the-colour-of
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.kew.org/about-us/press-media/kew-orchid-festival-celebrate-the-colour-of