When I first saw a peatland, its landscape moved me profoundly: It was a scene unlike anything I had ever seen before. Nestled in the midst of the forest, this type of wetland resembled a crater, brimming with water, adorned with masses of various reddish hues of “pompón” moss (a term derived from its Mapuche name poñ-poñ, which means sponge). The peat, the organic material upon which the moss emerged, was like a bed of sticky-covered water.
Navigating the peat called for following local advice: One must wear plastic boots and take short steps, seeking the highest and firmest parts of the terrain to avoid slipping. Many find themselves ensnared in the cover having to step out of their boots before proceeding.
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When I learned to walk on the peatlands, I understood why it was said they act like natural sponges. They retain and release water slowly, regulating water levels, preventing floods during heavy rain periods, and providing water during droughts.
Peatlands play a crucial role in regulating the planet's climate by capturing carbon from the atmosphere. Today, they are at risk due to the excessive extraction of “pompón” moss and peat, which are used as substrates for floriculture.
Extraction is a business that has brought prosperity to many Chilean families, but the absence of an effective tool to regulate its exploitation has led to abuse. This can cause ecosystems to lose their carbon capture role and turn them into carbon emitters, contributing to climate change.
I embarked on a 10-day journey to the Region de Los Lagos in southern Chile, located between 1,000 and 2,000 kilometers south of Santiago. During part of the trip, I was accompanied by Fernando Alarcón, an architect turned photographer and filmmaker, who also happens to be my brother. With his adept handling of drones, he has specialized in aerial photography and videography. His expertise in capturing visuals from above was crucial for telling this story. It allowed us to appreciate the magnitude of the peatlands, their mutual dependence on the surrounding environment, and the impact that activities like the excessive extraction of "pompón" moss has on them. From the heights, the panoramic photos and videos Fernando took capture the vastness of the peatlands in the area and also reveal areas with lower water accumulation, sunken or deformed terrain, and areas devoid of vegetation.
From the beginning, I knew that by reporting on the threat posed to peatlands by the extraction of "pompón" moss, I would immerse myself in a highly conflictive story pitting those defending economic interests against those advocating for environmental causes.
Five years ago, "pompón" wasn't part of the conversation in Chile until a bill, known as the "Pompón Law," emerged for discussion in 2018. It had the initial intention of prohibiting the exploitation of "pompón" to protect peatlands. However, it rapidly sparked a conflict between environmentalists and collectors who hold contrasting perspectives on the utilization of peatlands. Environmentalists advocate for their preservation, while collectors aim to continue extracting this resource.
The stances are irreconcilable. The voices in favor and against this practice clash strongly, but as our reporting progressed, it became clear that it was not a result of an isolated phenomenon but rather a universal dilemma related to people and the environment: How does one balance human capacity to extract resources with the urgent need to preserve the integrity of ecosystems? Exploring how to harness resources responsibly without compromising ecosystems is an urgent necessity in a world that will only survive by becoming more sustainable.
I was surprised to discover that those involved in the extraction of "pompón" moss not only never concealed their trade—they took pride in their work. From the most experienced gatherer to the entrepreneur who saw this activity as a legitimate source of income, all claimed to be safeguarding the environment while simultaneously asserting their contribution to local economic well-being. It was a reminder of how crucial it is to set aside personal biases when reporting.
Along the way, I encountered many testimonies from those who saw the extraction of “pompón” moss as an unacceptable threat. The fight against any development that put at risk the conservation of ecosystems today defined them. As always, I listened to all voices and different arguments. My journalistic immersion in the history of peatlands was at the same time an immersion into the tensions inherent to the world in which we live.
I decided that scientist Carolina León would be the protagonist of my story because she sought a solution to the dilemma facing the protection of the peatlands in southern Chile. León began studying peatlands over a decade ago when nobody was doing so, realizing their value at a time when it wasn't a global urgency. What made it fascinating was not only her willingness to leave the laboratory to conduct experiments in the forest but also to actively engage with the problem, applying her knowledge in action.
León was also a great educator. She invited Fernando and me to the forest and very patiently explained to us step by step each of the stages of her experiment on the ground. We asked many questions. She answered them all.
León is a key figure in my story because she operates based on data and evidence rather than prejudices or preconceived ideas. Her objective and research-based approach brings a critical perspective. León clings to scientific truth. Yet, she also becomes a witness to reality. León and her team are not content with passive analysis; they are determined to apply their knowledge and propose solutions, emphasizing that science extends beyond laboratories to unfold in the real world—science can gain from the local wisdom and can contribute to solving the problems faced not only by Chileans, but all of society.
Months after we visited her experiment in the forest, given that the discussion on the bill did not seem to yield consensus, the Chilean Congress sought advice from a group of four scientists, with León being one of the chosen experts. Today, León's opinion is relevant in defining the future of peatland protection in Chile.
Writing León's story was consistently challenging, as I often found myself needing to simplify information when it seemed impossible at times. Sometimes while looking for answers in science, I found many more questions. But I had one certainty: Among all the paths, hers was always the most reconciling between the environment and people.