FARMERS must be kept off “vulnerable” peatlands in the Amazon to avoid “environmental disaster”, researchers claim.

Barely-touched tropical peatlands recorded recently by scientists in South America and Africa are said to be at risk from encroaching developments.

Scientists are still learning about the impact these unique landscapes – described as some of the least understood in the world – make to the balance of gases in the atmosphere.

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However, an international research team led by St Andrews University has identified a series of threats to sensitive sites and is urging leaders to take action.

The work focuses on the Pastaza-Maranon Basin in north-east Peru, which was confirmed as “the most carbon-dense landscape in Amazonia” in a 2014 study.

Tests revealed the amount of carbon stored in the ground and vegetation there was equivalent to almost half of Peru’s above-ground forest carbon – even though the peatland in the basin made up just three per cent of the forested area.

The St Andrews team said extensive deforestation, drainage, burning and conversion of peat swamp forests to rice and oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia in recent decades has released huge amounts of carbon into the environment, leading to severe air pollution and the loss of habitat for important species such as the orang-utan, which is critically endangered.

The peatlands in the Pastaza- Maranon are currently untouched by agriculture. However, researchers say few legal protections and “patchy” regulations threaten their existence.

Lead author Dr Katy Roucoux, from the Fife university, said: “The key to preserving these peatlands, which are a type of wetland, is maintaining their water balance – you need to keep the water table high.

“In our study area the main threat to peatland health is the expansion of commercial agriculture linked to the development of new transport infrastructure which makes it easier for companies to access remote areas. We argue that conservation should be focused in the first instance on the most carbon-rich peatlands, not just in Amazonia but across the tropics.”

The teams says carbon-based conservation funding could help com- munities protect their local environment while also achieving responsible economic development.

Meanwhile, the harvesting of sustainable peatland produce such as palm fruits, which can be collected without substantial damage to the ecosystem, are recommended as an alternative to large-scale monoculture plantations. Expanding national parks and forest reserves could also provide a legal barrier to development of sensitive areas.

Co-author Dr Ian Lawson said: “By comparing legally-protected areas with our model of peatland distrib-ution in the Pastaza-Maranon Basin, it became clear that although some of the peatlands are protected, the most carbon-rich peatlands happen to occur in areas that are much less well protected.

“That makes them vulnerable to future economic development.”