Story 4 of 6 - Jun 1, 2023 - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Luján Agusti on the power of peatlands

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Luján image of natgeo explorer alt.
Mining Peatlands

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Hilary Sparrow photo

Hilary Sparrow

Head of Communications & Content | The Climate Pledge”

National Geographic Explorer Luján Agusti is documenting peatlands across the globe, bringing attention to the importance of these natural carbon sinks in mitigating the climate crisis.

 

Last year, The Climate Pledge teamed up with the National Geographic Society to support 15 National Geographic Explorers over three years (2022-2024) to document the global climate crisis through authentic storytelling, while illuminating the most pressing challenges, the solutions that can protect the wonder of our planet, and the communities on the frontlines. This collaboration advances early-career and established storytellers through funding, training, and the exposure necessary to drive awareness of their stories about the global climate crisis.

To commemorate World Peatlands Day today, June 2nd, we sat down with Luján Agusti, an Argentinian visual storyteller and National Geographic Explorer, to learn about the work documenting peatlands around the world.

nat geo explorer tierra del fuego first image.

Beginning in photography, Agusti was primarily documenting cultural stories, but wanted to bring her connection to nature into her work. “Tierra del Fuego, where I am based, is a territory deeply connected to nature. As a result, we are witnessing firsthand the effects of climate change. Glaciers are retreating, temperatures are rising, droughts are becoming more common, and snowfall is delayed.”

Peatlands have often been considered wastelands, or spaces without obvious economic use. In some cultures, they were regarded as occult, or places where witches and the supernatural lived and thrived.

What they truly are, are ancient wetlands. And hard workers: Often developed over thousands of years, peatlands retain enormous quantities of carbon dioxide, even more than forests. As carbon sinks, peatlands contribute immeasurably to cleaning our air and balancing our environment.

Peatlands might have a fraught image, but their resources have been valuable for a long time. Mining has stripped peatlands, something Agusti has noticed in a pattern of the Global North both touting climate action and using the Global South for their resources. “They go green, but taking [and damaging] territories that were preserved by the original peoples who have inhabited them for hundreds and thousands of years.”

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As a National Geographic Explorer, Agusti aims to shed light on the rich history and fraught future of peatland in order to aid in the fight to preserve its integrity.

“I am interested in reflecting on peatlands as a non-hegemonic landscape. I want to analyze why we have historically chosen to protect and preserve certain ecosystems and not others. Through my work, I seek to bring peatlands into the discussion about the environment, climate change, and the important role they play.”

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Agusti’s work with peatlands will expand into five regional chapters, which began at home with the peatlands in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. There, the Peninsula Mitre—the easternmost part of the island—is one of the last untouched peatlands in the world, and has finally been protected by law after a struggle of over 30 years.

 

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On the opposite end of the preservation spectrum is Madre de Dios, in the Amazon. There, Agusti documented where illegal gold mining has stripped the peatlands, effectively turning it into a desert.

 

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In Sumatra, an Indonesian island, Agusti explored the bond between community and peatland in a country where 80% of the land is peat. A source of purun, a type of grass that the community has used for generations in crafts and for their livelihoods, the peatlands have been drained, mined for palm oil, and decimated by the government in the name of industrial progress.

To continue the Peatlands Project, Agusti and her team, also coordinated by Nicolás Deluca in charge of audiovisual content, will visit the peatlands of Northern Europe (Norway, Sweden, and Finland). This area has a high concentration of peatlands, most of which have been drained for extraction or agricultural use, where few remain in their natural state. Finally, they will visit the Okavango Delta, where they will collaborate with scientists and specialists from the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project, who are studying the peatlands in the area to determine their dimensions and the interaction of the local communities with this ecosystem.

 

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Agusti’s work brings to light the complex relationships between humanity and the environment, how progress can rend the healthy aspects of it, and how vital peatlands are to the recovering health of our planet. Of being a National Geographic Explorer, she says: “Being a storyteller is a dream come true, but it's also a great responsibility. We have the power to use our voices to share stories that help us understand the world around us and take better care of it.”

As for her continuing work: “We must understand that the way we have lived on our planet for the past few decades is causing irreparable damage, and that we must modify our ways. We must urgently learn to value our territories and protect them from increasingly devastating extractivism.”

Additional image credit: Nicolás Deluca is co-author of the drone photos, as drone pilot.

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