TO THE Quechua-speaking subsistence farmers who live in the higher reaches of the Peruvian Andes, the sphagnum moss that upholsters the land near their villages is a nuisance. They burn it away to clear land for planting traditional crops, like potatoes. Now some have realised that the spongy vegetation can be worth more than the tubers, which sometimes cost more to grow than they fetch in the market.

Moss is an internationally traded commodity. Canada, the biggest exporter, sold more than 1m tonnes of decomposed moss from peat bogs last year for around $337m. The market for the sort of moss Peru produces, harvested live and then dried, is much smaller, around 5,300 tonnes a year. But it is growing fast. The absorbency of moss makes it useful for potting exotic plants like orchids. Because of its acidity, farmers add it to the soil in which they grow such foods as blueberries.

New uses are adding to demand. Moss is popular for “living walls” that are sprouting in European and North American cities. Mines can use sphagnum to filter out toxins from pits where by-products are collected. In the United States, owners of swimming pools install sphagnum filters to reduce the need for chlorination. The same technology can make water potable.

Peru came to moss-marketing late. Its southern neighbour, Chile, has 76% of the world market for live-harvested moss. New Zealand, with 15%, is the other main merchant. Peru harvests a scant 100 tonnes a year. Now it is trying to catch up.

Inka Moss, the only Peruvian exporter, has been teaching communities in the central Junín region since 2010 to harvest moss without uprooting it, allowing the plant to regenerate. So far, the rewards have been modest. Some 20 villages, each with about 60 families, made $1.4m in total from 2010 to 2016. Marco Piñatelli, Inka Moss’s boss, thinks the potential is much bigger. Each of the villages could harvest 30 tonnes a year, which would provide annual income of about $85,000. And the number of moss-mining villages could be expanded.

To achieve that, Peru’s moss miners have enlisted help from the country’s space agency. It is using data gathered from a French-built satellite, which also tracks coca production and deforestation, to map mossy places. “It would take years to map areas using traditional techniques,” says Carlos Caballero, the general who heads the space agency.

But Peru’s quest for mossy mastery faces obstacles. Ownership of land, and thus of the moss that grows on it, is fuzzy—a problem that plagues other ventures in Peru. The communities or individuals who own it rarely have title deeds. Local authorities are often reluctant to clarify ownership by issuing one. Moss mining also gets bogged down in bureaucracy. The government agency in charge of forestry and wildlife can take 18 months to issue a harvesting permit. Without such hindrances, Inka Moss could work with many more than 20 villages, says Mr Piñatelli.

Luis Alfaro, of the government’s export agency for highland and jungle products, says forestry authorities have begun to accept land-purchase agreements in lieu of titles to issue harvesting permits. That will reduce one obstacle. The opportunity is great, says Mr Alfaro. “Now we have to get everyone lined up to make this take off.”