Carbon and communities: The future of the Congo Basin peatlands

  • Scientific mapping in 2017 revealed that the peatlands of the Cuvette Centrale in the Congo Basin are the largest and most intact in the world’s tropics.
  • That initial work, first published in the journal Nature, was just the first step, scientists say, as work continues to understand how the peatlands formed, what threats they face from the climate and industrial uses like agriculture and logging, and how the communities of the region appear to be coexisting sustainably.
  • Researchers say investing in studying and protecting the peatlands will benefit the global community as well as people living in the region because the Cuvette Centrale holds a vast repository of carbon.
  • Congolese researchers and leaders say they are eager to safeguard the peatlands for the benefit of everyone, but they also say they need support from abroad to do so.

This is the fourth article in our four-part series “The Congo Basin peatlands.” Read Part One, Part Two and Part Three.

The muddy cores that Ian Lawson and his colleagues pull from the swampy peatlands of the Congo Basin might not look like much at first glance. Layers of clay and silt are interspersed here and there with bits of vaguely discernible plant material in varying states of decay mashed against each other. But like so many things in the natural world, these ordinary-looking samples hold far more than what’s visible to the naked eye. Indeed, says Lawson, they’re revelatory of a “beautiful natural succession” that’s occurred in this remote section of the Congo Basin rainforest.

“You can see quite clearly grass and sedges at the bottom and the pioneer plants of open ground. And then later on, hardwood swamp comes in,” followed by an assortment of palm species, says Lawson, a paleoecologist based at the U.K.’s University of St. Andrews. “It becomes more diverse.”

Lawson is part of a team that brought these expansive peatlands, roughly the size of England, to the attention of the world. In 2017, they published the findings of their field and remote-sensing investigations in the journal Nature. Before then, scientists had only vague notions about the presence of a swamp undergirding the forest in this part of the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and they thought that it might contain some of the carbon-rich decaying plant matter that’s known as peat. (Long-standing human communities in the region, of course, have had intimate knowledge of these peatlands for millennia, as has the ark of wonder-inducing mammals, birds and plants that has taken up refuge in this challenging environment.)

But no one knew just how widespread and how deep the peat would be. The team, led by plant ecologist Simon Lewis and then-Ph.D. student Greta Dargie from the University of Leeds, found peat in almost every core sample they looked at. What’s more, the amount of carbon contained within was literally off the charts. Not only had they identified the largest known complex of peat in the tropics, but they had also discovered that it contains more than 30 billion metric tons of carbon, a repository so great that it boosted the known stores of carbon in tropical peatland by more than a third. This carbon has accumulated over the past 10,600 years (and perhaps longer) as the flooded forest has halted the carbon-releasing process of decay by bacteria and fungi.

Researchers from the U.K. and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) take the first samples from the peatland. Image © Kevin McElvaney/Greenpeace.

But the peatlands, known as the Cuvette Centrale, also represent a dynamic environment dependent on a steady and well-timed source of water. As a result, the peatlands could teeter on the edge of being a boon for slowing the advance of climate change by keeping that carbon locked away, or becoming a “time bomb” that could release the equivalent of three years of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere if they are disturbed. They face threats that are both immediate and longer-term, and the implications of their preservation — or destruction — have ramifications that will affect human communities both in the region and around the world.

These hazards range from apparent plans by the governments of the two Congos that would allow agriculture companies to drain blocks of the peatlands and plant oil palm and other high-value crops. In addition, a number of oil companies have expressed interest in exploiting a reputedly massive cauldron of hydrocarbons sitting deep beneath the peat. And cutting down the trees that tower above the swamps remains a nagging threat. In a worrying sign for conservationists, the DRC says it plans to end a 19-year-old moratorium on handing out new logging licenses to outside companies.

Ève Bazaiba Masudi, minister of the environment and sustainable development for the DRC, told Mongabay in an email that the time had come to move past the moratorium, but that the country also planned to protect the country’s peatlands and forests deemed to be of high conservation value.

Arlette Soudan-Nonault, the Republic of Congo’s minister of the environment, sustainable development and the Congo Basin, said the peatlands are an important ecosystem not just for the two countries, “but also for the entire planet.”

Aerial view of a river in peatland forest around Mbandaka in the DRC. Image © Daniel Beltrá/Greenpeace.

Soudan-Nonault said the Republic of Congo is committed to protecting the peatlands.

“That said, we are not naïve and we do not intend to stop our development just so the planet can breathe easier,” she told Mongabay in an email. “The invaluable ecosystem service that our peatlands and our forests render to the planet cannot remain free forever, to the detriment of our populations’ aspiration for well-being.”

Researchers and conservationists know that incursions for agriculture, logging or extractive industries could fundamentally tip the balance in the peatlands, changing its hydrology in a way that could release unseen plumes of carbon from them and ratcheting up global temperatures in the process. At the same time, they know the DRC and the Republic of Congo need support both to protect the peatlands and develop their economies, something that leaders in both countries point out.

“[T]he international community benefits from the contribution of this ecosystem in terms of global climate mitigation,” Bazaiba said, “and the Congolese should benefit from conservation efforts.”

The looming threats have led to efforts to ensure the peatlands are protected, as well as research to draw out their secrets, in the hopes that looking into the past might provide some clues about the peatlands’ future.

The question, according to ecosystems scientist and peat researcher Julie Loisel, is, “Are they going to continue to put down carbon in the soil for us as a climate cooling agent, or will they start spitting it out really quickly if we degrade them?”

Loisel, who was not involved in the research for the 2017 Nature study, is an assistant professor at Texas A&M University in College Station.

“It really depends on what people do,” she said. “Essentially, it’s up to us.”

A ‘dark horse’ for the climate

Since the publication of the Nature paper four years ago, awareness of the importance of peatlands has grown. But many researchers still don’t feel like the peatlands’ value is adequately appreciated in projections about climate.

“Peatlands have been completely ignored before,” Loisel said.

And to continue ignoring them would be a mistake, said Dianna Kopansky, global peatlands coordinator with the United Nations Environment Programme, if for no other reason than the “disproportionate” impact they’re liable to have on the world’s carbon budget.

Less than 3% of the surface of the Earth is covered by peatlands. Scientists figure that in that tiny fraction, they’ve locked away double the carbon contained in all the world’s forests. That’s an incredibly dense reservoir. But what happens when peatlands turn from a carbon sink to a source is also especially telling, Kopansky told Mongabay.

Somewhere around 15% of the world’s peatlands have been degraded, often for agriculture. That works out to less than 0.5% of land on Earth, but those damaged peatlands account for up to 6% of greenhouse gas emissions globally. And burning peat bumps that figure up to 10%, as the world witnessed in the especially dry year of 2015 when fires in Indonesia blanketed Southeast Asia with haze.

Those statistics, combined with what Kopansky sees as peatlands’ underutilization in the climate context, make them what she calls a “dark horse” for the climate. Their restoration, through reintroducing the water back into the flats, could have an immediate impact on the climate-warming emissions of countries such as Indonesia, where huge areas of peat have been drained for oil palm plantations. Efforts to restore peatland and thus avoid fires like those in 2015 could halt the lost use of land, improve air quality, and minimize travel disruptions, amounting to billions of dollars in savings for Indonesia, according to a recent study in the journal Nature Communications.

And yet these efforts can’t fully bring back the ecosystem since it takes hundreds to thousands of years for peat to accumulate and store appreciable quantities of carbon.

Thick smoke from peat fires outside Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, in 2015. Image by Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

In deforested or degraded peatlands, “You’ve lost all of the original vegetation,” said Mark Harrison, an ecologist with the U.K.’s University of Exeter who works in peatland ecology in Southeast Asia. “You’ve also lost a lot of peat as well because that’s all been burned off or decomposed. In those kinds of areas, it’s going to be very difficult to actually restore the full jungle.”

But replenishing the water that is so integral to peatland ecosystems does at least help to stem the emissions of CO2 from the continued decomposition of organic matter that occurs when peatlands are degraded, Kopansky said. (Complicating the equation somewhat, however, is an initial burst of climate-warming methane resulting from inundating the land anew, she said.)

Still, even a small section of intact peat packs away a lot of carbon, a fact that’s often not fully appreciated, she said. For instance, the Congo Basin peatlands contain about two-thirds of the amount of aboveground carbon held in all the trees of the Congo rainforest.

Securing the peatlands for generations to come isn’t as tangible as watching the trees in a forest grow. Nor do the peatlands take up carbon from the atmosphere as rapidly as trees do. That is one reason peatlands don’t fit well into the current paradigm of offsetting carbon emissions by the growth and restoration of forests.

“If you want to value a land for carbon sequestration, you have to look at how much carbon it sequesters every year, and peatlands suck at that,” Texas A&M’s Loisel said. “They just have little mosses putting down a little bit of carbon.”

Peatlands, as they are, can’t actively offset the emissions of, say, a fossil fuel company that might invest in preserving a section of peatland in real time. That would almost certainly lead to more carbon entering the atmosphere than would be taken up by the peatland.

But if humans do cut emissions overall — as climate scientists say we must if we are going to avoid a 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit) temperature rise over preindustrial levels as laid out in the Paris climate accords — the importance of carbon stockpiles like the peatlands comes into sharper focus.

“[The question is] really, what value do we place on carbon that’s thousands and thousands of years old?” said Susan Page, a professor and ecologist at the University of Leicester in the U.K. and a co-author of the Nature study that first mapped the Congo Basin peatlands. “That vast amount of carbon should still be monetized, and I think that’s where the problem comes.”

Aerial view of a logging concession in the peatland forest in the DRC. The Congo Basin peatlands contain about two-thirds of the amount of aboveground carbon held in all the trees of the Congo rainforest. Image © Daniel Beltrá/Greenpeace.
A palm oil plantation on rainforest peatland in Central Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia. Image by glennhurowitz via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Investing in protection

One of the leading strategies for protecting forests has been the United Nations’ REDD+ program, which stands for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries. The idea behind it is to pay countries to avoid development that’s potentially destructive to forests. That money would then go toward economic development programs, ideally — according to human rights campaigners — to the communities on the front lines of protecting those forests. Given that the Cuvette Centrale peatlands are an integral part of the Congo Basin forests, REDD+ seems to some observers like a natural fit for protecting the peatlands.

“REDD+ activity would be a good tool to manage the peatland,” said Denis Sonwa, senior scientist from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) based in Cameroon. Sonwa has worked on the science and community sides of forest protection across the Congo Basin.

In general, many scientists and conservationists agree about the need to finance the protection of the peatlands.

“I absolutely think the governments of DRC and the [Republic of Congo] should be paid for the service they’re doing the rest of the world for protecting these peatlands,” said Edward Mitchard, another collaborator on the 2017 paper and a professor of global mapping at the University of Edinburgh in the U.K. “There’s a massive store of carbon here. It’s a time bomb that could be released very quickly.”

But, Mitchard told Mongabay, “It’s tricky the way REDD is currently organized.”

For example, it’s often the case that areas must be earmarked for development before donor countries consider paying countries like the DRC and the Republic of Congo not to develop those lands. Mitchard called it a “weird incentive” to encourage plans for development, even if the end goal is only to secure REDD+ and similar types of financing.

That may be why 80% of the peatlands, according to mapping by environmental NGO Greenpeace, is covered by concessions for agriculture, logging or oil and gas.

Other issues exist with REDD+, says Joe Eisen, executive director of the environmental NGO Rainforest Foundation UK (RFUK): notably, whether the funds will actually benefit communities living in and around the peatlands.

“[E]ven if the money does start flowing for the protection of the peatlands,” Eisen said in an email, “the experience of 14 years of REDD+ tells us it is unlikely to have the desired effect unless core issues around governance and the rights of the forest peoples are addressed.”

Aerial view of a palm oil plantation in the DRC. Around 80% of the peatlands, according to mapping by environmental NGO Greenpeace, is covered by concessions for agriculture, logging or oil and gas. Image © Daniel Beltrá/Greenpeace.

Community-led protection

Conservation researchers far and wide have found in recent decades that the protection local and Indigenous communities provide to natural places routinely outpaces what’s possible with well-financed protected areas that exclude or minimize human activity within them.

“We are just so lucky really to have indigenous people that are protectors of sacred places like rainforest and as it happens also these peatlands,” Kopansky said. “I would also like to see their future protected. They have a right to practice their culture and also benefit from the space.”

The peatlands are a case in point. Findings by the research team led by Lewis and Dargie indicate that the peatlands are basically intact, even though the communities around the peatlands make use of the fisheries, wood and other products from the forest. How they accomplish this sustainable coexistence is a new element of the team’s research, according to Lewis.

“There’s a lot of very valuable traditional local knowledge from these areas,” said Mark Harrison, who is not involved in the Congo Basin research. “Conservation projects would be foolish not to include people in the area who’ve been doing that for a long time.”

A group of local women gather for the arrival of Greenpeace campaigners to the village. Image © Kevin McElvaney/Greenpeace.

As with so many remote and forested parts of the planet, the traditional system of management has been customary rather than codified in the laws of the Republic of Congo and the DRC, according to findings from the RFUK-led Mapping For Rights project. MappingForRights aims to give communities the tools to plot out their claims to the land and to monitor how it’s used.

“Unless these areas are fully mapped and recognised (such as through community forests), and participatory land-use planning carried [out], local communities are unlikely to benefit and, worse still, may be further subjected to coercive conservation enforcement characteristic of the region’s protected areas,” RFUK’s Eisen said.

How current initiatives to protect the Cuvette Centrale will engage the participation of communities living around the peatlands isn’t clear, though the countries’ leaders say they are aware of the concerns.

“The DRC wants to maintain the ecological functionality of peatlands while ensuring that conservation efforts serve to improve the lives of local communities and Indigenous peoples,” Bazaiba said.

And there are other signs of willingness on the part of the governments to look after the health of the peatlands.

Many observers see the signing of the Brazzaville Declaration in 2018 as a reason for hope. The aim of the agreement, between the Republic of Congo, the DRC and Indonesia, is to promote the cooperation of peat-rich countries in protecting these ecosystems.

“Destroying the peatlands would be a grave assault on the Paris Agreement and the climate. We need to find sustainable alternatives, and traditional management practices are important,” Soudan-Nonault said in a statement from the March 2018 signing of the declaration.

Prior to the agreement, the three nations, along with Peru, were the four initial partners of the Global Peatlands Initiative, a global effort to shore up protections for peatlands created at the U.N. climate conference in 2016. Kopansky, who manages the initiative, said it is led by these countries.

“No northern country or international organization” is part of the initiative, Kopansky said. “The Global Peatlands Initiative exists because the [Global] South asked for it. It’s a real South-South collaboration.”

Until now, communities have played a critical role in safeguarding the pristine nature of the peatlands. But how long that intactness will last with the threat of development, resource extraction and human population growth on the horizon is an open question.

“Of course, you could say the same is true in Indonesia if you went back to the 1950s,” Page said. “Most of these peatland areas had very sparse populations.

“I began my research out in Kalimantan [Indonesian Borneo] in the early 1990s and the changes that have happened there over that nearly 30-year period [are] phenomenal in terms of population growth [and] numbers of people exploiting, living on or close to peatland,” she added.

Local women preparing food in the DRC. Image © Kevin McElvaney/Greenpeace

As forest ecologist Suspense Ifo sees it, that’s just more justification for outside support to further probe into the science of the peatlands, as he, Dargie, Lawson, Mitchard and Lewis are doing.

Just as the peatlands need a consistent source of water, “We need the rain of financing, the rain of donors, to allow us to continue collecting data,” said Ifo, an associate professor at Université Marien Ngouabi in the Republic of Congo and a co-author of the 2017 Nature study. His remarks came during a presentation at the COP26 climate summit in November.

Parts of the Cuvette Centrale indeed are protected, with some of those safeguards stretching back decades under international agreements like the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. But threats remain, and Indonesia serves as evidence of how quickly changes can occur. With gems of wisdom waiting to be plucked from places like Indonesia, not to mention from the people of the Cuvette Centrale and the peat itself, the global community has the opportunity to ensure the Congo Basin peatlands don’t follow the same path, Page said. And it’s up to all of us to support that goal, for the peatlands’ survival and our own.

“We should do everything we possibly can to support the two Congos to protect those people because globally, they matter,” she said.

Listen to Mongabay’s podcast episode on peatland restoration here:

Banner image: Greenpeace members and campaigners holding a banner with the local community of Lokolama in the Congo Basin Peatland. Image © Kevin McElvaney/Greenpeace.

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon


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