The peatlands of the Congo Basin are perhaps the most intact in the tropics, but threats from logging, agriculture and extractive industries could cause their rapid degradation, scientists say.
In 2021, the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) announced that it was planning to end a moratorium on the issuance of logging concessions that had been in place for nearly two decades.
The move raised concerns among conservation groups, who say the moratorium should remain in place to protect the DRC’s portion of the world’s second-largest rainforest.
Today, timber concession boundaries overlap with the peatlands, and though some companies say they won’t cut trees growing on peat, environmental advocates say that any further issuance of logging concessions in the DRC would be irresponsible.
This is the third article in our four-part series “The Congo Basin peatlands.” Read Part One and Part Two.
The logging concession moratorium signed in 2002 was supposed to shore up protections for forests in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Faced with widespread corruption in the timber sector, the country’s leaders agreed to stop awarding companies leases to harvest logs.
The move didn’t stop all logging or deforestation, much of which has grown apace with the DRC’s rising population and clearance for more farmland, in the timber-rich nation. (Only Brazil has more tropical forest.) Nor did it halt the issuance of new concession licenses to foreign corporations. In one example, the government awarded thousands of square kilometers of forest to two Chinese timber companies in 2018. Greenpeace Africa figures that the DRC’s former environment minister allowed 40,000 square kilometers (more than 15,000 square miles) of “illegal” logging concessions during his tenure.
As long as the DRC’s moratorium was in place, however, it seemed that some combination of strengthened forestry laws, bolstered protections for standing forest and the flow of financing for economic development connected to forest protection might help save the massive tracts of the DRC’s rainforests.
More recently, members of the conservation community also hoped the moratorium would continue to envelop the huge, carbon-rich Cuvette Centrale peatland in the midst of that forest.
But in July 2021, the fate of the peatlands and the forests more broadly seemed in jeopardy when the DRC’s council of ministers announced that they would support a plan by the environment minister, Ève Bazaiba Masudi, to end the moratorium.
“The moratorium is a provision that has had its day. The country must evolve,” Bazaiba told Mongabay in an email. But, she added, work is underway to identify “areas of high conservation value, including the peatlands.”
Such assurances are of little comfort to environmental advocates, however.
“With the ongoing chaos in the forest sector and the absence of land-use planning, this measure is a threat to both people and nature,” Irène Wabiwa Betoko, a forest campaign leader with Greenpeace Africa, said in a statement after the announcement. “Instead of green lighting new paths of destruction, the DRC needs a blueprint for permanent protection of the forest, including management by the communities who live in it and depend on it.”
According to Greenpeace, 80% of the Congo Basin peatlands, which extend across the border between the DRC and the Republic of Congo, overlap with concessions for timber, agriculture or oil and gas. Logging concessions alone occupy 18% of the peatlands.
“If the DRC logging moratorium is lifted, we estimate that the amount of carbon dioxide at risk of being released as being over 10 billion [metric tons], equivalent to nearly 200 years of Norway’s annual national carbon emissions,” Joe Eisen, executive director of the environmental NGO Rainforest Foundation UK (RFUK), said in an email.
Still, compared with other peat-rich countries in the tropics, especially those in Southeast Asia, the peatlands of the Congo Basin today remain relatively untouched. They’re a bastion for wild animals and plants as well. Corneille Ewango, an associate professor of botany at the DRC’s University of Kisangani, said he and his team had found 110 species of plants in an initial survey of a single plot in the peatlands.
“And we’re still finding more,” Ewango said during a presentation at the 2021 U.N. climate conference (COP26).
Altogether, the Congo Basin peatlands cover 145,529 square kilometers (56,189 square miles), or about the size of England, in the northern parts of the Republic of Congo and the DRC.
Peatlands in Indonesia and Malaysia are likely thousands of years older, and the peat stretches deeper below ground than those in the Congo Basin. But they’ve been subjected to intense development, with the forests cleared in many places and the water drained off, largely to make the land more hospitable for plantations of oil palm, timber and other lucrative commodities.
Peat can form when plant matter accumulates in areas that are swamped with water. The water slows or even stops the decomposition that would typically occur, creating a carbon-rich muck and a unique ecosystem that serves to anchor all sorts of other unique species.
The changes to tropical peatlands in Southeast Asia have disrupted that balance, leading many of them to stop storing carbon belowground and to become a persistent source of substantial carbon emissions. Scientists say the sort of development that has occurred in Southeast Asia could similarly devastate the Cuvette Centrale.
As research continues that’s aimed at better understanding Central Africa’s peatlands and what we need to do to protect them, “The key message from that will be, don’t go where Southeast Asia has gone with its peatlands,” Susan Page, a professor and ecologist at the University of Leicester in the U.K., said in an interview.
“As far as we know … from the data we have, they’re continuing to accumulate carbon,” Page said of the Cuvette Centrale peatlands. “That’s really, really important.”
Page has studied tropical peatlands since the 1990s, especially those in Southeast Asia. In 2017, she was also a member of the team that first quantified the extent of the Congo Basin peatlands.
Simon Lewis, a co-lead author on that paper, which appeared in the journal Nature, said the fate of much of the peat in Southeast Asia should serve as a warning for the Republic of Congo and the DRC.
“We’ve already seen the kind of dystopian trajectory of taking peatlands, draining them, converting to oil palm plantations or fast-growing timber plantations” in Southeast Asia, Lewis said. Following that trajectory in the Congo Basin could lead to “the out-of-control fires that come with the dry season and all the environmental and climate and health problems that flow from that,” he added.
Drained, but not gone?
Ordinarily in tropical forests, the process of decomposition starts almost as soon as a leaf or twig hits the ground. The hot, humid environment provides the ideal conditions for bacteria and fungi to begin tearing apart organic material. But when more water accumulates in that system, perhaps as the result of the periodic flooding of a river or abundant rainfall hitting a low-lying area, it brings that disintegration almost to a halt. Over hundreds to thousands of years, as long as the conditions include waterlogging and a steady stream of organic matter, layer upon layer of partially decayed organic matter builds up into what’s known as peat.
The remote peatlands of the Congo Basin appear to have formed about 10,600 years ago, around the end of the last ice age, when temperatures and humidity in equatorial Africa began to rise. Today, they are home to an array of wildlife species, including some 400 mammals, and it’s a rare refuge for threatened species such as forest elephants, bonobos, chimpanzees and lowland gorillas. These vast swamplands also nurture fish populations and palm trees that help provide for the region’s sparse human communities.
But it’s the carbon contained in the peat that has captured the world’s attention. Because much of the organic material isn’t broken down as it normally would be on the floor of a dryer forest, it retains much of its carbon. Over time, those layers lock it away, preventing it from escaping into the atmosphere where it would contribute to the warming of the global climate.
Research has shown that peat is incredibly carbon-dense. Lewis, Page and their colleagues estimate that these peatlands contain some 30.4 billion metric tons of carbon. That’s around the same amount as is emitted globally during three years of human activity. The entire Congo rainforest has roughly the same amount in all its trees covering more than 30 times the size of the Cuvette Centrale.
Other research from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization has found that the carbon in a hectare (about 2.5 acres) of skyscraping primary forest is about the same as that found in a 30-centimeter (1-foot) layer of peat spread over the same area. That density heightens the consequences of disrupting peatlands, write the authors of the study, which was published in 2019.
“Such a thin layer of peat is more easily destroyed by inappropriate management — the single pass of a plough, for example — than is the case for the loss of the carbon store held in a tropical rainforest, where, even after felling and burning, the roots and stumps of the forest remain,” they write.
That swift destruction could take place with little knowledge of the vast carbon resources held within. Hence the need, scientists say, to more accurately understand the peatlands, their full extent and what has kept them intact until now. Economic planners unfamiliar with their value may simply see them as a blank spot on the map, ripe for development in a pair of countries that desperately need it.
In particular, there is widespread concern among experts about the much-heralded “return” of oil palm to Africa. The plant that produces most of the world’s palm oil in Southeast Asia is actually native to Africa. African oil palm has replaced forests and peatlands in large parts of Indonesia and Malaysia in recent decades. Now that many of the most fertile areas are in use, producers have begun to look elsewhere for viable land.
Bringing industrial crops to the peatlands would be a mistake, said Edward Mitchard, a professor of global mapping at the University of Edinburgh and co-author of the Nature study that mapped the Cuvette Centrale peatlands in 2017.
“There’s plenty of [the Congo Basin] that’s already been cleared, that’s currently not particularly well used for agriculture or not used for agriculture at all,” Mitchard said. “I don’t know why you target the peat bits for agriculture.”
Across Southeast Asia, the strategy by and large has been to drain peatlands to make them more hospitable to cash crops that might not do well in water-logged soil. But removing the water that keeps decomposition in check throws off the balance of the whole system.
“If it dries out,” Mitchard said, “the fungi and bacteria of the tropics are very good at taking that carbon and turning it back into the atmosphere, so it could be released quite quickly.”
But even if the Cuvette Centrale isn’t drained completely, clearing the forests that exist on top of the peat would affect its ability to continue accumulating carbon, said Ian Lawson, a senior lecturer and paleoecologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and also a co-author of the 2017 Nature paper.
“If you clear the plants, that doesn’t mean you’ll keep the peat because you need to be continually adding biomass to stop it from degrading,” Lawson said. “If you take the forest cover off, then you are losing carbon, whatever you do.”
All of the evidence points to the need to apply the lessons learned in Southeast Asia.
“[I]t would be unwise to replicate the model of draining and cultivating peatlands that we have seen in some parts of the world, with all its attendant risks of fire, greenhouse gas emissions and haze,” Lera Miles, a principal specialist with the U.N. Environment Programme’s World Conservation Management Centre, said in an email to Mongabay.
Miles noted that Indonesia has set up a government agency with the express purpose of restoring its peatlands. But given the length of time it takes for peat to form, she added, “we need to do everything that we can to make sure that this pathway is avoided for other tropical peatlands.”
Lessons from Southeast Asia
Until recently, the loss of peatlands in Southeast Asia was something of a hidden casualty of the region’s oil palm boom. Much more apparent has been the loss of forests and vital biodiversity habitat along with them.
“The major threats to these [peatland] carbon stores come from unsustainable land use change, particularly drainage of peatlands for intensive agriculture, such as oil palm plantations,” Jiren Xu, a postdoctoral research associate in ecosystems modeling at the University of Glasgow, said in an email to Mongabay. “Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by peatland degradation [have] become the major carbon source in many peat-rich countries.”
“Those peatlands have suffered catastrophic carbon loss,” Andrew Baird, a professor of wetlands science at the University of Leeds, told Mongabay in an interview. A decade worth of development may wipe out 50 cm (20 in) of peat, he added. (Recall that a single hectare of peat only 30 cm deep has as much carbon as a hectare of undisturbed, primary tropical forest.)
The peatlands in many parts of Southeast Asia are “just leaking carbon at a pretty high rate into the atmosphere,” Baird added.
Then there are the fires in Indonesia that made headlines in 2015. As in many places around the world, farmers in Southeast Asia often use fire to clear land and prepare it for planting. But when the land itself is composed of carbon-rich peat, it can also catch fire, at times spreading more quickly than farmers anticipate. These fires fill the air with smoke, not to mention hundreds or thousands of years’ worth of accumulated carbon. Research suggests that the smoke caused 100,000 premature deaths across the region, and touched off the release of 15 million to 20 million metric tons of carbon daily at their peak — more than the amount produced every day by the United States.
But Indonesia is not the only place where lessons can be gleaned from the past, Lawson said.
“We are concerned because peatlands around the world have suffered,” he said. “I’m sitting here in eastern Scotland, and this is a landscape that should have lots of peatlands in it. But there aren’t many left. They’ve all been dug up and burnt and drained and literally just destroyed,” and it’s been happening for centuries, he added.
“It’s a resource that can be lost very easily,” Lawson said. “You don’t need high technology; we can [drain them] with windmills.”
Still, the governments are working to avoid what’s happened to peat in the world’s temperate regions and in Indonesia.
“We have all this knowledge now that we didn’t have,” Susan Page said.
In 2018, the Republic of Congo and the DRC joined Indonesia in signing the Brazzaville Declaration, representing a commitment to peatland protection and restoration based on what’s been learned from decades of logging and agriculture in peat-rich areas across Southeast Asia. Conservationists and scientists alike point to the agreement as a reason for optimism when it comes to the fate of the Cuvette Centrale.
Paludiculture — promise or pitfall?
In places like Indonesia, paludiculture is one of the options that has been discussed as a way to roll back the destruction of the peatlands — at least somewhat. It involves setting up agriculture plots or timber plantations atop peatlands without draining them completely. In theory, this practice could be something of a win-win, allowing agriculture or agroforestry to sustain local livelihoods while keeping enough water in the peat to secure the carbon contained within.
“Where peatlands have already been drained for agriculture or forestry, for the sake of the climate, the best option is to rewet them,” Lera Miles said. “If there is still a need to cultivate the land, paludiculture (wet agriculture or forestry) seems the logical way forward.”
In reality, however, growing trees for timber or crops for harvest in swampy conditions seems limited to specific cases and comes with its own set of complicating factors.
“I think it makes a lot of sense in a country like the U.K., where we’ve degraded 80% of our peatlands,” Mitchard said.
Paludiculture could also be helpful in parts of Indonesia that have already been drained or burned because of its potential to mitigate the loss of carbon.
“It’s easy to see some of these things working on a fairly small scale,” Mark Harrison, an ecologist and postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Exeter, told Mongabay in an interview.
Harrison studies peatlands, primarily in Southeast Asia. He pointed out that only certain plants and trees grow well in a flooded environment.
Paludiculture is “a huge change for farmers,” Miles said, “and if we’re serious about this transition, agricultural incentives will need to shift to encourage it,” Miles said. “However, I would certainly not recommend converting intact peatland to practice paludiculture.”
Reflooding once-drained peatland is a step in the right direction, Page said.
“Great,” she said, “less carbon emissions to the atmosphere.”
But, Page added, it also prevents minerals and nutrients from getting to the plants’ root systems as they would in drier soil. Then, farmers need more inorganic and organic fertilizers, which in turn lead to higher emissions of CO2 as well as other greenhouse gases like nitrous oxide.
All of the scientists Mongabay spoke with agree that paludiculture may have limited application as a restoration technique in a few circumstances. But profitable forestry or agriculture that maintains peat carbon stocks and allows it to accumulate at something approaching the natural rate isn’t yet possible on a large scale.
“It’s like chasing unicorns,” Page said. “Unicorns might exist, but we haven’t seen one yet.”
Nor does anyone advocate paludiculture as a sort of compromise in the Cuvette Centrale.
“The danger for the Congos is that people hear about this paludiculture [and say], ‘This is the answer,’” Page said.
What, then, is next for these nearly “pristine” peatlands, given their established importance to all of us?
A nature-based solution
Financing aimed at economic development in the DRC and the Republic of Congo from sources such as the Green Climate Fund and through mechanisms such as the United Nations REDD+ (short for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) is seen as one way to move forested countries toward their financial goals, while also keeping their forests standing.
Peatlands are also specifically mentioned in the 2015 Paris Agreement as a way to address climate change, and their restoration or protection is a pathway that an increasing number of countries around the world are pursuing.
Most of the signatories to the Paris accords have included nature-based solutions, such as peatland restoration, in their commitments to addressing climate change, known in the agreement as nationally determined contributions (NDCs), Jiren Xu said.
For the DRC’s part, President Félix Tshisekedi has committed to cutting his country’s carbon emissions by 17%, in addition to helping forests recover to get back to more than 60% forest cover by the end of the decade. Leaders also negotiated a $500 million deal with the Central Africa Forest Initiative that proponents say will protect the country’s forests and peatlands.
“The international community should help pay to protect the Congo Basin forests, but governments in the region must equally commit to keeping these peatlands and forests away from harmful industries,” RFUK’s Eisen said. He said that it appears as though the countries themselves haven’t fully incorporated the carbon value of the peatlands in their plans. “It seems like a missed opportunity that the Cuvette peatlands, one of the world’s most important carbon sinks, barely feature in the NDCs of DRC or [the Republic of Congo],” he added.
Denis Sonwa, a senior scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Cameroon, said this type of financing is critical for countries like the Republic of Congo and the DRC “so that they can be rewarded for the conservation measures they’ll be taking to protect these specific ecosystems.”
Environment minister Bazaiba said that protecting the peatlands was part of the “national vision.”
“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,” she told Mongabay.
But the promise of protection and leadership on the climate front are at odds with the move to end the DRC’s logging moratorium, which would risk the destruction of forests in the Congo Basin, conservation groups say.
Eisen said ending the moratorium was “incompatible with international commitments to protect this vital resource for future generations.”
“The focus must surely be on scaling back the industry, not expanding it,” he said.
That’s especially true for the peatlands, observers say. In the Republic of Congo, Congolaise Industrielle des Bois (CIB), a logging company certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, is reportedly operating on six concessions that contain peatland, according to FSC documents. CIB’s parent company is Singapore-based Olam, which produces a substantial share of the world’s food and industrial products, including palm oil.
The boundaries of the concessions date back to at least the early 2000s, said Steven Fairbairn, CIB’s head of external affairs, in an email, and about 21% of the concessions are peatland. But these areas are not at risk, he said.
“These areas have never been logged and are permanently protected from any logging and commercial development activities,” Fairbairn said. “We are committed to no conversion of peatlands of any depth,” which is among a number of land management guidelines laid out in Olam’s Living Landscapes Policy.
“Peatlands must permanently remain a ‘no go zone’ for any industrial activities,” Greenpeace Africa’s Betoko said. “The Congo Basin’s peatlands are often described as a ‘carbon bomb’ and that is for a good reason.”
More than 20 local and international environmental NGOs published a report in 2019 calling for the cessation of all such activities in the peatlands.
In the Republic of Congo, President Denis Sassou Nguesso signed a $65 million deal as part of the Central Africa Forest Initiative in 2019 that ostensibly would protect the peatlands from certain types of development. But oil concessions offered for tender on a government website overlap with significant parts of the country’s portion of the Cuvette Centrale, leading some observers to question whether the president’s intentions to protect the resource are sincere.
In a similar vein, the DRC recently opened nine plots for oil and gas exploration on its side of the peatlands.
Given the threats that the peatlands appear to face from the push for agriculture and extractive industries, scientists say it’s imperative to continue research that provides a better idea of not just the extent and carbon content of the Congo Basin’s peatlands, but also some sense of their fragility in the face of the kind of changes that agriculture or drilling would bring.
Right now, researchers don’t know how close these peatlands are to a tipping point. The Cuvette Centrale gets significantly less rainfall than peatlands in Southeast Asia and the Amazon. That may mean that, as the climate continues to warm, the shifting weather patterns that result may begin to dry out the peatlands. It could push them from being a sink for carbon to an emissions source. Currently, researchers are focused on examining the ancient peat from deep below the surface to tease apart the effects of past climate change — information that could help scientists determine how the peatlands will respond to current trends.
For example, a 2019 study in the journal Nature Climate Change revealed that the length of the dry season from June to August has been growing in the past three to four decades.
Andrew Baird and his colleagues are working on models to help make those predictions. He pointed out that the length of time throughout the year that rain falls is part of the equation, alongside the quantity.
“It’s not just a question of how much rain is coming in across the year,” Baird said. He said shorter rainy seasons, even if they are wetter, may not be sufficient to maintain the peat. But he also said these questions and many others remain unanswered, hence the need for research and modeling that will help unlock the secrets of the peatlands.
“We want to not just understand the system in its own right but how the system will interact with climate,” Baird said, “so how climate change will affect it and then how it will feed back into that?”
John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon
Dargie, G. C., Lewis, S. L., Lawson, I. T., Mitchard, E. T., Page, S. E., Bocko, Y. E., & Ifo, S. A. (2017). Age, extent and carbon storage of the central Congo Basin peatland complex. Nature, 542(7639), 86-90. doi:10.1038/nature21048
Jiang, Y., Zhou, L., Tucker, C. J., Raghavendra, A., Hua, W., Liu, Y. Y., & Joiner, J. (2019). Widespread increase of boreal summer dry season length over the Congo rainforest. Nature Climate Change, 9(8), 617-622. doi:10.1038/s41558-019-0512-y