- Scientists recently discovered the world’s biggest tropical peatland in the Congo Basin rainforest of Central Africa. The peatland straddles the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo.
- Roughly the size of England, the massive peatland is estimated to contain more than 30 billion metric tons of carbon — equivalent to two years of global fossil fuel emissions.
- When the scientists went back to investigate the peatland further, they discovered the peat along its edges is deeper than they thought. This means it may contain more peat — and, thus, more carbon — than they originally thought.
- The scientists are racing to learn more about the peatland as loggers move to fell and drain the forests above it to make way for roads and developments like palm oil plantations. Meanwhile, local communities are hoping for greater protection of the region as government officials try to drum up more support for conservation initiatives at this week’s UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany.
Lokolama barely registers on atlases and maps. The small Pygmy village, home to a few hundred people, lies deep in the Congo Basin rainforest 48 kilometers (30 miles) south of the equator. It has a dilapidated church that doubles as a primary school, a single television set, a few rice and vegetable fields, and a dirt track that is impassable when it rains.
But last week the remote community in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was put on the world map when international scientists, government officials and forest campaigners from three continents camped for two nights on its edge in order to conduct research and confirm the presence of one of the world’s most important carbon sinks.
Fieldwork in the swamps of the Cuvette Centrale region in the neighboring Republic of Congo (ROC), and four years of analysis of satellite imagery by Leeds University scientists Simon Lewis and Gretta Dargie revealed that Lokolama sits on the edge of what is now believed to be the world’s biggest tropical peatland. Their study mapping the extent of the peatland was published in the journal Nature earlier this year.
The recently discovered peatland is believed to be the largest tropical peatland in the world. Image courtesy of Dargie et al., 2017.
The newly discovered peat deposits lie below the vast swamp that begins just a few hundred meters from Lokolama and stretch nearly 322 kilometers (200 miles) north and both sides of the Congo River. Covering an area of around 155,000 square kilometers (59,800 square miles), the peatland is around the size of England. Lewis and Dargie estimate it may store 30.6 billion metric tons of carbon, equivalent to two years of global fossil fuel emissions.
Their discovery has been welcomed by scientists, environmentalists, governments and local communities. They say that the peatland’s huge store of carbon increases the urgency to protect its overlying rainforest, and could also give two of the poorest countries in the world access to global climate funds.
Deeper than expected
Peat forms in the tropics over thousands of years because plant matter like leaves and roots cannot decompose in permanently waterlogged ground. It is a carbon storage powerhouse, sequestering up to 20 times more carbon than other types of rainforest soil.
Despite its vast size, the peatland shared between the DRC and ROC was barely known to science even five years ago. Now, scientists are racing to learn more about it as loggers move to fell and drain the forests above it to make way for roads and developments like palm oil plantations.
“We know that this vast new ecosystem exists; now we’d like to know how it works,” said Lewis, who with Dargie and Congolese botanist Corneille Ewango went to Lokolama to take samples from the forest floor to gauge the depth of the peat.
After two days of probing, the three scientists announced that the peat was 3.7 meters (12 feet) deep at the peatland’s edge — nearly as deep as its center in the ROC. This could mean there is much more peat than was thought, but more field research is needed to know for certain.
“It is much deeper than we expected so close to the swamp edge,” Lewis said. “It confirms the satellite maps and models and shows the need to do more research in DRC. We now need to spend more time on the ground to get more data.”
The scientists are hoping to learn more than just how deep the peat is. Even basic information about the formation and nature of the peatland is lacking, and they say its carbon storage capacity needs to be investigated more thoroughly.
“There are so many questions still to answer,” Dargie said. “We don’t know how the hydrology of the swamps works or where the water comes from. We suspect it comes from rainfall but don’t know the depth of the peat deposits, or how much methane and CO2 they hold. We think, but we don’t know, that these deposits [in the DRC] are more carbon rich, but less deep than those north of the river [in the ROC].”
Lewis, a professor of global change science, wants to raise around $5 million to research the peatlands more fully. He says time is of the essence.
“This is a precious moment because the peatlands are practically intact. They are so vulnerable to logging, roads, large-scale agriculture,” he said.
Lewis said he and his team would like to involve paleoecologists and climatologists in the next round of research, as well as DRC universities and local PhD students.
“Peat is a record of what has happened and they could build a mathematical model of how it has developed over 10,000 years and then predict its future with different climates and temperatures.”
More peatland, more protection?
The discovery has also excited the DRC government. Under constant pressure from environmental groups like Greenpeace and the Rainforest Foundation in Britain to better protect the second-largest rainforest in the world, after the Amazon, the revelation that some of its remotest lands are vital to the global effort to avoid climate change is a source of national pride and gives the country added leverage in ongoing climate change negotiations.
A proposal to protect a much smaller area of Peruvian Amazon peatland has already attracted attention from the UN’s Green Climate Fund. However, a DRC government official told Mongabay that a transboundary application by the DRC and ROC to protect and sustainably develop their more extensive peatlands could attract much more money from conservation groups, governments and the UN.
As a measure of the peatland’s importance to the DRC, President Joseph Kabila last week sent Joseph Katenga, his forests adviser, to Lokolama with Greenpeace campaigners and the scientists. Within days, Environment Minister Amy Ambatobe proposed setting up an official unit to oversee future management of the peatland.
“The management of the peatland will become very important. It will determine how [it] will be managed and who would be involved,” Ambatobe said. “This work is to be done with technical partners and donors, civil society and local community.”
Meanwhile, in the Republic of Congo, the government has said it plans to extend the area of protected swamp by expanding the Lac Tele Community Reserve by up to 50,000 square kilometers (19,300 square miles).
But protection alone is not enough, Ambatobe warns. He said it must be balanced with responsible development that will help ensure local communities aren’t adversely affected.
“When we talk about protecting forest, we should not only talk about climate change; but also about protecting the forest for the benefit of communities [who] live in the forest,” Ambatobe said.
The structure of the management unit has already been established, according to Ambatobe, and it will be presented at the 2017 UN Climate Change Conference (COP23) taking place this week in Bonn, Germany. But he and Katenga stress that funding is still needed to make it functional.
“This is very important to us. But it all comes down to money,” Katenga said. “We need partners. Its existence can change everything.”
Illegal logging and other threats
All central African countries have laws protecting their forests and peatlands. However, logging companies working in remote locations commonly bribe authorities and fell forests at will. Greenpeace, which identified several illegal logging operations in 2016, doubts whether the DRC government has the resources or ability to protect its peatland.
“There is a huge lack of transparency and accountability,” says Raoul Iyaba, Greenpeace Africa coordinator. “I would say that all the concessions that include peat lands are illegal.”
The DRC government, backed by the French Development Agency (AFD), is currently seeking to lift a 15-year moratorium on new logging concessions and increase the pace of commercial logging.
This, say Greenpeace and other environmental groups, directly threatens the just-discovered peatland. According to the Rainforest Foundation U.K. (RFUK), most of the DRC’s logging concessions are illegal and many overlap the peat swamp forest. The organization warns that if the moratorium were lifted, it would open more than 10,000 square kilometers (3,860 square miles) of forest to logging. And if this area is logged, the RFUK estimates it could release around 2.8 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere.
Greenpeace says around half of the DRC’s currently allocated logging concessions are in breach of the law and is calling for them to be shut down and returned to the state.
“Legally, forestry concessions contracts are automatically terminated if, within four years of its signature, the concession does not have a management plan approved,” said Matt Daggett, Greenpeace International forest campaigner. “This has been extended by one year, but in March 2017, 29 out of 57 had exceeded their deadline.”
But not all see logging as incompatible with conservation of the DRC’s forests. The Norwegian government maintains legal commercial logging can go hand in hand with protection of the peatlands, and that banning logging would not be enough to stop it.
“It would be ideal if the banning of commercial logging was sufficient to save DRC’s forests,” the Norwegian government said in a recent statement. “However, according to the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), an estimated 90% of all logging occurs illegally in the informal sector outside of the logging concessions.
“How can DRC, a poor nation abundant with natural resources, meet its growing demand for timber, food and charcoal in a sustainable manner, short of importing expensive wood from Europe? A solution must be comprehensive and include efforts against illegal logging while simultaneously promoting sustainable forestry.”
Norway is committing $200 million in funding to the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI), which seeks to protect the region’s rainforest and is backed by the governments of the EU, U.K., Brazil and other countries. However, the CAFI has come under fire by conservation organizations like the RFUK and Greenpeace, which say it is promoting the establishment of more logging concessions on DRC peatland.
“We urge [the DRC] government not to issue logging concessions which have peatland areas inside,” said Greenpeace’s Daggett. “If they are destroyed as a result of land use change or drainage, the carbon would be released as billions of [metric tons] of CO2 into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.”
For Lokolama and other communities living close to the peatland, the discovery of a colossal carbon sink on their doorstep offers some hope of much-needed development and recognition of their land rights.
“We protect the forest and depend on the swamp for fish and fuel,” said Lokolama community spokesperson Valentin Egobo. “We had no idea that the peat deposits were there, but as indigenous people, peatlands are part of our heritage and their discovery for the world to see represents a great hope for future generations.
“We hope our government will support us in our role as guardians of this ancient forest and provide us with the needed support to safeguard peatlands for our children and for the world.”
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