In the first half of December, Mongbai published a four-part series on peatlands in the Congo Basin. Only in 2017 did a team of Congolese and British scientists discover that the sprawling wetland known as the Cuvette Centrale straddling the border between the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) actually contained a massive amount of peat. Their satellite mapping of the Earth revealed that these peatlands cover an area the size of England and are the largest and safest across the world’s tropics.
But how did they get there? Why are they so important? What does the future hold for the peatlands of the Congo Basin?
Our series investigates these questions in greater detail, leveraging ongoing research and scanning of threats that can disrupt, undermine, or even destroy this unique ecosystem. Here are 10 notes from our reporting.
1. The peatlands of the Congo Basin contain more than 30 billion metric tons of carbon.
For at least the past 10,000 years, bits of organic matter has accumulated in this part of Central Africa, layer upon layer. Water from surrounding streams and rivers and in the form of precipitation has constantly inundated the soil, slowing the creep into the decomposition that normally occurs in this part of the world’s second largest rainforest. In the process, the carbon that would have been released into the atmosphere remained locked underground. As a result, peatlands provide an invisible but crucial benefit by preventing this carbon from further warming the global climate.
The researchers calculate that peatlands contain about two-thirds as much carbon as above-ground trees in the entire Congo rainforest on only about 4% of the land area. 30 billion metric tons is roughly the same amount of carbon that the global economy released in three years.
2. The peatlands of Cuvette Central are also home to human communities.
People have lived in and around peatlands for centuries. They depend on these wetland forests for timber, medicine, and food from the fruit and fisheries found there, to name a few from the resources that peatlands provide. Despite – or perhaps in part because of – their use of forests, these communities seem to have done little to undermine the peatlands thus far. They are considered the safest of all the tropical regions of the world, and research is underway to understand how people in the region use them sustainably.
3. Demonstrate the wildlife, along with the diverse plant species, that inhabit the peatlands.
Peatlands are remote and difficult for humans to travel through. This has made the area a refuge for an impressive array of wildlife, and many threatened species. forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotischimpanzeeCaves Pan), bonobos (Pan Baniscus) and western lowland gorillas (gorilla gorilla gorilla) all lurk in peatland forests.
Surveys by University of Kisangani botanist Cornel Iwango and others have revealed an astonishing variety of plants as well. In just one section, Ewango and colleagues found 110 species. “And we’re still finding more,” he says.
4. But logging for industrial purposes, agriculture, and resource extraction can disrupt or undermine the peatlands of the Congo Basin.
As relatively pure, peatlands also appear in the development plans of the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Concessions for agriculture, logging, oil and gas cover 80% of the peatland area, according to the environmental NGO Greenpeace.
5. The prospect of oil can be a tempting way to boost the economies of the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Research conducted in 2019 indicated that peatlands may rest on top of a huge oil basin. Today, it is still not clear how much, but international oil companies and consulting firms are exploring the presence of deep-sea hydrocarbons. Some suggest that oil extraction may be possible with little disturbance in peatlands using techniques commonly associated with offshore drilling. But the danger to peatlands posed by the possibility of oil spills is an open question, and construction of the roads required to transport oil from peatlands can cause widespread damage to wetland forests.
6. Industrial and agricultural logging can lead to disaster for peatlands.
As Southeast Asia became saturated with oil palms in particular, as well as industrial cash crops such as rubber, producers turned their attention to Africa and other parts of the tropics in order to cultivate new lands. Scientists say clearing forests and draining peatlands from water to grow oil palms would be unwise. Large tracts of peat have been converted to industrial agriculture in Indonesia, and now they are adding warming carbon to the atmosphere rather than a safe reservoir for it. This practice has also destroyed the complex ecosystems that peatlands support.
7- The signing of the 2018 Brazzaville Declaration, which called for international cooperation to protect tropical peatlands, between Indonesia, the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has boosted the optimism of many scientists and conservationists.
The agreement paved the way for the Congolese to protect the peatlands of the Cuvette Centrale before they were degraded or destroyed. Lessons from Indonesia show that it is much easier to protect peatlands and the carbon they contain than to restore the entire wetland ecosystem, a process that can take hundreds to thousands of years. However, there are benefits to re-wetting former peatland areas, including stopping the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
The three countries, along with Peru, formed the Global Peatland Initiative to provide further support for protection and restoration.
8. Leaders in the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo say they need more international support to protect peatlands for the benefit of the entire world.
The United Nations and international NGOs are working on ways to finance economic development while encouraging countries like the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to protect their forests and peatlands. Initiatives like REDD+, an acronym for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries, can provide a path toward boosting countries’ investments in education, employment and health care while preserving the standing of forests and peatlands.
Under such schemes, it is important to ensure that the communities who live in these areas benefit and that their land rights are secure, said Joe Essen, chief executive of the Rainforest Foundation in the UK.
9. Scientists are not sure how rising temperatures will affect peatlands or what the broader consequences could be.
Scientists cannot yet fully predict the impact of climate change on peatlands. On the other hand, high levels of carbon dioxide responsible for global warming can promote plant growth and thus is one of the essential organic inputs into the peat system. On the other hand, changing weather patterns can tip the balance in the other direction. Research has shown that peatlands in the Congo Basin owe their existence in part to regional rainfall patterns. If climate change adapts to a longer rainy season, it could dry up the peatlands, pushing them toward becoming a net source of carbon dioxide.
10. Research continues in peatlands, hoping that learning more about the ecosystem’s past will tell us something about its future.
A growing team of scientists continues to question the inner workings of peatlands from every angle. Some research the ancient botanical history of peatlands, identifying new species of plants preserved in core specimens. Others are trying to build models that simulate peatland dynamics and their impact on the global carbon budget that can then feed into broader climate models. New social research has recently begun that aims to deconstruct the relationship between humans and peatlands. The ultimate goal is to better understand the role that peatlands will play today and in the future, not only in communities living nearby, but on a global scale.
To learn more about the research project, follow the researchers in real time on Twitter at Tweet embed.
Banner picture: A group of officials from the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the United Nations Environment Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations conducted a peatland restoration review in 2018. Photo by Ricky Martin/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
John Cannon He is an article writer with Mongabay. Find it on Twitter: Tweet embed
Dargie, G. C., Lewis, S. L., Lawson, IT, Mitchard, ET, Page, SE, Bocko, YE, & Ifo, SA (2017). Age, extent and carbon storage in the peatland complex of the Central Congo Basin. temper natureAnd 542(7639), 86-90. doi: 10.1038/nature21048
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