by Justin Catanoso

  • The presence of the world’s biggest tropical peatland was recently confirmed in Central Africa. It is the size of England and straddles the border between the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Republic of Congo (ROC).
  • However, conservationists and scientists worry it may be at risk from logging and development. They caution its destruction could release “vast amounts” of carbon emissions. Others say the threats are overblown.
  • Conservation leaders and representatives gathered this week at COP23 in Bonn, Germany, say protections could exist through REDD+ projects that could give local communities management rights and provide financial incentives for leaving the peat forest intact.

BONN, Germany – A few weeks ago, international scientists, government officials and forest advocates visiting a remote community in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) confirmed the presence of one of the world’s largest and most important carbon sinks – a vast and deep peatland the size of England.

Here at the 23rd United Nations Climate Summit, COP23, where European and African nations gave presentations over the past two weeks regarding the overlooked importance of peatlands for carbon sequestration, recent word of the huge finding on the border of DRC and the Republic of Congo made the rounds.

“It’s phenomenal and it’s incredibly important,” said Bronson Griscom, director of forest science for The Nature Conservancy. “Most forests max out when it comes to carbon stocks. But wetlands and peatlands don’t max out. They keep storing carbon in the soil, decade after decade, century after century. These are the most carbon dense systems on earth. In terms of a hotspot for conservation – biodiversity and carbon storage – it’s a no brainer to protect it.”

That, of course, is the biggest concern now that this 155,000 square kilometers of peatland has been located in two poor African countries desperate for development.

The recently discovered peatland is believed to be the largest tropical peatland in the world. Image courtesy of Dargie et al., 2017.

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 here at COP23.

Protection a challenge but possible

Floribert Botamba, a World Wildlife Fund project coordinator for REDD+ projects in DRC, said in an exclusive interview with Mongabay that he believed the enormous peatland in the province of Équateur qualifies for protection. However, he downplayed its threats.

“People think there is a risk from the logging activities, but the peatland is in a swamp area,” Botamba said. “To log in a swamp area costs a lot, so the risk is a little bit lower than if it was in a dry area.”

The risk, though, still exists. And while swampy areas may be costly to log, there is precedent for peatland development in other places such as Indonesia where massive draining of peat swamps for plantations led to the country’s 2015 haze crisis. The devastating months-long event is blamed for the deaths of as many as 100,000 people and released 15 to 20 million tons of carbon per day – exceeding the average daily emissions of the entire U.S. economy.

“Peatlands are really good at holding carbon over a long time,” said Jason Funk, associate director of land use with the Center for Carbon Capture. “But when those areas are disturbed, all that carbon can be released very quickly. And because it’s been building up for thousands of years, it can be vast amounts of emissions.”

Peatlands can be converted for human use by digging drainage canals. Photo taken in Indonesia.

Once drained and dry, peat is highly combustible. And once ignited, fires on peatlands can be difficult or impossible to control. Photo taken in Indonesia.

With global carbon emissions set to hit an all-time high this year through energy generation, the transportation sector and deforestation, conservationists say clearing of the peatland could thwart efforts to reduce emissions and slow the rate of global warming.

“If folks got in there and started disturbing that area in DRC, the carbon could be released, and it could turn to methane, which is far worse than CO2,” Funk said. “In Indonesia, a similar thing happened. Peatlands were seen there as wastelands. No one had title to them or was doing anything on the land. When there was pressure to grow palm oil, that’s where it went. And the emissions were tremendous.”

Griscom at The Nature Conservancy said often on lands filled with carbon and natural resources, the argument for protection loses out to job creation and company profits.

“But when you are talking about tropical peat systems,” he said, “it’s one of the few cases where it’s very hard to see a better use of that land than its natural state – given the incredible ecosystem services provided by that natural system.”

Botamaba with WWF said there is a possible way to protect the peatlands in DRC while providing opportunities for the people who live around them.

Community rights and REDD+

“The community there needs land rights,” Botamaba said. “The province needs to give them land rights through the community forest process. The community can request part of the forest block to be managed by themselves. You make that request from the province, then the national ministry will evaluate the request. After that, the provincial governor will decide. That’s a long process. But we [WWF] are doing that in other communities and we will help in this [peatland] area, too.”

Given his expertise, Botamba said he believes the peatland could possibly qualify for REDD+ financial incentives.

“In the REDD process, we have five principles in which to qualify for funds: climate, biodiversity, community rights, livelihood and finance. To do a REDD program, you have to make sure you include all five.

“If you do community forest management, you improve the climate by holding carbon. You increase the biodiversity because most of the wren population in the country is in that area. If you are paying the community to take care of such an area without disturbing it, you are improving their livelihood.

“And by going through the community forest process, you improve the land rights and that goes toward community rights. Ideally, logging won’t appear in that area because you have the rights. It has to be a transformational opportunity that will bring other finance. All of this is possible with a place and project like this.”

African dwarf crocodiles (Osteolaemus tetraspis) have a range that comprises the peatland, and are listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN.

The big question, Botamba agreed, is money. Will these peatlands actually qualify for REDD+ financial incentives, and if so, how much and when will it received? If it doesn’t qualify, will private donors step forward to help preserve this enormous carbon sink and keep the community or province from monetizing the land for logging or extraction?

“It’s a good thing to find a new thing, but who is ready to support it, finance it?” Botamba asked. “And how can money be used to help improve the country and the community with green development instead of regular development like building roads for logging that harms the environment?”

Daniel Blattner, a former logger turned environmental entrepreneur from the DRC, said he is eager to help identify the resources, like REDD+, to protect the newly identified peatlands.

“That’s why I came to COP23,” he said in an interview with Mongabay. “We have millions of tons of carbon without a market for it. We are in the process of converting our REDD carbon tonnage to ‘jurisdictionally nested REDD’ projects so that they will be able to be sold in the compliance market. Right now, though, the price of carbon is low and the market isn’t very robust. We hope that will change.”


Originally posted on Mongabay.