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Protecting the Peatlands: Congo’s Carbon Time Bomb

In 2017, a group of researchers discovered the world’s largest tropical peatland hidden in the heart of the Congo Basin (1). This area, named the Cuvette Centrale, hosts the greatest storage of carbon in Africa, with an estimated 30 billion tons of CO2 resting beneath the surface (1). Covering both the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo, the peatlands play a vital role in the fight against climate change. Although an intergovernmental agreement is in place to protect the peatlands, industrial interests leave the ecosystem and the future of the planet in a vulnerable state. 

Photo by Axel Fassio/CIFOR

What are peatlands?

Peatlands are a type of wetland ecosystem characterized by the accumulation of peat soil. This ecosystem can be found in almost every country, with peatlands covering 3% of the earth’s surface (2). While the appearance of a peatland may vary from a Scottish bog to an Indonesian swamp forest, this type of wetland contains peat soil made up of decayed vegetation. Water-logged conditions allow plants to accumulate, resulting in the formation of peat (3). Peat soil builds up over hundreds of years–researchers place the Congo peatland at over 10,000 years old–and grows several feet deep. Through photosynthesis, peatland plants containing significant amounts of carbon become locked away in the layers of peat soil. Drainage of the peatlands, by lack of rainfall or human activity, generates a release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (4).

Peatlands and Climate Change 

Peatlands store considerably more carbon than the world’s forests; if the Cuvette Centrale peatland were drained, the total of carbon emissions released would be the equivalent of three years’ worth of global fossil fuel emissions (4). According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 15% of the world’s peatlands have already been drained and account for nearly 6% of human-driven CO2 emissions every year (2). The significant amount of carbon stored in peatlands makes the ecosystem critical to climate change mitigation. Scientists estimate that if a third of the Congo peatlands were to burn, global temperatures would rise by 5 degrees Fahrenheit (5). 

Photo by Antonio Jordán/European Geosciences Union

Current Threats

         Deforestation, oil exploration, and agricultural practices threaten the Cuvette Centrale peatlands. The conditions found in the Congo peatlands, such as substantial sunlight and rainfall, make it ideal for agricultural development. In Indonesia, over 250,000 square miles of peatland have been drained and deforested for oil palm plantations (5). Palm oil plants grow naturally in the Congo Basin, putting the area at risk for similar industrial expansion and deforestation. Likewise, Congolese oil companies view the area as ripe for development, with one company claiming that the Cuvette Centrale contains hundreds of millions of barrels of oil (6). The Republic of Congo’s president, however, later released a statement that potential drilling sites in the region would not affect the peatlands. 

Peatlands policy: Is it enough?

In 2018, the DRC, Republic of the Congo, and Indonesia signed the Brazzaville Declaration of the Peatlands (7). The declaration commits these countries to the management and conservation of peatland areas. The following year, the Republic of Congo and the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI) negotiated a $65 million deal for forest protection (7). The deal quickly drew criticism from environmentalists, as many asserted it leaves the Cuvette Centrale open to oil exploration. An investigation led by the NGO Global Witness found that the amount of oil present in the Congo peatland may be exaggerated by oil companies (8). Additionally, the investigation linked potential corruption risks between the CEO of a prominent Congolese oil company and his ties to Congolese government officials, further muddying the attempts to protect the peatlands. Both the DRC and the Republic of Congo have signed oil exploration deals that could impact the Cuvette. The Congo peatlands will gain legal protection in 2025 under the deal negotiated between the Republic of Congo and CAFI (9). Until then, the fate of the Cuvette Centrale and the carbon time bomb it holds remains uncertain. 

Take Action

IDEAS for Us DRC leads tree planting initiatives and other eco-action projects to promote environmental sustainability. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and are crucial in combating climate change. To offset peatland CO2 emissions, carbon sequestration through reforestation offers a potential solution. Support our DRC branch by donating to our reforestation project or by subscribing to our newsletter.

To learn more about peatlands, stay informed through CongoPeat (https://congopeat.net/), the research team that discovered the Cuvette Centrale peatlands in 2017. Additionally, the Global Peatlands Initiative (http://www.globalpeatlands.org/), comprised of 35 international institutions, provides updates on peatland preservation around the world.

Sources:

  1. https://congopeat.net/
  2. https://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/peatlands-and-climate-change
  3. https://www.nature.com/articles/nature21048?error=cookies_not_supported&code=b1e47d27-d3eb-4c0d-a51b-a1ec30d2fc1d
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jan/11/worlds-largest-peatland-vast-carbon-storage-capacity-found-congo
  5. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2019/09/inside-search-for-africa-carbon-time-bomb-peatland/
  6. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/28/ridiculous-plan-to-drain-congo-peat-bog-could-release-vast-amount-of-carbon-aoe
  7. https://news.mongabay.com/2019/10/65-million-deal-to-protect-congos-forests-raises-concerns/
  8. https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/forests/what-lies-beneath/
  9. https://news.mongabay.com/2020/03/oil-exploration-at-odds-with-peatland-protection-in-the-congo-basin/