To protect the Congolese peatlands, protect local land rights (commentary)

Commentary by Bart Crezee

  • In 2017, researchers reported the existence of the largest tropical peatland complex in the world in the Congo Basin.
  • In early 2018, a team of scientists, including the author, traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to probe deeper into the peatlands, which cover an area about the size of England and hold some 30 billion tons of carbon.
  • Around the same time, the DRC government has awarded logging concessions that overlap with the peatlands, in violation of a 16-year-old moratorium on logging.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

LOKOLAMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — Sometime in March, I found myself trudging forward in a remote swamp in the heart of the Congo rainforest. As I worriedly tried to keep my boots from getting sucked in by the soft, brown mud, I wondered how far we could go on. It was our final day. In the two weeks prior, our team of British and Congolese researchers, together with men from the local village of Lokolama, had cut a 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) trail into this dense, swampy forest. It had proved to be painstakingly slow work. Some days were spent walking up and down the trail for up to eight hours, which only left us with a few hours of sunlight to actually work. But that day, upon reaching the furthest point yet, we tried to push for a few hundred meters more with the little light that was left — all to answer one big question: How much mud were we actually walking on?

Lokolama, a small, remote village in the Équateur province of northwestern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), made headlines last year when researchers from the University of Leeds in the U.K., together with campaigners from Greenpeace, discovered some very deep peat deposits near the village. Even on the outer edge of the swamp, the team found more than 3 meters (10 feet) of peat under their feet. Their measurements confirmed that the largest tropical peatland complex in the world, first described in early 2017 in the journal Nature, extends all the way from the neighboring Republic of Congo into the DRC. Hidden from the outside world by dense forest cover, vast stocks of carbon are buried underground in the form of partially decomposed plant matter. The peatland, roughly the size of England, is estimated to hold 30 billion metric tons (33 billion tons) of carbon. That is equivalent to three years of global fossil fuel emissions, or all of the carbon stored in all of the trees found in the entire Congo Basin rainforest.

The team traveled by dugout canoe up the Ikelemba River, a tributary of the Congo River, to reach one of their field sites. Image by Bart Crezee/University of Leeds.

At the University of Leeds, we wondered whether these discoveries were just the beginning. If we could already find 3 meters of peat just inside the forest, how much more could we find deep in the swamp’s interior? So earlier this year, we returned for three months of fieldwork, probing farther into the peatland than before. Already after 1 kilometer (0.6 miles), we measured 4.5 meters (15 feet) of peat. Four kilometers down the trail, our measurements had plumbed to more than 5 meters (16.5 feet). And when we added those last few hundred meters on our final day in the swamp, we found possibly 6 meters (19.5 feet) of peat underground.

I say possibly because, to know the exact peat depths, we need to await ongoing laboratory analysis of peat samples that we brought back to the U.K. But what we do know so far is that this peatland in the DRC becomes much deeper, much quicker than across the border in the Republic of Congo. This is crucial information because it means that the peatland might hold even more carbon than previously thought.

The peatlands cover both the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Image courtesy of Dargie et al., 2017.

Exactly how much carbon depends on the full extent of the peatland. To get a better idea of the peatland’s distribution, we also visited three other locations in the DRC, spread out along several eastern tributaries of the Congo River. Up to that point, only large peat basins in between the bigger rivers had been studied. We found that in the DRC, extensive peat deposits that reach to a depth of at least 4 meters (13 feet) exist in the river floodplains as well. At all the sites that we visited, we found peat exactly where it was predicted to be by the 2017 Nature study. Some of these sites were dozens of kilometers away from Lokolama and hundreds of kilometers away from the initial research sites in the Republic of Congo, leaving little doubt that the largest tropical peatland complex in the world is indeed unimaginably vast.

Threats to peatlands

Yet while I was wading through the mud, the future of these very forests was on the table in Kinshasa and Brazzaville, the respective capitals of the DRC and the Republic of Congo. In early February, the DRC’s environment minister, Amy Ambatobe, awarded more than half a million hectares of illegal logging concessions to two Chinese-owned companies, which partly overlap with the newly discovered peatlands. It was a clear breach of the country’s 16-year-old moratorium on new logging concessions. Later in February, the government signaled its intention to lift the moratorium altogether. The announcements led to widespread concern among conservation groups and human rights activists.

Below-ground peat cores were taken with a metal soil corer and subdivided into five samples of 10 centimeters (4 inches) each for further laboratory analysis. Image by Bart Crezee/University of Leeds.

At the moment, about 29,000 square kilometers (11,200 square miles) of the total peatland area officially sits within a logging concession, although actual logging activities in these swamp forests have so far been limited due to their inaccessibility and associated high costs. However, there is ample evidence from across the tropics that once selective logging activities begin, they will trigger a chain of detrimental events. Road construction will allow access to otherwise remote forest areas, resulting indirectly in further forest degradation and ultimately in the clearing of the forest for large-scale agriculture. In other words, selective logging can act as a precursor to agriculture plantations for crops such as oil palm, and thus leads to large-scale deforestation.

It is unclear how the roads themselves will impact the critical hydrological balance on which the peat swamps’ very existence depends. But a new study published in the journal Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change in January 2018 points to the likelihood that roads act as barriers to water flow. These blockages can cause major disruptions in the form of flood erosion or drying out of the peatlands. The paper also warns against a future scenario in which high commodity prices (particularly for palm oil), improved road and river access to markets, together with higher temperatures and more frequent droughts due to climate change, could work together to replicate the conditions that led to the catastrophic peatland fires seen in Indonesia during the 1997 and 2015 El Nino events.

As a case in point, another report, aptly titled “The Coming Storm,” came out as well while I was trekking my way through the swamps. In the report, the London-based investigative non-profit Earthsight showed how one of the Republic of Congo’s largest logging firms acquired a license for an oil palm plantation of 4,700 square kilometers (1,815 square miles), which largely overlaps with peatlands in the Republic of Congo. The case was fraught with illegalities, and it highlights the close connections between logging and palm oil companies. The report warns that thousands more hectares of forest are at risk of being lost in the Congo Basin due to improper forest governance and a lack of transparency.

Tropical peatlands can only form in swamp forests that are permanently flooded. Image by Bart Crezee/University of Leeds.

Forest guardians

This “coming storm” doesn’t have to be. The presence of peatlands with vast quantities of carbon could attract international climate change funding for the Congo rainforest. While there is a lot of discussion on the effectiveness and risks of individual measures, it is clear that results-based payments in the form of REDD+, voluntary carbon offset schemes, or financial support through the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund could prove crucial in protecting the Congo Basin’s peatlands.

However, these efforts will only succeed with a participatory approach that fully includes local communities and indigenous peoples. Recent research by the Rights and Resources Initiative demonstrated that the DRC’s first REDD+ initiatives in Mai-Ndombe province do not adequately respect the rights of local peoples. What is more, they are actually failing to protect their forests. The report’s author argues for giving local communities the opportunity to be REDD+ holders themselves and to let them benefit directly from REDD+ money. For this strategy to work, these communities will have to obtain secure land rights to their forests, which research has shown to be one of the most cost-effective measures to prevent deforestation. The DRC’s Forest Code, the country’s main legislation regulating how it uses its forests, gives communities the chance to secure legal rights to 500 square kilometers (193 square miles) of forest that they already traditionally own, yet few land titles have been granted so far. Now, it is up to the DRC government to put words into action and deliver on these rights.

Raphia palm species dominate some of the peat swamp forests. Image by Bart Crezee/University of Leeds.

Fortunately, when I returned from the forest, I was greeted by some good news as well. Ambatobe, the same DRC minister who had illegally granted logging concessions just a few weeks before, had just signed a historic agreement with his counterparts from the Republic of Congo and Indonesia. In the Brazzaville Declaration, backed by U.N. Environment Programme and the Global Peatland Initiative, the three environment ministers pledged to work together to protect the Congolese peatlands from unregulated land use to prevent their drainage and degradation.

However, the government of the DRC has not yet moved to cancel the illegally awarded logging concessions. The Brazzaville agreement also does not explicitly mention the land rights of local communities that live in these areas — communities like those in Lokolama, who know the swamp forests best. Without them, I would never have been able to study the deep peatlands that can be found in the DRC. And without a government that fully respects their rights, these forest guardians will not be able to continue to protect the peatlands they so depend on.

Source: Mongabay

Related to SDG 15: Life on land, SDG 13: Climate action and SDG 10: Reduced inequalities

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