New pact to conserve Congo Basin peatlands from risk of unsustainable exploitation

Yaekama, Democratic Republic of Congo. CIFOR/Axel Fassio
Julie Mollins
24 March 2018

BONN, Germany (Landscape News) — A new international agreement aims to protect a massive tract of environmentally sensitive peatlands in the Congo Basin from unsustainable exploitation that could otherwise potentially lead to the release of the equivalent of three years of global greenhouse gas emissions, U.N. Environment (UNEP) reports.

The agreement, signed by Congo Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia in Congo Republic’s capital Brazzaville establishes a foundation for cooperation on planned agriculture, oil and gas mining, and logging projects in the Cuvette Centrale region, the world’s largest tropical peatlands.

“Keeping these crucially important carbon stocks from being destroyed and from releasing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere is really important for the global goals of keeping global warming below 2.0 or even 1.5 degrees Celsius,” said Christopher Martius, principal scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), a partner in the Global Peatlands Initiative (GPI), which helped establish the agreement.

“It maybe even more centrally important for the livelihoods of the people living in the region, and for biodiversity and hydrology in the Congo Basin. If administered and enforced adequately, the protection of Congo peatlands will be a hugely important achievement for the region. That Indonesia stands ready to support the effort through shared knowledge is an excellent case of South-South collaboration and learning,” Martius said, adding that it is an excellent advancement for the protection of the Congo Basin Peatlands.

An area the size of England, the peatlands are comprised of layers of decomposed organic material built up over thousands of years. They are home to unique plants and wildlife. Drainage of the fragile wetland ecosystem can lead to devastation due to increased vulnerability to fire and other threats. The declaration  recognizes the importance of good land use and infrastructure planning that takes the nature of peatlands into account, according to a statement from UNEP.

“Peatlands have grown over the course of 10,000 years, and they can be destroyed in a matter of days if the land use is not sensitive to the nature of the peatlands,” said Tim Christophersen, head of the Freshwater, Land and Climate Branch at UNEP. 

The pact was signed on the sidelines of the Third Partners Meeting of the GPI this week opened by Erik Solheim, head of UNEP and Prime Minister Clément Mouamba of the Republic of Congo. The initiative seeks to save peatlands and protect the carbon they store.

“Conservation and development can go hand in hand,” said Erik Solheim, head of UNEP. “We will manage to conserve the peatlands if we put people’s needs first. We can help countries to better understand the unique nature of the peatlands, and plan very carefully for any potential use.”

The joint south-south development collaboration between Indonesia and the countries of the Congo Basin was forged in part because Indonesia is the country with the most experience on peat management issues.

“Indonesia has extensive experience in managing tropical peatlands, both in positive and negative terms,” said Siti Nurbaya, minister of environment of forests of Indonesia. “We are keen to share our experience with the Congo Basin and other countries through South-South Cooperation. The main peatland management principle is to keep the peatlands wet.”

The Cuvette Centrale peatland was recently mapped by an international team of scientists, and findings were detailed in the 2017 “Smoke on Water” report released at the Global Landscapes Forum conference in December in Bonn, Germany.

“Destroying the peatlands would be a grave assault on the Paris Agreement and the climate,” said Arlette Soudan-Nonault, Congo Republic’s minister of environment and tourism, referring to the U.N. climate agreement to keep global emissions in check signed in Paris in 2015.”We need to find sustainable alternatives, and traditional management practices are important. We are taking action with the Brazzaville Declaration signed today.”

Worldwide, peatlands face threats from agricultural, forestry and development activities, which often lead to drainage and burning believed to cause up to 5 percent of annual carbon dioxide emissions.

Although peatlands extend over only 3 percent of the world’s land mass, they contain as much carbon as all terrestrial biomass and twice as much as all forest biomass. About 15 percent of known peatlands have already been destroyed or degraded.

 

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