Our planet’s peatlands: On the agenda at last?

Measuring peat degradation in Peru. Kristell Hergoualc'h, CIFOR

They’re brackish and swampy, with little of the aesthetic appeal of a lush rainforest or a pristine coral reef. Perhaps that’s why we’ve taken so long to give peatlands – wetlands that produce peat soil from decaying organic matter – the attention they deserve.

Viewed for centuries simply as wastelands, many of the world’s peatlands have already been drained for agriculture – particularly commodity crops such as oil palm – or destroyed through mining activity.

But in recent years, we’ve learned that these unpretentious ecosystems play a critical role in climate change mitigation. As well as harboring unique biodiversity and helping to regulate water and control pollution, peatlands are “the world’s heavy-duty storage for carbon,” said Monique Barbut, Executive Secretary for the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, at the recent Ramsar Convention on Wetlands’ COP13 in October this year. On average, peatlands hold around five times the carbon than a tropical forest stores in its biomass, and sometimes up to 20 times, depending on their depth.

So while they make up only 3 percent of global land area, peatlands at present are stashing away an estimated 30 to 40 percent of global carbon, which is approximately twice the stocks of global forests. This means the stakes for protecting these ecosystems are particularly high, because when they’re degraded or destroyed, greenhouse gas emissions skyrocket.

That fact hit global media in 2015, when land-conversion fires raged across peatlands in several provinces of Indonesia. The blazes shrouded parts of the country along with Singapore and Malaysia in haze, hospitalizing half a million people and costing the country USD 16 billion. They also emitted around 1.7 billion tons of carbon, a sum equivalent to Brazil’s annual emissions.

The fires were particularly extreme that season but have occurred every year in the region since the 1980s as a result of deleterious ‘slash and burn’ clearance method used on peatlands and forests to make way for agriculture. Dried, degraded peatlands are highly flammable. And because of the peat’s depth, the fires are difficult to extinguish and can smolder for weeks on end.

Since 2015, the Indonesian government has made considerable steps to protect their remaining peatlands, which remain some of the world’s largest. It has founded a national Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) to restore around 2.4 million hectares of degraded peatlands across seven provinces by 2020. Slash-and-burn tactics have been banned across the board, as has the practice of converting peatland to agriculture. The government is also working with rural communities to prevent fires and encourage sustainable management through a ‘three R’ approach: rewetting, revegetation and revitalization.

The government is also deploying new technology such as the UN-backed Hazegazer tool to analyze and respond to fire and haze crises more quickly and effectively. However, the fires have not stopped igniting in the years since, and their presence during the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, despite concerted prevention efforts, suggests more action is needed.

Elsewhere in the world, peatlands are beginning to make headlines too. Peru has plenty of peat in its share of the Amazon basin, but reports show it’s under threat from illegal gold-mining, peat extraction and drainage for agriculture. What’s worse, recent studies revealed that even if the peatlands are protected, under expected future climactic conditions they might lose more carbon than they sequester.

Until recently, it was thought that South America was the most peat-rich continent, but a vast expanse of peatlands called the Cuvette Centrale was discovered last year in the Congo Basin, which holds a third of the world’s currently-known tropical peat. The peatlands span 145,500 square kilometers and are estimated to store 30.6 petagrams of carbon – roughly equivalent to 20 years of the United States’ carbon emissions. The area has been largely undisturbed for the last 10,000 years, but is now facing new threats as mining companies eye it up for exploitation.

The International Tropical Peatland Center (ITPC) was launched in Jakarta in October this year. It was founded by member states Indonesia, the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), alongside an impressive lineup of international research and funding partners. The new institution represents an important opportunity for South-South collaboration, better research, policy integration, and financing for protection and restoration. It’s also demonstrative of the momentum that seems finally to be gathering around peatland protection.

“Every inch of peatlands we restore to health is a big environmental win,” said Barbut, “and aligning our work will be critical for success in making degraded lands liveable and resilient to future shocks.”