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The backwaters of tropical peatlands snake through river islets of ancient soil, plant matter that’s been decaying for hundreds or thousands of years. It seeps into the water to turn it a black so inky that if you put your hand just centimeters below the surface, it disappears entirely from view.
Pellucidity is rare in these wetland landscapes. In recent years, tropical peatlands have been figured among the most disproportionately important landscapes on the planet. Amazonian, Indonesian and Congo Basin peatlands together cover some 50 million hectares, with each hectare able to store up to 3,000 tons of carbon.
And yet, so little is known about them.
How waterlogged does that black soil need to be to sequester the carbon it’s supposed to; how does peat’s hydrology actually function? How do weather patterns such as El Niño affect the water regimes of peatlands in different locations? Into what climate equations do the chemical compositions of peat soils factor, and their age?
The peatlands in the Congo Basin known as the Cuvette Centrale – which spans the Republic of Congo (ROC) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and stores more carbon below ground than all the aboveground forests in the Congo Basin as a whole – were only discovered in 2012.
Tropical peatlands have become the rope in one of the biggest games of tug-of-war between the pull for development in the global South and the counter force: to heal and fiercely guard these landscapes that can vehemently fight against global warming and the dangers of climate change.
To get both sides to drop the rope and look at it instead as a tool that can tie to each of their goals, scientists have been urgently researching tropical peatlands to learn their similarities and differences and figure out how they work. A new special issue of the Springer journal Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change brings together the latest information with five studies in Indonesia, three from Peru and one from the Cuvette Centrale.
These findings are meant to inform policies and protect the landscapes not piecemeal but holistically around the world, by seeing governments work together on national peatland governance and incorporate them into global agendas, including nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement, nationally appropriate mitigation actions (NAMAs) and REDD+ programs.
“It is a living document, if you wish,” says Center for International Forestry Research principal scientist Daniel Murdiyarso, who led the creation of the special issue. “In the synthesis, we emphasize having South-South collaboration, in terms of learning from each other.”
Indonesia – for the better, but because of the worst – stands as something of the godfather of tropical peatland knowledge. The country’s peat fires came to a cataclysmal crux in 2015 but have been problematic since the 1980s when the spread of logging operations and the government’s Mega Rice Project deleteriously drained peatlands.
This has, positively, led to more research already conducted here than in other countries, and more political power put into preventing the recurrence of such disasters. The national Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) directly advises the president and aims to restore 2.4 million hectares of degraded peatlands by 2020. More recently, Indonesia is spearheading the International Tropical Peatland Center (ITPC), founded in partnership with the Congos, by opening an interim secretariat in Bogor, a city near Jakarta, as the world’s primary hub for research and policymaking on these landscapes.
“The level of degradation in Indonesia is catastrophic, but there is a political will to try and reverse the process, which is why Indonesia is so keen to share lessons to counterparts,” says Murdiyarso.
One of the special issue’s papers, whose lead author Erik Lilleskov is a research ecologist at the USDA Forest Service and co-editor of the issue, discusses how Peru seems to have a similar set of development policies to Indonesia in the late 20th century, “in regard to the lack of explicit legal or regulatory protection of peatlands from development.” Yet, Peru also has approximately 50 percent more of its peatlands under formal conservation status than the archipelago does, an “opportunity to follow a different trajectory than Indonesia.”
Peru’s main swath of peatlands sits east of the Andes Mountains in the Pastaza-Marañón river basin, forested primarily with the spindly M. flexuosa palm trees, their heads of thin fronds spikey as fork tines. But the soil here is eroding in parts, and the floristic composition of its trees and shrubs is also changing. A different paper led by wetland biochemist Rupesh Kumar Bhomia from the University of Florida says perhaps this is due to the winding flows of the region’s rivers, or because the protein-rich fruits of these trees see them heavily harvested by locals as food for themselves and their animals.
“Existing palm swamp forests and their peat deposits are an outcome of several dynamic and unpredictable processes that have been active for the past 1000s of years, and anthropogenic disturbances need to be minimized to maintain continuity in that process,” Bhomia’s paper states.
In the Cuvette Centrale, local people appear to be living harmoniously with the peatlands. “Although it is considered by many outsiders as a wilderness,” many people still reside in the Cuvette Centrale, says a paper led by the University of Leeds’ Greta Dargie, one of the scientists famous for first documenting these peatlands in 2012. These are mainly people of the Bantu ethnic group, who arrived in the last 2,000 years and subsist on fishing, small-scale farming of manioc and banana, and minimal raising of goats and chickens.
“From personal observations, the current impact of local residents on the peatland ecosystems is likely to be minor and relatively sustainable in its current form.”
Rather, socioeconomic development is the most pressing concern in the Congos, where approximately 29,000 square kilometers of the peatlands are concessions belonging to logging companies. A moratorium on logging in the DRC has prevented operations from commencing so far, but the government is considering lifting the freeze.
The DRC has also been planning hydrological dams since the 1950s, but the paper says it is difficult to know exactly how these dams would affect the peatlands’ hydrology. An increase in investment in African oil palm likely to occur in coming years draws the same nebulous conclusions.
“In the Cuvette Centrale, a hypothetical future situation with high commodity prices, improved road and river access to markets, higher temperatures and more frequent droughts, could replicate the conditions which led to the catastrophic peatlands fires seen in Indonesia,” Dargie’s paper concludes.
Oil and gas sit in huge reserves beneath Peru’s peatlands, threatening development here as well. Currently, few roads connect the Pastaza-Marañón region to the rest of the country, which has been a boon in keeping the peatlands isolated. But a recent declaration of a highway along the northern edge of the peatland block, linking it to coastal road networks, would make the landscapes far easier to access and exploit. The fact that Indonesia’s peatlands are coastal and well linked by roads and water to urban centers played a major role in their development and degradation.
If the oil and gas is to be extracted, Lilleskov’s paper says this would best be done through an ‘offshore inland development model’ that doesn’t increase easy connection or human migration to the peatlands. For example, helicopters could be used to transport the resources out.
The risks and impact of peat fires are also minimized if people and companies are kept at bay.
Peatlands, by nature, should never be dry. But if they are, they are enormously flammable; and because of peat soil’s depth, fires are difficult to extinguish once they’ve begun. Cash crop plantations replacing lush forests with water-intensive monoculture commodities that suck the moisture from the ground can see simple mishaps like a dropped cigarette or stray spark send enormous areas quickly up in flames, releasing carbon that’s been stored for centuries, if not millennia.
The occurrence of damaging fires has been far lower in Peru and the Cuvette Centrale than in Indonesia. This is certainly due to Indonesia’s peatlands being vastly more developed, but what scientists don’t yet know is the role of the weather in relation to fire’s likelihood. Peru’s peatlands, for example, have not appeared to burn more during El Niño events – which were a driver of Indonesia’s 2015 burning crisis – but it’s unclear how development could interact with changing weather patterns.
“We might speculate that human activity increases the probability of fire initiation, but spatiotemporal climatic variation likely determines their speed,” says Lilleskov’s paper about Peru. In the Cuvette Centrale, conflicting weather hypotheses leave future rainfall a big question mark, some predicting a decrease (which would cause drought and a heightened risk of fire) and others an increase.
The end of this year will see presidential elections held in the DRC, and next year, in both the ROC and in Indonesia. This gives Murdiyarso, who has spent the bulk of his career working closely with the Indonesian government to inform environmental policy, cause to worry that the current goodwill between the governments and toward the landscapes might not continue.
“The way to motivate policy really is the global agenda, having the high carbon reserves in unique ecosystems be protected and significantly contribute to climate change mitigation,” he says. “But that’s not enough if you bring politicians into the global agenda. They want to have a say, or a narrative at least, in regard to their national agenda.”
But, he caveats, “policymakers seem open to learning as soon as possible,” and the new tropical peatlands center in Bogor along with the increasing amount of global research landing on the desks of decision-makers are reasons to stay optimistic.
“Peatlands give a golden opportunity for nature-based solutions. We are really in the frontier of this process.”