- Officials from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Republic of Congo visited Indonesia recently to see firsthand the country’s experience with managing tropical peatlands.
- The three countries have committed to joint efforts to study and conserve peat forests, particularly in the Congo Basin.
- Protecting peat is seen as a crucial move in the fight against climate change, given the huge amounts of greenhouse gases locked in peat soils.
JAKARTA — Central African countries are taking a lesson from the experiences of Indonesia, suffering from one of the world’s highest deforestation rates, as they look to protect their own tropical peat forests.
Environmental officials from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Republic of Congo visited Indonesia recently to learn how the Southeast Asian country was managing its peat forests, which account for 36 percent of the world’s tropical peatlands.
Arlette Soudan-Nonault, the Republic of the Congo’s minister of tourism and environment, and José Ilanga Lofonga, the DRC’s director-general of forestry and sustainable development, said they had learned much from their visit to peat forests in the Bornean city of Pontianak.
Lofonga said his country, home to the second-largest swath of peat forest, after Indonesia, stood to gain from Indonesia’s peat-management experience. “What’s clear is that it’s not a waste of time visiting peat forests here,” he told reporters in Jakarta. “Because there are many things that have been done here that could be replicated in the DRC because we have a lot of similarities, like climate.”
One of the key takeaways from the visit was the need to avoid the mistakes made by Indonesia in the exploitation of its peatlands and its forests in general.
Huge expanses of peat forest in Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo were razed and drained from the 1970s onward for timber and for new land for plantations. The rich stores of carbon locked in the peat soil were released in massive volumes as the land was dried and burned. At one point, Indonesia’s deforestation rate surpassed that of the Brazilian Amazon.
Today, nearly all of Indonesia’s peat ecosystems — an area spanning 239,600 square kilometers (92,500 square miles), or two-thirds the size of the Republic of Congo — are classified as damaged, to a degree ranging from mild to very severe.
The turning point came after particularly devastating forest fires in 2015 that sickened hundreds of thousands of people across Sumatra and Borneo and in neighboring countries. In response, President Joko Widodo rolled out a set of policies to overhaul the way the country manages its peatlands, including a moratorium on the clearing of peat forests.
“The present era can be labeled as the corrective era,” said Siti Nurbaya Bakar, the Indonesian environment minister.
She said the results of the policies since then had been “dramatic,” with the number of fire hotspots down 89 percent in 2018, and the size of burned area similarly diminished by 93 percent, to 1,940 square kilometers (750 square miles) this year.
Soudan-Nonault said Indonesia’s history of peat management would serve as an important cautionary tale for how her government and the DRC planned to manage the peat forests in the Congo Basin’s Cuvette Centrale region.
The region is a highly sensitive ecological area that includes what is believed to be the world’s single biggest expanse of tropical peatland, estimated to hold more than 30 billion metric tons of carbon — three years’ worth of global fossil fuel emissions.
This relatively undisturbed forest, inhabited for more than 50,000 years, is also home to unique species of plants and animals.
Soudan-Nonault said her government would build on Indonesia’s experience “to avoid some of the past that Indonesia had gone through.”
“We know it’ll be a disaster to drain the peatland,” she said. “We know that large-scale agricultural conversion will be a bad thing, it will dry the peatland. We know slash-and-burn conversion is not good.”
Yet both the Republic of the Congo and the DRC have economic development plans for the Cuvette Centrale, including agriculture, oil and gas extraction, and logging. Some of these activities have already begun, according to a report by Greenpeace Africa, which has warned of an alarming threat to the peatland region.
The DRC’s environment minister, Amy Ambatobe, has reportedly granted three logging concessions covering a combined 6,500 square kilometers (2,500 square miles) to Chinese-owned companies. Two of the concessions overlap onto the Cuvette Centrale peatlands.
DRC President Joseph Kabila has also signed three oil exploration blocks, largely in the Cuvette Centrale. The government defending the decision against criticism by environmental activists, saying the country has the right to explore for oil anywhere on its territory and that no area under its jurisdiction should be off-limits.
Scientists have warned that draining these peatlands would release huge amounts of planet-warming greenhouse gases.
Fighting climate change
Officials from all three countries earlier this year signed the Brazzaville Declaration in the Republic of Congo, at the culmination of the third meeting of the Global Peatland Initiative.
The declaration commits the three countries to working together to prevent the Congo Basin’s peatlands from being drained and degraded. The 11 commitments listed in the declaration include establishing and finalizing land-use plans that promote the conservation and protection of peatlands.
The countries have also pledged to carry out more research on tropical peatlands, which Siti called “among the least understood ecosystems in the world.”
Soudan-Nonault said mapping the Congo Basin’s peatlands was one of her priorities. “Once the mapping is done, we need to move toward sustainable peatland management,” she said.
The three governments have also agreed to cooperate on establishing the International Tropical Peatland Center (ITPC), with an interim secretariat hosted in Indonesia and assisted by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). Once up and running, the ITPC will carry out research aimed at informing and supporting peatland management policies. Its stated goal is to “govern peatland knowledge to ensure sustainable ecosystems and human well-being for national and international benefits.”
As part of its research activities, the ITPC will set up demonstration plots in Indonesia, the DRC, the Republic of Congo and Peru from 2019 onward.
In addition to marshaling science in defense of the Congo Basin’s peatlands, the new center will also help advise the Indonesian government in its own peatland restoration initiative, according to CIFOR director general Robert Nasi.
Under the slate of policies launched after the 2015 fires, the Indonesian government aims to restore more than 20,000 square kilometers of degraded peatland across the country to prevent future outbreaks of fire.
“What we need to know is how to restore a large area of degraded peat and for what,” Nasi said.
Erik Solheim, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), welcomed the move to set up the ITPC, saying efforts to better understand peatlands in service of protecting them were crucial in the fight against climate change.
“If we can’t conserve peatland, there’s no way we can combat climate change,” he said at the soft launch of the ITPC’s interim secretariat in Jakarta. “Because there’s so much carbon stored in peatland. We will lose spectacularly in our fight against climate change [if we fail to protect peatland].”
Banner image: Thousands of animals call the Congo Basin home, including the critically endangered mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei), which lives only in high-altitude rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.