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Layers of carbon: The Congo Basin peatlands and oil

  • The peatlands of the Congo Basin may be sitting on top of a pool of oil, though exploration has yet to confirm just how big it may be.
  • Conservationists and scientists argue that the carbon contained in this England-size area of peat, the largest in the tropics, makes keeping them intact more valuable, not to mention the habitat and resources they provide for the region’s wildlife and people.
  • Researchers calculate that the peatlands contain 30 billion metric tons of carbon, or about the amount humans produce in three years.
  • As the governments of the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo work to develop their economies, they, along with many policymakers worldwide, argue that the global community has a responsibility to help fund the protection of the peatlands to keep that climate-warming carbon locked away.

This is the second article in our four-part series “The Congo Basin peatlands.” Read Part OnePart Three and Part Four.

The announcement came in mid-2019: A pool of oil lay deep beneath a swampy section of the northern Republic of Congo that could nearly quadruple the country’s output. It just seemed to be waiting there for the oil-rich country to tap into. Boosting production by nearly 1 million barrels per day would not only make one of Africa’s biggest oil producers an even more prominent player, but it could also inject much-needed funds into a struggling economy.

Immediate questions arose about the validity of the claims, specifically about whether oil even existed there in such quantities, not to mention how drilling companies could profitably access such a remote area. (A 2015 report cast doubt on the presence of an “active petroleum system in the Congo Basin,” though the authors acknowledged the dearth of geological data on the region.)

The news also jolted the conservation community. Overlying the purported pool is a massive repository of carbon-rich peat, organic matter that’s only partially broken down because waterlogging stifles the decomposition process. This peatland stretches over a floodplain straddling the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in Central Africa, and scientists had recently discovered it was the largest deposit in the tropics.

Until recently, the England-size peatland known as the Cuvette Centrale had been largely unknown to science, or really anyone living much beyond the region where it’s found. The vast extent and the sheer quantity of carbon — estimated to be more than 30 billion metric tons — forced a recalculation of the importance of tropical peat. Remote and largely untouched, this swampy forest is also home to scattered human communities and vibrant populations of threatened wildlife, along with the largest stockpile of climate-warming carbon held in tropical peatlands.

Aerial view of the Monboyo River and peatland forest of Salonga National Park southeast of Mbandaka in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Image © Daniel Beltrá / Greenpeace.

Since the Cuvette Centrale peatlands’ scientific “discovery” in 2017, there has been a push both to understand what keeps that carbon in the ground and to protect the area from the potential threats that could disrupt it. By keeping that carbon bound up in peat and out of the atmosphere, these swamplands protect us, at least for the moment, from even more extreme changes to the climate, scientists say. Disrupting the ecosystem could also have disastrous consequences for forest-dependent wildlife and human communities in the area.

The Republic of Congo and the DRC have signed agreements that would ostensibly protect the peatlands from harmful development to some degree, including the Brazzaville Declaration along with Indonesia in March 2018.

“We believe it is important that the countries that have this ecosystem work together to identify positive synergies,” Ève Bazaiba Masudi, the DRC’s minister of the environment and sustainable development, told Mongabay in an email.

In 2019, just weeks after the announcement about the potential oil reserves in the northern Republic of Congo, President Denis Sassou Nguesso made a pledge to protect the peatlands with $65 million in funding from the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI), an international partnership focused on forest protection and economic development, in a high-profile signing ceremony with French President Emmanuel Macron.

At the same time, however, the governments have also sought to harvest the resources they contain, especially fossil fuels, which, for the Republic of Congo are the lifeblood of the country’s economy. These opposing forces have set up an apparent conflict if such activities endanger the delicate balance that has kept the peatlands relatively intact up until now.

The good news in the eyes of scientists and conservationists is the threat of development for oil and gas extraction doesn’t appear to be immediate. It’s an incredibly difficult part of the world to get to, and it lacks infrastructure that would support large-scale extraction. Still, scientists highlight the increasingly urgent importance of studying the peatlands and understanding the processes that keep them in equilibrium. Several who spoke with Mongabay voiced the concern that some sort of destructive development might creep in, and that this vast resource, so important not just to the people and wildlife of Central Africa, but to the world as a whole, might be inadvertently lost in the quest for economic development.

“So far we only have an initial understanding of the true extent of the peatlands,” said Lera Miles, a principal specialist with the U.N. Environment Programme’s World Conservation Management Centre, in an email to Mongabay. “We need to know where they are in order to protect them!”

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Concessions, concessions

For several years, the Republic of Congo has offered a number of oil and gas concessions on the international market, attracting the attention of major producers such as France’s Total and Italy’s ENI. At one point, a concession claimed by Total overlapped with Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, a wildlife-rich sanctuary that for decades has been a center of research into Central Africa’s unique fauna. But an update of the map of the country’s oil and gas concessions in November 2019 seems to have quietly removed the Koli block from the offering.

Most of the other blocks remain on the Ministry of Hydrocarbons website to this day and on the site of the country’s national oil company, Société Nationale des Pétroles du Congo (SNPC). This is despite criticism from environmental groups like Greenpeace that such moves could destroy the peatlands. Other signs indicate the ostensible intention of the government to attempt to extract the oil and gas that lay beneath the Cuvette Centrale peatlands.

In December 2020, CGG, a Paris-based geosciences company that has worked with Total on other projects, announced that it would be doing aerial surveys to assess the potential of previously identified oil and gas reserves in the Cuvette Basin. In a statement, CGG noted that oil and gas producers have helped finance the project with the cooperation of SNPC. The national company also confirmed on its website that such a survey was underway.

“The Cuvette Basin could be considered one of the last provinces in Africa to potentially hold giant to supergiant oil and gas accumulations,” Greg Paleolog, a senior vice president of CGG, said in the statement. “It’s exciting that the SNPC and our prefunders recognize the value that large-scale acquisition of high-quality data can add to their exploration programs.”

CGG declined Mongabay’s request for further comment on its plans or the potential risks to the peatlands if the survey reveals the presence of appreciable quantities of oil or gas.

Total did not reply to Mongabay’s requests for comment either. But in a 2019 article in the Congolese newspaper Le Patriote, Total’s CEO, Patrick Pouyanne, acknowledged the push to obtain these seismic data.

“Of course, there are important ecological issues. We will have to take them into account,” Pouyanne said. “But we are ready, in particular, to acquire seismic data in order to better understand what is happening in this area and to help the [Republic of] Congo to develop its resources.”

The DRC, too, has listed a number of blocks that overlap with the peatlands, including one that encompassed part of Salonga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site most famous for its vibrant population of bonobos (Pan paniscus). In response to international pressure, the DRC canceled the concessions in July 2021. But concerns remain that lucrative contracts from resource extraction companies could be enough to persuade governments to allow incursions into long-established protected areas.

A group of officials from the Republic of Congo, the DRC, the United Nations Environment Programme and the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization conducted a review of peatland restoration in 2018. Image by Ricky Martin/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Bazaiba said the DRC’s strategy centered on “protecting peatlands for people and nature.”

But, she added, “the DRC is a country marked by the interconnection of natural resources. The value of conservation as well as the value of exploitation needs to be carefully considered.”

In tandem with government efforts to engage international corporations in monetizing these resources, the Republic of Congo has also been pursuing deals that would see it paid to protect the peatlands and other areas of forest within its borders, with the justification that the carbon it is protecting benefits the rest of the world.

“We should do everything we possibly can to support the two Congos to protect those peatlands because globally, they matter,” said Susan Page, a professor and ecologist at the University of Leicester, U.K., in an interview. Page was also a co-author of the 2017 Nature paper that quantified the size and carbon content of the Cuvette Centrale peatlands for the first time.

International agreements, such as the Brazzaville Declaration, aim to draw on the experience gleaned from other tropical peatlands and leverage it to protect those that exist in the Congo Basin. The $65 million CAFI agreement is one such vehicle. But critics of the agreement argue that even these supposed protections allow for resource extraction and offer no guarantee against potentially harmful development.

The CAFI deal was a compromise, at least in part, according to a spokesperson from CAFI who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the agreement.

“We are in the real world,” the source said at the time. Without assurances that the government would maintain a measure of control over what it does with its own sovereign territory, including the cancellation of fossil fuel extraction contracts, the Republic of Congo’s leaders might not have agreed to any sort of protection over the area.

Arlette Soudan-Nonault, minister of the environment, sustainable development and the Congo Basin for the Republic of Congo, told Mongabay that the country’s leaders were within their rights to develop the peatlands for agriculture, mining or extractives.

“However, this is not the path that President Denis Sassou Nguesso, as President of the Congo Basin Climate Commission, has decided to follow,” Soudan-Nonault said in an email. The Congo Basin Climate Commission is a partnership of countries in the region. Noting that the Republic of Congo’s carbon emissions were far below those of “developed countries,” she said her country would continue to comply with its commitments to CAFI and other conservation-focused pacts.

In February 2020, however, a report led by the watchdog NGO Global Witness revealed links between one of the oil companies that had received authorization to explore a block overlapping with the peatlands and the family of President Sassou Nguesso. The authors questioned the potential impacts that oil and gas exploration — and later, exploitation — might have on an area that remains largely unprotected.

Colin Robertson, a Global Witness forest campaigner and co-author of the report, noted the urgency of warding off destructive activities.

“If the Cuvette was fully exploited by oil companies, much of the peatland would likely be drained to build infrastructure, releasing stored carbon in the process,” Robertson told Mongabay in an email. “There would also be an obvious risk of pollution and spills.”

The peatlands carbon cycle. Image by Nieves Lopez Izquierdo/GRID-Arendal via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

How important is protection?

The Cuvette Centrale peatlands stretch across 145,529 square kilometers (56,189 square miles) of the northern Republic of Congo and the DRC. The far-flung region is perhaps most famous as a home to attention-grabbing wildlife like bonobos, lowland gorillas and forest elephants. But the amount of carbon it contains was the most eye-popping statistic when a team of scientists from the U.K and the Republic of Congo first quantified its extent in that 2017 Nature paper.

Thirty billion metric tons of carbon is almost as much as is held by the entire Congo Basin rainforest — the second-largest on the planet — in less than 4% of the land area. It has accumulated over the past 10,000 years or so, as flooding in the area has slowed the carbon-producing decomposition process that would normally occur in these forests.

For now, at least, most of that climate-warming carbon, which could contribute appreciably to global temperature rise, is locked away. But scientists warn that could change if the peatlands are altered — by draining the bogs completely, or lacing access roads for oil exploitation through them, for example. And though the impacts may be more localized, spills or leaky pipelines could be destructive, especially for communities living in the area. Those dangers have led to efforts to protect the peatland through programs such as CAFI in the hopes that providing funding to governments for economic development will encourage them to avoid potentially destructive uses.

The apparent contradiction — between raising money to protect forest and peatlands and celebrating the potential extraction of fossil fuels that could spell their destruction — has raised the ire of environmental groups. They suggested the 2019 CAFI agreement might be little more than a Potemkin exercise to shield the Republic of Congo’s oil extraction efforts from scrutiny. Others said it would do little for conservation.

Greenpeace campaigner Raoul Monsembula holds peat in the DRC. Image © Daniel Beltrá / Greenpeace.

Simon Counsell, former executive director of environmental NGO Rainforest Foundation UK, told Mongabay just after the agreement was signed it was “unlikely to protect any forests.”

He said the agreement allows for clearing forests “in case of the development of infrastructure and extractive industries outside the agro-industrial sector, which are deemed of vital interest to the national economy.”

Counsell noted that it doesn’t ban mining or oil and gas extraction, instead advocating for the “minimization” of the negative impacts those activities could have.

Tal Harris, Greenpeace’s international communications coordinator, agreed. “They definitely did not produce a letter of intent that is tightly protecting the peatlands or the forest,” he said at the time.

But such a contradiction doesn’t appear to be isolated. The DRC’s leaders signed a letter of intent worth $200 million in 2016 to protect the country’s forests. In 2018, however, the country also opened a tender for oil concessions that overlap with the peatlands. As his term was ending in December 2018, then-president Joseph Kabila even went so far as to sign a contract with a South African oil company for a block that overlapped with Salonga National Park.

While scientists and conservationists point to reasons for optimism, such as the Brazzaville Declaration in which the Republic of Congo, the DRC and Indonesia agreed to work together for the preservation of tropical peatlands, they also note the need to understand the peatlands more fully.

It’s also important to take into account the threats they face from impacts like drilling for oil and natural gas, Joe Eisen, executive director of Rainforest Foundation UK, told Mongabay.

“These kinds of poorly planned developments clearly pose very significant risks, both in terms of direct impacts but also culminative ones as relatively intact areas are opened up to the cascade of deforestation,” Eisen said in an email.

Black-crested mangabey monkey (Lophocebus aterrimus) in the Mabali Scientific Reserve in the DRC. The Cuvette Centrale is perhaps most famous as a home to attention-grabbing wildlife like bonobos, lowland gorillas, forest elephants and more. Image © Daniel Beltrá / Greenpeace.

Addicted to oil

At the heart of this issue is that scientists are still unsure of the impact that oil and gas exploration could have on the peatlands of the Congo Basin. They know that roads could potentially divert or otherwise change the dynamics of the water that is so critical to slowing the process of decomposition that creates peat in the first place. And leaks from pipelines or outright spills onto the peatlands could devastate not just the peat itself, but the wildlife and human communities that rely on them.

But like so many aspects of tropical peatlands, researchers like Simon Lewis, who was one of the lead authors on the 2017 Nature paper introducing the peatlands to the world, note how little they know about them. Lewis, a plant ecologist and professor at the University of Leeds and University College London, told Mongabay he thinks peatland research in the tropics is about a century behind similar work in temperate regions. Among other research avenues, he and his colleagues are currently studying the effects of oil and gas extraction on the tropical peatlands.

Until they know more, many scientists advise caution in the approach to the peatlands.

It could be that the governments of the Congo are positioning the peatlands and other forested areas not for the oil and gas extraction for which these areas are being advertised, but for the carbon contained within them. If, for example, there is an imminent threat of development — whether for timber, agriculture or hydrocarbons — the governments could make the case that the carbon in these spots is in danger of being released into the atmosphere.

That’s one way they might try to monetize their protection, whether through internationally funded agreements or through private arrangements. But it turns out that funding through REDD+ (short for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries) or other financial mechanisms designed to protect forests and forest carbon could also be creating the incentive to at least put down plans on paper that would result in the degradation of sensitive environments.

Edward Mitchard, a professor of global mapping at the University of Edinburgh and a co-author on the 2017 Nature paper, said he suspects that might be the case.

“If you have a set of plans that look like you’re developing something, maybe it’s more likely you get money in the future from REDD,” Mitchard told Mongabay. “I don’t know if the governments are doing that. They do have economic development plans that genuinely might include exploiting these areas.”

French oil company Total has looked at the possibility of securing a concession in the Republic of Congo and then not developing it as a way to offset the company’s carbon emissions elsewhere, according to Mongabay’s reporting.

Providing financing to forgo oil and gas development could be one way for the global community to fund these countries’ protection of this huge storehouse of carbon. But scientists point out that it’s a repository that is not growing particularly quickly. One of the arguments for carbon offsets with forests is that if they are kept standing, instead of cutting them down for an oil palm plantation, for example, they will continue to take up an appreciable amount of carbon if they continue to grow.

While peatlands do siphon a bit of carbon from the atmosphere on an ongoing basis, the true worth — to the climate, at least — of places like the Cuvette Centrale is the amount they have locked away over thousands of years. This value, as unquestionably important as it is because of the warming that carbon would cause if it ended up in the atmosphere, fits somewhat awkwardly in the offset conversation.

Congo Basin experts from the U.K. and the DRC take the first samples from the peatlands. Image © Kevin McElvaney / Greenpeace.
The Republic of Congo and the DRC have signed agreements that would ostensibly protect the peatlands from harmful development to some degree, including the Brazzaville Declaration in March 2018. Image courtesy of the UN-REDD Programme.

“If you want to value a land for carbon sequestration, you have to look at how much carbon it sequesters every year, and peatlands suck at that,” said Julie Loisel, an assistant professor and ecosystem scientist at Texas A&M University in College Station. “They just have little mosses that are just putting down a little bit of carbon.

“There’s no additionality,” Loisel added. “I see them more as savings accounts.”

In other words, the value is in the principal, the carbon already sitting there, accruing more of it — the “interest” — bit by bit. Healthy forests, on the other hand, don’t have as vast and dense an initial storehouse. Instead, forests add consistent and relatively substantial “deposits” in the form of carbon pulled from the atmosphere, making them important mitigators of climate change as long as they continue to grow.

But are there win-wins in which the country could keep the peatlands intact while extracting something valuable from them? Scientists like Katherine Roucoux, who studies peatlands in the Amazon, said it may be possible to pull oil from the peatlands with minimal impacts. Such a strategy would likely borrow heavily from techniques used to access offshore oil and gas reserves and involve more helicopters and “floating” platforms than roads and other types of on-the-ground infrastructure.

But she also notes the irony in trying to keep carbon locked away in the peat while pumping out oil and gas that will ultimately end up as climate-altering CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

“It shouldn’t be done, obviously,” said Roucoux, a senior lecturer at the University of St. Andrews and a paleoecologist.

Simon Lewis said harvesting oil from the Cuvette Centrale may not be economical because of the high cost of extraction. Indeed, one of the reasons the peatlands are so intact is because they are remote and relatively devoid of infrastructure at present. The way Lewis sees it, it could take two decades or more to go from the exploration phase, which firms like CGG are reportedly engaged in now, to extraction.

“In 20 years’ time, the world will probably not be using that much oil,” he said. “Central Congo peatlands oil, should it exist in sufficient quantities, will not be cheap enough to compete with oil from other places for the limited market that there will be.”

With that in mind, Lewis said, the impacts of developing oil and gas fields may all be for naught.

“We could end up destroying the peatlands early on in the prospecting for no benefit in the end for the government and for the local people,” he said, “because there will be no market for this.”

Lewis said wealthier countries are similarly weighing the costs and benefits of continuing to use and invest in an energy source that is radically changing Earth’s climate, and with it, the way in which we humans live.

“It’s the same battle is going on inside the U.K. and the U.S., which is, are we going to continue with the old economy dominated by hydrocarbons?”

That logic doesn’t mean the Republic of Congo or the DRC won’t still pursue oil and gas extraction as a way forward, especially if the countries’ leaders see it as the only option for their economies.

In the United States, hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” for natural gas and shale oil was around for decades before the right combination of technological development and energy demand made the process profitable.

“If you’re DRC [and] you’re desperate for money,” Mitchard said, “then producing oil there may be a real opportunity over the coming decades. Just because it’s not going to be the cheapest oil per barrel doesn’t mean it won’t happen, unfortunately.”

Still, far-reaching implications go hand-in-hand with hydrocarbon developments anywhere in the world, and would ensure that the rise in global temperatures doesn’t stop at 1.5°C (2.7°F) over preindustrial levels as laid out in the 2015 Paris Agreement, Global Witness’s Colin Robertson said.

“On top of this we know that the Cuvette is an ecologically sensitive area of carbon-rich peatlands and forests,” he said. “This makes any investment in oil exploration in this region look grossly irresponsible.”

Continue to Part Three.

Banner image: Congo Basin Experts from the U.K. and the DRC take the first samples from the peatland. Left to right: Raoul Monsembula (Greenpeace DRC), Valentin Engabo (Lokolama community leader), Corneille Ewango (University of Kisangani, DRC), Simon Lewis (University of Leeds, U.K.), Greta Dargie (University of Leeds, U.K.). Image © Kevin McElvaney / Greenpeace.

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon


Dargie, G. C., Lewis, S. L., Lawson, I. T., Mitchard, E. T., Page, S. E., Bocko, Y. E., & Ifo, S. A. (2017). Age, extent and carbon storage of the central Congo Basin peatland complex. Nature, 542(7639), 86-90. doi:10.1038/nature21048

Delvaux, D., & Fernandez-Alonso, M. (2014). Petroleum Potential of the Congo Basin. Geology and Resource Potential of the Congo Basin, 371-391. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-29482-2_18

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: Bill McKibben and others discuss action and rejuvenation after COP26 climate summit failure, listen here:

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