19 Mar 2019 Story Ecosystems and Biodiversity

Vow to protect massive African peatland a huge win for planet

Photo by Wildlife Conservation Society

As a biodiversity treasure trove and an opportunity for climate action, peatlands need our urgent protection and restoration—which makes a 2018 commitment to protect a massive peatland in Central Africa a huge win for the planet, and the people and animals living there.

People have lived in the Congo Basin for more than 50,000 years. Today, 75 million people from over 150 distinct ethnic groups depend on the health of the forest that covers much of the Congo Basin peatland complex.

Known as the Cuvette Centrale, this complex is the size of the United Kingdom and straddles the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo. It is rich in biodiversity and, according to 2017 estimates, contains around 30 gigatonnes of carbon, equivalent to 15 years of emissions from the United States.

Brought together by UN Environment and other Global Peatlands Initiative partners, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo and Indonesia signed the Brazzaville Declaration in March 2018 to protect this complex. The Global Peatlands Initiative, led by UN Environment, helps peatland countries save or restore these vital wetlands, which cover about 3 per cent of global land area.

“For biodiversity, for climate and for people, we need healthy peatlands,” said Dianna Kopansky, Global Peatlands Initiative Coordinator, UN Environment. “Cuvette Centrale is home to 14 globally threatened species including bonobos, gorillas and chimpanzees. This peatland is a global treasure that deserves global attention and efforts for now and for our future.”

Although relatively undisturbed due to its remote location, Cuvette Centrale is at risk from oil, gas and forestry concessions, as well as infrastructure development. If the area is used for agricultural purposes such as palm oil, the ecosystem could be drained and degraded, and the entire hydrology of the Basin disturbed.

The first step to avoid such outcomes, according to Republic of the Congo’s Minister of Tourism and Environment, Arlette Soudan-Nonault, is to improve understanding of how this vital ecosystem works.

“As an example for the implementation of the Brazzaville Declaration, the Government of the Republic of the Congo has decided to set up a high-level scientific committee to enable the country to improve its understanding of this biodiversity-rich ecosystem,” she said.

The Brazzaville Declaration shows that neither the international community nor the governments involved want to see the pattern of peatland drainage or destruction that happened in Indonesia repeated. But issues remain. For example, while logging on swamplands is prohibited in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Rainforest Foundation UK says that “Congolese legislation does not precisely define what constitutes a swamp”.

Many of the forestry concessions given out in Cuvette Centrale have expired. Greenpeace campaigners are calling for these concessions to be “shut down and returned to the state”. This is a key step in protection of the peatlands, and one local residents hope will preserve their way of life.

“We hope our government will support us in our role as guardians of this ancient forest and provide us with the needed support to safeguard peatlands for our children and for the world,” said Valentin Egobo, a member of the Lokolama community, which lives on the edge of the peatlands in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Indonesia’s role is to share its hard-won lessons on peatlands management. Indonesia has over 15 million hectares of tropical peatlands and experienced large-scale peatland fires in 2015. The nation is now rewetting over two million hectares of dried-out peatland, while scaling up information sharing globally. Laws are in place to make sure regulations—including a nationwide ban prohibiting new peatland drainage—are enforced.

The chances of survival for all peatlands were further boosted in October, when countries and Global Peatlands Initiative partners came together for a South-South exchange that culminated in the International Tropical Peatland Center, which will strengthen international collaboration. During the visit, Indonesia and the Republic of the Congo signed the first-ever agreement on the protection and management of peatlands between an African and an Asian country.

UN Environment Acting Executive Director Joyce Msuya called the joint effort on Cuvette Centrale, “South-South cooperation at its best”.

“We will need such excellence to continue if we are to conserve peatland biodiversity and keep huge amounts of carbon in the ground,” she said.

Learn more about our work on ecosystem management.

This article is part of a series of stories highlighting UN Environment’s work and published in the 2018 Annual Report.