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Congo Basin peatlands have trapped years' worth of carbon. How can they be protected?


There's a particular kind of tropical rainforest in Central Africa. A huge swath of the Congo River Basin is full of peat. In fact, scientists discovered only five years ago that the peatlands span a region the size of England. Trapped underneath that peat is 30 billion metric tons of carbon, about as much as the entire world emits in about three years. Even deeper below the surface, there may be oil. So will it stay in the ground?

John Cannon has been reporting on this for the environmental news site Mongabay. Welcome.

JOHN CANNON: Thanks for having me - great to be with you.

SHAPIRO: Take us into this ecosystem. If I were to go trekking in the Congo peatlands, what would I see?

CANNON: Well, it's this massive wetland that spills over the borders of both the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It's this flooded forest. So on the surface, if you looked at it from the air, you might see what looks like typical tropical rainforest. And it's actually pretty healthy in terms of rainforest in this part of the world. But then when you get down below it, it's this sort of soppy, sucking, deep mud.

SHAPIRO: Now, obviously, deforestation contributes to climate change in any context. But that is even more true when we are talking about peat. Explain why.

CANNON: It is because, as you mentioned earlier, you know, there's 30 billion metric tons of carbon locked away in this peat. And if you start to disturb that peat, what can happen very quickly is that that carbon can be released into the atmosphere, where it can continue to add to global warming, add to the climate change that we're all experiencing around the world.

The issue is, one, you're losing the trees, which are important repositories of carbon themselves. But then as you lose those trees on top of the peat, you're losing the inputs that, over time, develop into this carbon store that's so big and so important to keep locked away.

SHAPIRO: And there is another layer to this quite literally, which is that below the peat, there might be oil. How does that complicate this?

CANNON: Right. Yeah. So peat, you know, forms over thousands to tens of thousands of years. But, you know, much older than that are the, you know, fossil fuels, the hydrocarbons that are also organic matter - but it's a different process - that are millions to tens of millions of years old. And so several years ago it was suggested that parts of the peatlands may sit on top of this massive pool of oil.

Now, that's particularly important to countries like the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They're, you know, working to develop their economies. So it stands to reason that they look at this and say, maybe that would be something they could tap into to improve, you know, their economic bottom lines.

SHAPIRO: So that's the ecosystem. Those are the stakes. Let's talk now about what's going to happen there. The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo last year announced a plan to end the moratorium on logging concessions. Are there active plans to develop the area right now?

CANNON: So that's a good question, and it's not something that's easy to answer. You know, about 80% of the peatlands in both countries are covered by concessions for oil and gas as well as agriculture and logging. So that has a lot of conservation groups and environmentalists worried that these plans could be put into motion rather quickly.

At the moment, there hasn't been a lot of development along those lines. And that's the promising part for keeping the peatlands intact. However, these plans do exist in some form.

SHAPIRO: What kind of protection efforts are we seeing?

CANNON: So especially following the U.N. climate conference that occurred in Glasgow, Scotland, in November, we saw a lot of high-level pledges from a lot of Global North countries, some private foundations to send billions of dollars to countries like the two Congos and other, you know, tropical forest countries around the world to help them develop their economies while also keeping their forests and peatlands intact.

On the ground, you know, there are a lot of smaller organizations both international and local to the two Congos that are working with local communities to protect these areas. You know, the communities that have existed in this area for centuries, if not longer, do make use of the forests and the peatlands. And they do seem to make sustainable use of that forest. So there's an effort underway to kind of understand how they do that because, as they've used this forest for their own needs - for fisheries, for the woods - it also has remained intact, which is sort of a - it's a win-win if we can continue that both here and in other parts of the world.

SHAPIRO: John Cannon's four-part series for Mongabay is called "The Congo Basin Peatlands." Thank you for talking with us.

CANNON: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.