Peatlands are among the world’s most neglected natural treasures. Yet these waterlogged ecosystems are crucial to our survival —they are among the most important carbon reservoirs on the planet.
Unlike rainforests or coral reefs, peatlands are among the most underappreciated ecosystem assets in the world and many still remain unmapped — this, in spite of the fact that they are found on every continent and provide many crucial ecosystem services.
While covering approximately 3% of the Earth's land mass, peatlands support a wide range of biodiversity (including endemic and endangered species), purify water, mitigate flooding, and provide both natural products and income sources which are essential for the livelihoods of millions of people around the world. They’re also the largest terrestrial organic carbon stock; storing at least twice as much carbon as all of Earth’s standing forests, and at least one-third of the world’s organic soil carbon (on average, each hectare of peatland holds 1,375 tonnes of soil carbon) – which plays a vital role in mitigating climate change and stabilizing the carbon cycle. “Destroying the peatlands would be a grave assault on the Paris Agreement and the climate”, said Arlette Soudan-Nonault, Minister of Environment and Tourism of the Republic of the Congo, during the historic signing of the Brazzaville Declaration last March. The agreement was jointly signed by the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Republic of Congo and Indonesia in order to protect and promote the better management of the the Cuvette Centrale region in the Congo Basin, the world’s largest and most recently mapped tropical peatlands.
Mr. Siti Nurbaya, Minister of Environment of Forests of the Republic of Indonesia, who has an extensive experience in managing tropical peatlands, both in positive and negative terms, remarked: “the main peatland management principle is to keep the peatlands wet” (Or, if they have been drained, rewet them) – it is this waterlogged nature that gives peatlands many of their unique and valuable characteristics, and makes them some the most efficient terrestrial ecosystems in storing carbon. Yet, sadly, this is exactly the opposite of what has been happening to these ecosystems. Most peatlands, are usually overexploited and damaged as a result of actions including drainage and agricultural conversion (e.g. clear space for agricultural plantations) or due to relocation of landless people in an effort to control population growth. When this happens the carbon locked within the peats layers is released – currently contributing to up to 5% of global CO2 emissions per year (around two billion tonnes of CO2).
To complicate matters, peatlands and all wetlands are natural sources of methane, a more potent but shorter-lived greenhouse gas, which also gets released during the clearing operations and makes petlands more susceptible to burning (which can release even more CO2 and affect human health though both air and water pollution). In short, a chain of unfortunate events that we would do well not to unleash, especially taking into account that, even if the clear area doesn't burn, peatland drainage can have adverse long term economic and social impacts that are more significant than the initial short-term benefits received from land conversion.
“The vast peatlands of the Congo Basin are still largely undamaged and losing even a small part of this carbon and biodiversity-rich resource would be catastrophic. The Brazzaville Declaration is a historic moment for peatlands. The declaration contains high-level political commitments from Ministers from the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia to peatland protection, restoration and sustainable management”
– Jonathan Hughes, IUCN Global Councillor and Chair of the IUCN UK Peatland Programme
That does not mean however, that these areas become off-limits to economic activity and political commitments. Conserving and rehabilitating peatlands is key, and correct ecosystem management and protection can easily go hand in hand with development. There are, in fact, a growing number of initiatives around the globe with goals aiming towards providing knowledge support, ensuring peatland restoration and seeking science-based solutions for making peatlands productive without the need for draining. Several options for sustainable use of peatlands exist - such as tourism or the sustainable production of food (fish, crops adapted to wet soil conditions and feed for animals), fibre and fuel.
With their flat and unstable land, black acidic waters, and straggly vegetation, peatlands are one of the harshest environments on the planet. Yet it is vitally important to recognize that peatlands are not wastelands, but essential ecosystems that deliver unquantified benefits by doing things no other ecosystem does. Saving them, as an end goal, requires that we start by learning to appreciate their unique qualities and value.
To know more about peatlands, learn what’s been done to save them or get involved, visit the Global Peatlands Initiative website or read Smoke on Water – Countering Global Threats From Peatland Loss and Degradation. A UNEP Rapid Response. Assessment.
Written By: Clara Gómez
Style & format: Clara Gómez and Lila García
Provita Jun 25, 2018