The mud that could save the world

Knee-deep in muddy water on the rainforest floor, two British scientists strained to drive a long metal instrument between protruding tree roots. In the tropical humidity, probing the swamps was arduous exercise. Four Congolese recruits joined Greta Dargie and Simon Lewis, gave the instrument one last mighty push, and sank it through the muck.

They were searching for peat, a marshy soil made up of partially decomposed organic material that accumulates over centuries. Peatlands are one of the world’s most efficient natural “carbon sinks,” removing carbon from the atmosphere through plant growth. But if the peat is disrupted, the carbon escapes. Dargie and Lewis estimate the Congo peatland contains around 30 billion tons of carbon, the equivalent of 20 years worth of America’s current carbon emissions.

Dargie has carried out well over 500 peat samplings in the Congo Basin, enduring weeks of camping and exploring in the wilderness in the process. This particular expedition took place over three days at the end of October, deep in the forest of northwestern Congo, not far from where the Congo River joins the Ubangi to form the border with the Republic of Congo, its smaller neighbor to the west. Two days ago, this particular bog was merely a hypothesis on a computer-generated map, an ecosystem that may or may not have actually been there.

Dargie and Lewis suspected peat had built up here on the waterlogged forest floor. As the scientists pulled the instrument — called a corer — from the muck, a dark brown chunk of peat was lodged in the chamber at the bottom, and their theory came to life. An ecosystem thousands of years old could officially be marked on the map. “It’s unbelievable that we can make such an important discovery in the 21st century,” Dargie marveled as she carefully packed the precious soil sample in cellophane.

It was once believed that peatlands were found only in cold environments like Canada and Scotland, but in the last few decades, they have been discovered in the Amazon, Southeast Asia and Central Africa. Dargie and Lewis, who work at the University of Leeds, have spent years researching and exploring remote swamps here in Central Africa. In the heart of the Congo Basin, they have discovered the largest tropical peatland on Earth. It covers an astounding 56,000 square miles, an area bigger than England.

Scientists work with a peat corer in the swamps near Lokolama, Congo. Oct. 28. (Kevin McElvaney/Greenpeace)

Peatlands are some of the most essential ecosystems in the fight against climate change. Though they occupy only 3 percent of the world’s land area, they store about as much carbon as found in all land plants and animals combined.

“If peatlands are left intact, they can accumulate carbon from the atmosphere and help reduce carbon levels,” Lewis told The WorldPost. “But if they are mismanaged, they can release an enormous amount of carbon and contribute to climate change. They are really a pivotal part of the global question about how we manage ecosystems in the future to reduce our emissions to zero, as we committed under the Paris agreement.”

Scientists measure the depth of peat in the Congo Basin. Oct. 28. (Kevin McElvaney/Greenpeace)

It was around 2011 that Lewis first realized that undiscovered peatlands might be lying under the Congo Basin. After years studying the impact of climate change in the Amazon, he turned his attention to Africa and the Congo rainforest, the second largest in the world. An area bigger than Alaska, the forest stretches from Congo into Gabon, the Republic of Congo, Cameroon, the Central African Republic and Equatorial Guinea. Not much was known about tropical peatlands in this vast and largely untouched wilderness. “I read everything I could find about it,” Lewis told me, “but I only found mentions of ‘peaty soil’ in some old literature.”

Without much more than rudimentary data and intuition, Lewis convinced the British government to fund his research and hired Dargie as a PhD student. They set off on their first mission to the Republic of Congo in 2012. They hoped it would be easier to start their research there, away from Congo’s political turmoil. But they quickly ran into trouble. The police put them under “town arrest” for a week, and then a panther broke a water measuring instrument.

Dargie and a team of Congolese recruits eventually found themselves wading through the jungle, filtering water from pits excavated by crocodiles and cooking meals on campfires. “We got around from site to site mostly by dugout canoes,” she recalled. “It was like a real adventure.”

It wasn’t until the third expedition, in 2014, that the vastness of the peatland in the Congo Basin really became clear. During a 17-day trek in the swamps near Lake Télé, in the northern part of the Republic of Congo, the scientists sank the corer 20 feet deep into the peat. “That was really the surprise,” Lewis said. “We didn’t expect to find such depth.”

With the information they collected during their field trips in the Republic of Congo, Dargie and Lewis built a virtual map of the Congo Basin peatland using satellite data to identify other areas conducive to peat formation. But to see how far the peat actually went, they needed to get across the border into Congo.

Map of the Congo peatland in Central Africa. (Simon Lewis/Greta Dargie)

In early October, Dargie and Lewis walked barely a third of a mile into the Congo rainforest near the small indigenous village of Lokolama. They got the corer out, expecting to find peat going down maybe a foot. Lewis sank the metal rod into the ground several times without hitting bottom. He would extend the metal rod after each push — three feet long, six feet, nine feet — but each time it came up, there was peat and more peat. Finally, the corer sank more than 11 feet before it dug into an underlying bed of clay. This peatland, the scientists were realizing, could be even more massive than they suspected.

“There are so many important things that we don’t understand about the tropics,” Lewis told me. For example, increasingly erratic rain due to climate change is a threat to the peatland but Lewis said rainfall in the area is poorly understood because there are too few weather stations from which to gather data. “It’s important we invest in African science and scientists to make better predictions about the future,” he said.

Corneille Ewango, one of Congo’s most recognizable scientists, echoed concerns about the dearth of data and funding available to African scientists working on these issues. Ewango grew up among poachers and helped hunt elephants as a boy to pay for school. But over the years, a passion for conservation and ecology took hold, and he eventually became a botanist in a wildlife reserve in eastern Congo. A bloody conflict in the late 1990s and early 2000s forced many of his colleagues to flee, but Ewango faced down poachers, soldiers and armed militias to protect the forest. He won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2005 in recognition of his efforts.

Soft-spoken and unassuming, Ewango joined the Lokolama expedition and worked the peat corer with the rest of the team. “We are only five Congolese scientists doing research on forest ecology,” Ewango told me. “Everything we know about this country’s ecosystems dates back to colonial times.”

In recent years, Ewango has turned his attention to the biggest threat yet to Congo’s extraordinary biodiversity, one that, though slow-moving and not as attention-grabbing as militias and poachers, might pose an even more devastating risk: deforestation and climate change. Ewango now hopes to work on the Congo peatland and convince the government to direct its effort toward protecting the newly discovered ecosystem.

Corneille Ewango, left, Greta Dargie, center, and Simon Lewis, right, examine peat core. Oct. 28. (Kevin McElvaney/Greenpeace)

In the last decade, deforestation in Congo has accelerated drastically. Almost a million hectares are lost every year, mostly as trees are cleared to make way for subsistence farming and to make charcoal, the only source of energy available to much of the population. Congo has one of the fastest-growing populations in the world, and the need for food and energy is increasing. Without sustainable solutions, people will continue to turn to the forest for land and resources.

Even more worrying is an effort by the Congolese government to open up the forest to industrial logging. A moratorium on new logging concessions has been in place since 2002 but perhaps not for much longer. Still largely intact, the Congolese rainforest is seen by some international logging companies as a spectacular opportunity. Teak and other precious wood abound in these forests.

A controversial proposal by the French Development Agency (AFD) backs Congo’s bid to end the moratorium and allow commercial logging in parts of the forest, some of which overlap with the peatland. Philippe Bosse, the head of the French Development Agency’s Congo office, told me that “well-managed exploitation,” rather than informal logging by locals, “is the guarantee for forest conservation.” The Norwegian government is considering helping fund the initiative through its Central Africa Forest Initiative (CAFI), which has been heavily criticized for overlooking illegal deforestation in the past.

Thirty international scientists, including Lewis, sent an open letter decrying the plan. Several international non-governmental organizations have also denounced it. “There is a huge lack of transparency in Congo,” Irene Wabiwa, a senior forest campaign manager at Greenpeace, told me. “It is impossible to lift the moratorium without exposing the forest. AFD claims that industrial companies will be more reliable than artisanal loggers, but our experience indicates the opposite.”

Political instability and corruption in Congo could turn industrial logging in the rainforest into a free-for-all. Political actors have played a game of musical chairs, vying for government positions that have been used for personal gain. Last year, Greenpeace discovered that a former minister of the environment had illegally allocated logging concessions in violation of the moratorium. The new minister has since canceled them. But the quick succession of ministers and contradictory policies in recent years has made it difficult for the government to establish a clear vision for the forest’s future.

Joseph Katenga, the government’s forest advisor and one of the few long-serving officials at the ministry, admitted being torn by competing forces. “It is not a priority for the government to protect the forest,” he told me. Countless Western logging companies regularly reach out to him to ask for concessions, he said.

“In terms of dividends for our contribution to climate change mitigation, we have nothing,” Katenga said. He brought up the case of Brazil — the government there has been awarded more than $2 billion by international donors including Norway and Germany to protect the rainforest, but since 2015, deforestation has been increasing again as pristine forest is cleared for mining and agriculture. Congo, on the other hand, has been promised $200 million by CAFI to fund projects including reforestation but has only received $40 million so far. “Do we have to start destroying our forest like Brazil to start receiving something?” Katenga wondered.

Lokolama villagers on Oct. 27. (Kevin McElvaney/Greenpeace)

In Lokolama, the village on the edge of the forest where the recent peat sampling was carried out, a series of mud-bricks houses line the dirt road that cuts through the rainforest. The Batwa hunter-gatherer community here still practices many aspects of their traditional lifestyle but has incorporated some elements of a more sedentary life, such as schools.

In the morning, women pound cassava into a fine white floor to make Congolese cassava bread. Men catch fish in the swamps with homemade rods and forage for fruit in the forest. Every now and then, businessmen come looking for charcoal to sell in nearby cities. There are few cars that drive by and news from the outside world is sparse. Nevertheless, people here are aware of the threats to the forest, which their community has inhabited for thousands of years.

“We are neglected,” a community leader named Valentin Egbo told The WorldPost. “Poverty and discrimination are slowly killing our culture. What we need is recognition of our rights as the custodians of the forest and support to sustainably come out of poverty.”

In recent years, studies have shown that forests are better protected by indigenous people whose ownership of their ancestral land has been recognized. Those rights have been successfully legislated in some Latin American countries, for example, but African indigenous communities have been mostly ignored by their governments. A bill to recognize indigenous stewardship of Congo’s forests was introduced in parliament in July 2014 but has gone nowhere.

The village chief here in Lokolama, Hibert Bomkile, said his people have lived sustainably in the peatland for generations, and their lifestyle largely depends on it. They fish in the swamps and have developed a deep knowledge of various medicinal plants. This knowledge could be useful for Congolese society and should be valued, Bomkile said. Like Egbo, he rejected the idea that logging companies could bring development to indigenous people.

“It is important for us to protect the intact forest, not a degraded forest,” he said. “We do not want companies to come exploit here; they will exploit us too. They’ll give us a little something [while they] earn a lot selling our trees. We keep our forest for our children and yours.”

Mélanie Gouby is an investigative journalist, writer and documentary filmmaker based in London.


This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post. Greenpeace helped coordinate media logistics for this story.

Lokolama villagers on Oct. 27. (Kevin McElvaney/Greenpeace)

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