Round the world in eight peatlands

In December 2020, Charlotte Wheeler and I ran a session at the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting, all about peatlands. Here is my round-up of that Zoom-show. This piece was first published in Peatlands International 1.2021 and is being republished here with kind permission from the International Peatland Society.

On 18th December 2020, a group of peat experts gathered in a Zoom-room to share their tales of peatlands from across the world. They were all invited to take part in the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting, in a Thematic Session focusing on the climatic, ecological and societal importance of peatlands. Each of the eight speakers had significant knowledge and experience to share on a particular geography of peatlands and/or thematic area of research, from investigating burning in the peat swamp forests of Borneo to exploring research gaps in the Sphagnum-dominated bogs of Wales. Here we summarize some of the key points raised by each of our esteemed speakers.

The session was opened by Susan Page with an excellent summary of the key roles that peatlands play in societies across the world, and of the key challenges they face. Despite the multiple services they provide (as illustrated by Fig. 1), peatlands are being subjected to many different drivers of change (Loisel et al., 2020), which are degrading the peat carbon store at a rate that is incompatible with recovery over human timescales (Goldstein et al., 2020). Sue reminded us of the importance of addressing the world’s drained peatlands, a huge and increasing source of carbon emissions that will continue to emit until the peat is depleted. Within decades, the use of this finite resource for extractive and agricultural purposes will no longer be possible.

Fig. 1 The multiple ways that peatlands support livelihoods, presented by Sue Page.

Agriculture is one of the dominant ways in which people interact with peatlands across the world. In the peatlands of Southeast Asia, and notably Indonesia, smallholder farms and industrial plantations growing oil palm on peat are common. This has led to the generation of emissions from peatlands across Southeast Asia over the last 25 years, approx. 2500 Mt C, equivalent to half of the complete stock of carbon held in the UK’s peatlands, approx. 5500 Mt C. These UK-based stocks are also rapidly dwindling, as many organic soils are exploited for commercial agriculture and horticulture. In the year 2000, it is thought that peatlands worldwide changed from a net sink to a net source of carbon. In addition to emissions, peat subsidence is a significant issue, and one that will prevent use of peatlands in the future, especially with sea-level rise in coastal areas.

How then can peatlands continue to support the many livelihoods that depend on this wetland ecosystem and its resources? Balancing livelihood and climate security is a key challenge. One of the solutions is to think more strategically about where to produce food. Carlson et al. (2016) demonstrated that those peatland areas that produce some of the highest greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from drainage-based agriculture, also produce some of the lowest returns when it comes to nutritional calories.

Sue reminded the audience that there is no such thing as truly sustainable management of drained peat soils; ‘responsible’ use is the only option. The essential first step in responsible use and in addressing the livelihood and climate challenge is raising water tables, leading to reduced emissions and increasing the lifetime of peat. Further research is needed and trials performed to explore viable ways of producing food using wet agriculture, or paludiculture (as named in the areas with the highest water table). There will be constraints to what can be produced and where, and inevitable trade-offs, but dryland agriculture is not a sustainable option for peatlands. Some of the key challenges that still need to be overcome include knowledge gaps, selecting appropriate types of crops, and balancing the needs of food security and livelihoods. Sue concluded by emphasising that there are significant compromises, constraints and inadequacies in education that need addressing to promote responsible peatland management. But as peat-based emissions continue to use up our national carbon budgets under the Paris Agreement, coupled with the continuing loss of agricultural land, the global community needs to act NOW.

Mark Harrison continued the discussion on emissions, but with reference to fire. The now frequent burning of peatlands in Southeast Asia is causing huge carbon, health and economic losses. What we know less about is the impact that fires are having on biodiversity. When forests burn, the canopy cover is greatly reduced, causing significant reductions in habitat and creating exposed ground that further dries. Studies have shown that, for example, there are lower abundances of butterflies in peatland areas impacted by burning. Aside from understanding more about the consequences of the fires for wildlife, another important, and often complex knowledge gap is around why the fires occur. Proximate causes include peat drainage, land use change and the use of fire in peatlands by people, whether purposefully or accidentally, creating ignition sources that are inadequately controlled. Once the reasons for peatland fires have been identified, solutions for managing and restoring them can be trialled (Harrison et al., 2020a). Mark emphasised that before any restoration work is even conceived, it is vital to ask what goal of that intervention is; restoration for what, and for whom? The Kalimantan Lestari project (translating to Sustainable Kalimantan), encompassing a multi-institutional interdisciplinary research team, will aim to ask these questions, along with many others. Coordinated by the University of Exeter, it will address the challenge of fire in the peatlands of Indonesian Borneo, with a focus on: (i) drivers of fire; (ii) impacts of fire; and (iii) ways of reducing the risk of and to increase resilience to fire, with the central goal of working holistically with and supporting local communities. As a final note, Mark brought our attention to the some of the challenges that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought to tropical peatlands (Harrison et al., 2020b).

From Southeast Asia’s largely degraded, fire-prone peatlands, the focus switched to the intact peat-forming forests of the Cuvette Central in Central Africa. A huge area of peatland was mapped by Greta Dargie in 2017 (Dargie et al., 2017), lying within the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo. Although the geospatial boundaries of the peatland are now known, there remain huge uncertainties in the carbon stocks held within the peat complex; a stock of great international interest. Greta reminded us to think beyond carbon though, to appreciate that these areas also hold spiritual value to local communities, along with many of the ecosystem services mentioned by our host of speakers. In acknowledgement of this important resource, the two Congolese Governments signed the Brazzaville Declaration in March 2018, which aims to improve cooperation and conservation activities between these two peat-rich nations. There are already some protective structures in place on the ground, e.g. Ramsar Sites, National Protected Areas, but with the pressures of developing economies and increasing interest in hydrocarbon extraction from the region, there is a need to enhance protection and the accountability of the Government. The international community must provide financial and other forms of support to help avoid dangerous land use change, and to ensure the peatlands are in the most favourable condition to withstand the unknown consequences of ongoing climate change in the region. New maps suggest that large areas of the Cuvette Central are made up of hydrologically isolated domed peatlands (Davenport et al., 2020), which are more vulnerable to the predicted warmer and drier conditions to come. There is currently a huge research effort underway, CongoPeat, to explore the past and present dynamics of these important tropical peatlands, and to better predict how they might respond to future climate change. The project aims to provide the two Congolese Governments with best information possible, to enable them to make wise decisions for the climate, livelihoods and biodiversity.

The Congo is not the only region with largely intact but relatively threatened tropical peatlands. The peatlands of the Peruvian Amazon contain huge volumes of carbon, stored under a large diversity of wetland forest types and open areas. Despite the peatlands being relatively intact, due to no or limited drainage activities within the flooding basin of the Amazon river, they are various notable uses of these ecosystems. Euridice Honorio described the harvesting of aguaje fruit from Mauritia flexuosa palm swamps, often found growing on peat. This harvesting is important for local livelihoods, providing them with a natural resource to sell at local markets. It is also predominantly sustainable a practice, and as such, an example of the importance of incorporating local knowledge and practices into landscape conservation and management plans. There is concern, however, that the degradation of these peatlands is an imminent possibility, as rice cultivation, mining, oil palm plantations and associated new infrastructure creep geographically closer (Fig. 2). Euridice emphasised the need for more protected areas, strengthened territorial management strategies and the use of scientific knowledge in policy making. But the first step is for greater recognition of the peatlands themselves. Euridice is currently working with Peru’s Ministry of Environment to create a definition for the nation’s peatlands, followed by a strategy for protecting them.

Fig. 2 Euridice Honorio discussing the current threats to the conservation of Peru’s lowland peatlands.

From the tropical latitudes, the discussion moved to the temperate zone, and in particular, Ireland. With the third greatest area of peat in Europe, Ireland is a nation with an extensive history of peat extraction for fuel. This practice has resulted in 82% of its peatlands undergoing drainage-based use, with the closest to a natural state being those under restoration. Catherine Pschenyckyj illustrated this point with the fact that 90% of Ireland’s soils are now carbon sources, rather the sinks they would previously have been as intact peatlands. In addition to carbon emissions, peat slides are an emergent property of these degraded landscapes, with impacts on the quality of water supplies, on communities of aquatic biota and on local people. However, Catherine provided encouraging news on the changes that are on the horizon: peat-fuelled power stations are closing; peatland rehabilitation projects are underway, with Bord na Mona, one of the largest energy generation companies in Ireland, investing money in restoring the sites from which they have harvested peat for many years; and projects monitoring restoration success being resourced in parallel. However, peat extraction has not halted yet, with still significant plans in place, driven in part by the horticulture industry. Catherine ended by emphasising the need to find solutions that benefit the environment and businesses.

Crossing back over the Irish Sea, Jon Walker spoke about Welsh peatlands, and namely a project he is working on to identify key gaps in the evidence base that is available for developing policy around peatland management in Wales. Through a literature review, he identified a dearth of research on forestry practices in Welsh peatlands, and a bias towards certain areas or topics, such as greenhouse gas emissions. Results from this important study, highlighting themes that require greater research focus, will feed into the Welsh Peatland Research Network, and in turn, direct the generation of robust science to fill evidence gaps for the National Peatland Action Programme of the country.

Moving to the north of the UK, Rebekka Artz described the work she has been involved in to map Scotland’s peatlands. There has been an increasing interest in, and need to map peatlands all over the world, but in particular in those places where there is money to invest in restoration. In Scotland, £250 million has been devoted to peatland restoration; the nation where the greatest area of peatlands is being restored across the world. The Scottish Government now has to decide where they can make the most effective and efficient investment of those funds. The first step is to locate the peatlands in an unfavourable condition, using models that predict how intact a peatland is from a range of remotely sensed cues, such as surface moisture. High resolution satellite data, i.e. from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 1 and 2, along with training data, primarily obtained through ground surveys, are key to making the modelling more accurate in depicting the situation on the ground (e.g. Williamson et al., 2020). Once the condition of the peatlands has been assessed, priority areas identified and restoration work commenced, the progress of interventions needs to be monitored. Variables such as change in vegetation and water table dynamics can be measured remotely, to give an indication of the resilience of peatlands to drought conditions. With this information, Rebekka and colleagues are working to develop an online decision support tool to assist stakeholders in choosing the most appropriate management options for a particular peatland in a given condition. Restoration tools developed in Scotland may prove useful in other regions, such as Canada, where vast areas of peatlands are ripe for restoration after the damaging exploitative activities of past decades.

Finally, Sarah Proctor, of the IUCN UK Peatland Programme, provided food for thought to close the session: “we need business unusual”. The recognition by UK society of the great importance of peatlands has been slow, but does appear to have now occurred and at a critical time. This is exemplified by the publication of the UK Peatland Strategy (Fig.2) in 2018. This document details solutions for managing peatlands across the UK and its overseas territories, with a vision and targets for a healthier peatland nation by 2040. The specific goals of the strategy include: (i) Conservation, of blanket bogs (globally rare), raised bogs, fens; (ii) Restoration of heavily degraded peatland to functioning ecosystems, e.g. of Blackhill in the Peak District; (iii) Adaptive Management, moving away from our established culture of drainage-based dryland agriculture, which is a huge source of GHG emissions; (iv) Sustainable Management, considering the truly sustainable options for peatland use; (v) Coordination, via instruments such as the UK Peatland Code and the Eyes on the Bog Initiative; and, vitally (vi) Communication, producing a wide variety of resources for different stakeholders. Sarah ended by emphasising that healthy peatlands are central to so many of the other goals we are striving for at a national and international level  and which will be discussed next year in Glasgow at the 26th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26).

Fig. 3 The UK’s first collaborative Peatland Strategy was developed by the IUCN UK Peatland Programme Partnership back in 2018 to capture and embed, for the long term, a shared vision for our peatlands, helping to maintain a focus across a broad partnership and allowing progress to be monitored.

The talks provided an overview of some the unique and many shared challenges that peatlands and their associated communities face across the world. Awareness of the importance of these ecosystems is rising, but there is still a lack of integrated thinking and sustainable actions at national to international levels. Research into peatland functioning and management has perhaps never been as pressing as it is now. And until we have the answers, panelists reminded the audience of the central rule of peatland management: to keep these wetlands wet.