Our main message, watered-down, is that mapping peatlands is no easy task and there is still much work to do on the ground, and across the globe….but we are fast working on these knowledge gaps and know enough about the important role that peatlands play in mitigating climatic change that we would be fools to let them squander.
About a month ago, I got back from my first ever trip to the continent of South America. And the reason for my visit? Peat, of course. Here is a blog post I wrote for my new(ish) research group, the Tropical Wetlands Consortium, on my recent adventure to the “chupaderas”, or sucking swamps, of the western Amazon.
A colleague, being sucked in. (She is entering a type of palm swamp dominated by Mauritia flexuosa, locally known as an aguajál and important for the fruit that can be harvested there.)
At the end of June, I got back from two months of fieldwork in the Peruvian Amazon. The swamps, the Amazon, Peru, and indeed South America, were all new to me, having spent most of my research career to date searching for remnants of intact peatlands in Southeast Asia.
In the Pastaza-Maranon Foreland Basin (PMFB), a large area of the lowland Amazon within the Department of Loreto, Peru, you’re pushed to find any land that isn’t swampy to walk on. Mapping projects to date have estimated the peatlands of the PMFB to cover 100,000km2. One of the reasons I was there, along with six colleagues (from the Universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Manchester) and a bunch of exceptional assistants, was to help improve the accuracy of this estimate. We each had slightly different data gathering agendas, but overall were trying to find out more about the evolution, ecology, condition and value of these peatlands, both from a local and global perspective.
Washing clothes in Veinte de Enero, on the banks of the Yanayacu river, on one of the many fine evenings after coming back from a sweaty day in the swamps.
My focus, along with that of Luis Andueza (fellow St Andrean) and Charlotte Wheeler (Edinburgh), was to investigate how people value the wetland ecosystems of the PMFB. Luis formed a key part of the social science team, made up of a great bunch of co-investigators and assistants from the Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonía Peruana (IIAP). They spent many hours asking many questions of the members of three communities, Veinte de Enero, Nueva Union and Nueva Pandora, living on the banks of the Yanayacu, Chambira and Tigrillo rivers, respectively. They, incidentally, drank a variety of liquids during the interviews, to facilitate their social integration with the communities!
The ecological crew I was with, busy measuring what we measure in a plot. Spot the agile one up the tree. Never have I seen such heights scaled so quickly, and with such ease! (I might need to adapt the Risk Assessment for the next trip, however.)
Concurrently, Charlotte and myself, led by our brilliant botanist, Nállarett, and two courageous Field Assistants, Julio S and Julio I, were out exploring the many ecosystems that surrounded these communities. Our work was, in essence, a big treasure hunt. Our mission (that I questioned why I’d chosen to accept at various points of inundation!) was to find the gold – the code-word for peat. We ventured into the environment surrounding the three communities in order to “ground-truth” information of two sorts: (i) ecosystem types/resource extraction locations marked on participatory maps generated by the communities in workshops run by the social science team, and (ii) maps generated through remote sensing (using Landsat imagery) that depict changes in land cover, with the different ‘covers’ yet to be confidently identified or understood from an ecological perspective. We spent approximately 20 days cutting our way through swampy forests of all shapes and sizes. When we came across a new ecosystem type, and felt that we could work at that location for two hours without sinking, we gathered data on various above- and below-ground characteristics. One of the most challenging plots was half a meter under water, at a location aptly named “31 Devils”. Thankfully, I’ve had previous experience of snorkelling in bogs.
Now that we’re all back on solid ground, we’re starting to explore all of the ecological and interview data collected from the swamps, to try to understand how people use, and importantly, how they value the wetlands ecosystems of the PMFB, as well as understanding the physical characteristics of these ecosystems from a western scientific perspective. Our initial findings suggest that there are a whole range of forested wetlands used by these communities, composed of a huge diversity of flora on both peat and non-peatlands, and on a confusing mix of peaty-lands in between. And, not unsurprisingly, people tend to avoid the deeper, looser, more “sucking”, mosquito-ridden swamps, when and where they can! Sensible folk. But we still have much to learn about the nuances of how each community values these carbon-rich, biodiverse and beautiful ecosystems.
Some of the great team, fresh-faced and smiling at the start of our fieldwork campaign! (One member of the team may have been carried over the swamps in some parts. Many other members of the team wished someone would carry them over the swamps in all parts.
An area of deforested, drained and burnt peatland, converted into smallholder agriculture, within a Biodiversity Concession, Central Kalimantan province. Mapping of these activities, and the depth of peat on which they are happening, will assist with planning more responsible landscape management.
What is the Indonesian Peat Prize?
After the devastating peat fires of 2015, creating a toxic haze that covered parts of Southeast Asia for months, the spotlight was on Indonesia to address the cause of the burning. Unsustainable land use in peatland areas was the primary offender, whether resulting from activities of industrial-scale oil palm and pulp and paper companies, smallholders, or a mixture of both. Who exactly is to blame varies by place and perspective; further discussion of which will be left for another day! In order to address this international disaster and restore the burnt landscapes, the Indonesian Government established the Peatland Restoration Agency, or BRG, in January of 2016.
Before the BRG could address the challenge of understanding the distribution of peatland (mis)uses and consider where to restore the ecosystem, there was a need to know where the peat actually is, and crucially, how deep it is. There was already a map of peatland distribution in Indonesia: Wetlands International compiled one in 2004 and the Ministry of Agriculture in 2011, which can be accessed through the Global Forest Watch platform. However, these maps offer a very coarse spatial resolution and an even coarser indication of how thick the peat is. Since their production, earth observation and ground-based technologies have improved dramatically, making higher resolution mapping more feasible.
The winning team is an international collaboration of scientists (mostly men!), coming from Indonesia, Germany and the Netherlands. The aptly named International Peat Mapping Team (IPMT) comprises members from Indonesia’s Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT), South Sumatra province’s Sriwijaya University, and three German institutions: Greifswald University, the Remote Sensing Solutions GmbH (RSS) and Airbus DS Geo. They convinced the judges of their ability to create a prototype method for surveying the country’s peatlands, with their proposed “multistage” solution: a cost-effective, versatile combination of satellite remote sensing, airborne LiDAR and ground-based measurements. Though this group was awarded the prize, other finalists proposed using similar techniques (with the possibility of lower costs) which may also form part of the solution as the exercise unfolds.
A new oil palm plantation under development, at the edge of a protected peatland (with remnant peat swamp forest visible in the background). How far into the peat dome the plantation extends, and thus the extent of impact, will be measurable using the new mapping techniques.
How might the prize help peat?
In theory, the map will create a universal, repeatable method for mapping peatlands across Indonesia (and potentially the world). Having One Map from which land covers can be defined and land uses observed and allocated will enable a greater transparency in local and national government decision-making. It may also help to reduce the regular conflict encountered when land management decisions are made without complete information on land use and tenure.
In practice however, a lot of money has been spent on a mapping exercise that will only mean anything if there is money to spend on the management exercise to accompany it. The conservation challenge on the ground is likely less to do with knowing the exact depth of a peat substrate and more to do with the depth of understanding of the people living there of how important maintaining a wet peatland is; coupled with the depth of understanding of the challenges and aspirations of those people by the institutions proposing sustainable management policies. The cost of understanding the extent of the challenge, of figuring out how to restore such a transformed landscape and of enforcing the variety of potential policy solutions must not be underestimated.
Last week, an article that I showcased on my blog a few months ago was published (re-vamped) in The Conversation. Since it went live, I’ve had some very interesting comments and conversations about where and how we get our electricity. What is the best source of power for a country? What factors are considered in making that choice? Which takes precedence over energy-efficiency, cost-effectiveness and environmental impact? Is the latter even considered? I am beginning to understand the complexity of issues involved in making choices between fossil fuels, renewables, national and international energy supplies, access and development. But I have much still to learn. It’s perhaps the biggest challenge of our time. Whatever the answer though, power from peat is surely not a solution.
Rwanda adds to energy mix with first peat-fired power plant in Africa
Another larger peat plant, costing $350M is under development in Gisagara to the east. The plan is for Gishoma to start feeding 15MW of electricity into the national grid imminently, and Gisagara 80MW by 2019.
The Rwandan government is hoping to achieve its goal of connecting 70% of the country’s 11.7 million people to the national grid by 2018. This is a near three-fold increase on the number connected at present. The peat-to-power plant at Gishoma will contribute to this goal, and further increase the installed capacity of the nation. This will reduce Rwanda’s reliance on expensive imports of diesel oil for power generation.
At the moment, only 25% of households have access to the 190MW of power generated in country. But over the next two years the capacity is projected to reach 563MW in line with national development goals. This increase will be made possible in part through the harnessing of power from peat.
Peat provides an effective energy source when dried, comprising a minimum of 30% organic matter. It develops under anaerobic conditions, where waterlogging significantly slows or prevents the decomposition of dead vegetation. As the vegetation grows in the surface layers, it absorbs atmospheric carbon through the process of photosynthesis. When it dies, this carbon is stored in the accumulating substrate which is peat.
Peatlands are found across the world. But they are concentrated within certain regions where high humidity or low temperatures reduce the rate of decomposition. These include the coastal lowlands of southeast Asia or northern Russia’s permafrost zones. Despite covering just 3% of the world’s ice-free land surface, peatlands store up to 30% of its total soil carbon stock. This makes them the most efficient carbon storage facility we have.
But arguably, not a renewable one. Though each peatland varies, one centimetre depth of peat may take an average of 10 years to accumulate, and less than 10 minutes to burn.
It’s estimated that there will be sufficient peat deposits to power Rwanda for 30 years, or some proportion of the country at least. The enhanced power that will come from the Gishoma and Gisagara peat-to-power plants is seen as an important part of the country’s development provision.
The plans are enabled through financial support from the African Finance Corporation, the Development Bank of Rwanda and Finnfund, the Finnish Development Finance Company, among other lenders. Finland has expertise in peat extraction and its use in the energy industry, with an average of 5% of its national supply coming from peat. This was encouraged by subsidies until recently.
untouched natural rainforest that is filled with exciting biodiversity.
The park’s website boasts of the presence of hundreds of species of trees and orchids within the park, such as the swamp-dwelling Eulophia horsfellii. It’s also host to numerous plants species of medicinal value, like the East African satinwood, Zanthoxylum gilletii, and to one of the last stable populations of chimpanzees in East Africa. But there is no mention of peat. It’s evidently not a key feature for the average tourist.
There are vast areas of peatlands across the Tropics that we are only now starting to map and understand their full extent and carbon content. For example, it was only a few months ago that the first map of the world’s largest tropical peat complex was published. Around 145,500 square kms of peat swamp forest was found in the central Congo Basin.
There may well be vast resources of peat in Rwanda that local residents have known about for years, or that the Finns have sniffed out recently, of which science has yet to be told or be concerned about. But whatever the scenario defining the nation’s peaty asset and wherever it is exactly, it is unlikely to be there for much longer if peat-to-power generation continues to be Rwanda’s cost competitive energy solution.
Given that it takes thousands of years to accumulate just hundreds of centimetres of peat, is peat-power really the solution to the nation’s energy needs? Can the Elon Musk’s out there create an energy-storage solution quickly enough that renewables make a serious contribution?
For now though, Rwanda is set to power through its peat.
Today is a day to celebrate and spread the word about our world’s wonderful wetlands.
Borrowed from the World Wetlands Day website. (Thank you!)
On this day 46 years ago, the Convention on Wetlands was adopted in the Iranian city of Ramsar. Since then, the 2nd February has marked the signing of this Ramsar Convention: “an international treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources”.
Wetlands are increasingly acknowledged for their importance in controlling the quality and quantity of water flowing across landscapes, as reflected by the theme of this year’s World Wetlands Day: Wetlands for Disaster Risk Reduction. They are also important for biodiversity conservation, for filtering pollutants from water supplies and of course our magnificent peatlands are critical for sequestering and storing atmospheric carbon (in their intact form).
Perhaps it’s time for a World Peatlands Day?
To celebrate the day and how peatland management has changed in the UK and Ireland over the last few generations, from predominantly extraction to conservation, here is a poem by Seamus Heaney:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
A swamp in northern Borneo, same-same-but-different to those in central Africa.
Yesterday, a very exciting article was published in Nature, describing the vast area of peatland that has just been mapped and measured in the Congo Basin. It’s even bigger than Wales, apparently. It was discovered by Dr Greta Dargie and her former supervisor, Dr Simon Lewis, after many a long and hard hour spent traversing the unstable, humid and mosquito-ridden peatlands of the DRC and Republic of Congo.
The ‘finding’ of this peatland has elevated our most recent estimate of the magnitude of the peat carbon store across Africa by an incredible five times; vastly increasing our calculation of the total volume of tropical peatlands also. Whilst it’s probably no news to local people that there’s a massive swamp in their back garden, it is unlikely that they, and evidently the global community, appreciated the real extent of this waterlogged forest and how much peat it was hiding underneath. Why should they? Underground carbon (a.k.a. peat), along with its climate change mitigation powers (and REDD+ revenue potential), is a relatively abstract concept. But a hugely important natural phenomenon.
Given the remote location of the Cuvette Centrale peatlands the threat of industrial agriculture is unusually rare (unlike in Southeast Asia). However this carbon store is not immune to the potential and pervasive impact of climate change, and specifically climatic drying, where evapotranspiration may exceed precipitation, as Professor Sue Page aptly explains.
This time last week I was feeling a strange mixture of distraught, angry and empowered. The latter emotion primarily because nothing else seemed to be very important anymore, compared to the task in hand, i.e. sorting out the mess we’re rapidly making of our planet.
If you haven’t seen it yet, please watch Before the Flood. It is an honest, hugely powerful portrayal of the challenges we’re facing with living “sustainably” on Earth, conveyed through the eyes of a very talented and passionate environmentalist*. As UN Messenger of Peace for the Climate, Leonardo DiCaprio travels around the world for two years, observing the impact we are having on it, from the melting of the Arctic ice sheets to the burning of the peatlands of Southeast Asia. It’s as beautiful as it is harrowing.
There are so many different ways we’re doing damage to the natural and semi-natural environments of this world; in some circumstances with a (dwindling) level of ignorance of the impacts and in some cases with full knowledge (and abandon) of them. Hypocracy Money rules. Trump got in. The burning continues.
If we don’t all consider what’s going on out there, how we’re contributing to it, how we’re implicated in it (it is in our back yard) and tell the people above us that we care, the ecosystems on which we completely depend will continue to go to s**t.
*As much as a multi-billionnaire (I presume, since millionnaires are old hat) can be an environmentalist….but he doesn’t shy away from the incongruities/inevitable hypocricy. (If only a few more of the celebrity billionaires out there were as useful as this great chap.)