Lowland tropical peatlands play a critical and, until recently, under-appreciated role in the global climate system. Peat captures carbon from the atmosphere and stores it underground for thousands of years. The largest areas of tropical peatlands are in southeast Asia, western Amazonia, and the Congo Basin, and all of them sequester large amounts of carbon below ground. However, peatlands can also be exploited by industrial agriculture and are often critical to the livelihoods of rural communities around them.
Many of the peatlands that are best understood, including those in Southeast Asia, have been heavily degraded by resource exploitation over many decades. In contrast, Amazonian and Congolese peatlands remain largely intact but are little understood. Research by the School of Geography and Sustainable Development has been instrumental in increasing understanding and protection of these important but vulnerable resources. The peatland research group (P@StA) has worked with partners worldwide to map intact tropical peatland ecosystems and analyse their CO2 stocks, whilst using this knowledge to ensure their long-term protection.
Drs Lawson and Roucoux began by supervising a PhD project which assessed the amount of carbon stored in Peruvian peatlands. The peatland around the Peruvian stretch of the River Amazon is roughly the size of Belgium, making it the largest known peatland in the Amazonia. The team found that it stored over 3 billion tonnes of carbon, which equates to roughly half of the carbon stored in the tree biomass across the whole of Peru.
Building on the skills and techniques developed in Peru, Lawson co-led a second project which discovered and quantified the carbon storage of previously unrecognized peatlands in the Congo Basin. They revealed a vast extent of previously unrecognised peatlands. A swamp forest slightly larger than England, the peatland stores an estimated 30 billion tonnes of carbon – the equivalent of all man-made energy-related emissions around the world for three years.
Throughout this process, Roucoux was particularly concerned to understand the vulnerability of tropical peatlands. This developed into a third strand of research, in which the team undertook the first assessment of threats to intact tropical peatlands in Peru. At the same time, the team were identifying ways to conserve them, such as national nature reserves and investment in carbon conservation schemes. Subsequent research focused on the cultural and social value of Peru’s peatlands to local communities, with Professor Nina Laurie bringing expertise in development, gender, and cultural geography. Their work resulted in the peatlands being raised to “National Cultural Heritage Status”, helping to introduce mechanisms to protect this vulnerable resource.
The group’s work in the Congo Basin was highly influential to international environmental policy. Its findings were shared in two important 2017 UNEP reports, ‘Smoke on Water: countering global threats from peatland loss and degradation’ and ‘Carbon, biodiversity and land-use in the Central Congo Basin peatlands’. This high-profile communication resulted in the development and ratification in 2018 of the Brazzaville Declaration, an inter-governmental agreement to protect the central Congo basin peatlands that specifically protects newly discovered peatlands from unregulated change in land use that could lead to exploitation.
P@StA has further influenced government policy and public opinion by working with regional and national policy-shapers including NGOs, regional and national government bodies, by establishing stakeholder networks, and by generating press coverage across the world by directly engaging journalists. This has emphasised the pressing need for climate change mitigation and helped improve the livelihoods of poor and marginalised communities. The team’s research was used by the Peruvian Ministry of Environment to develop the first formal national definition of ‘peat’, and as the foundation for their technical guide on peatlands. These actions show a commitment to the protection of the Peruvian carbon stores located in its peatland, which would not have been recognised without P@StA’s research.
The team’s research has also been used to secure substantial funds for climate resilience and carbon conservation. P@StA’s peatland mapping has provided the justification for regions to apply for vital funding for which they would otherwise be ineligible. Emblematic of this progress is a successful application by Peru’s National Parks trust to the UN Green Climate Fund in 2015 worth over $9 million, entitled ‘Building the Resilience of Wetlands in the Province of Datem del Marañón, Peru’.
This Green Climate Fund project is enhancing the climate resilience and livelihoods of 120 indigenous wetland communities – around half of all the province’s indigenous communities – by fostering economic growth that is environmentally sustainable, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and peatland destruction. The project has supported the development of a new business that brings together five communities, of around 60 people each, to produce organic-certified oils from palm fruits. These high-quality oils are produced to strict sustainability and organic criteria and are marketed across the world by an NGO in Lima. This kind of intervention is made possible by researchers like those in P@StA, and it provides much needed reliable and sustainable incomes to peatland communities while preserving their valuable and vulnerable resources for future generations.
P@StA’s work in translating science into policy has taken a new direction with the success of Dr Euridice Honorio Coronado in winning a NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellowship to be based at St Andrews. This three year project, starting in October 2021, will focus on integrating the group’s research into Peru’s governmental decision-making by working closely with the Ministry of Environment, and the National Reserves Agency SERNANP. The project then aims to export the lessons learned to other countries across the tropics.