- In 2017, researchers reported the existence of the largest tropical peatland complex in the world in the Congo Basin.
- In early 2018, a team of scientists, including the author, traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to probe deeper into the peatlands, which cover an area about the size of England and hold some 30 billion tons of carbon.
- Around the same time, the DRC government has awarded logging concessions that overlap with the peatlands, in violation of a 16-year-old moratorium on logging.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
LOKOLAMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — Sometime in March, I found myself trudging forward in a remote swamp in the heart of the Congo rainforest. As I worriedly tried to keep my boots from getting sucked in by the soft, brown mud, I wondered how far we could go on. It was our final day. In the two weeks prior, our team of British and Congolese researchers, together with men from the local village of Lokolama, had cut a 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) trail into this dense, swampy forest. It had proved to be painstakingly slow work. Some days were spent walking up and down the trail for up to eight hours, which only left us with a few hours of sunlight to actually work. But that day, upon reaching the furthest point yet, we tried to push for a few hundred meters more with the little light that was left — all to answer one big question: How much mud were we actually walking on?
Lokolama, a small, remote village in the Équateur province of northwestern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), made headlines last year when researchers from the University of Leeds in the U.K., together with campaigners from Greenpeace, discovered some very deep peat deposits near the village. Even on the outer edge of the swamp, the team found more than 3 meters (10 feet) of peat under their feet. Their measurements confirmed that the largest tropical peatland complex in the world, first described in early 2017 in the journal Nature, extends all the way from the neighboring Republic of Congo into the DRC. Hidden from the outside world by dense forest cover, vast stocks of carbon are buried underground in the form of partially decomposed plant matter. The peatland, roughly the size of England, is estimated to hold 30 billion metric tons (33 billion tons) of carbon. That is equivalent to three years of global fossil fuel emissions, or all of the carbon stored in all of the trees found in the entire Congo Basin rainforest.
At the University of Leeds, we wondered whether these discoveries were just the beginning. If we could already find 3 meters of peat just inside the forest, how much more could we find deep in the swamp’s interior? So earlier this year, we returned for three months of fieldwork, probing farther into the peatland than before. Already after 1 kilometer (0.6 miles), we measured 4.5 meters (15 feet) of peat. Four kilometers down the trail, our measurements had plumbed to more than 5 meters (16.5 feet). And when we added those last few hundred meters on our final day in the swamp, we found possibly 6 meters (19.5 feet) of peat underground.