Lera Miles of UN Environment: ‘There’s much more peatland there than anyone had ever anticipated’

Why the international community should do its part to support the Congo Basin countries in preserving their peatlands

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Will the recent discovery of peat in the Congo Basin be a boon or a liability for global climate change mitigation?

That depends on what happens next, said Lera Miles, Senior Programme Officer at the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Center.

Miles was a featured panelist at the Global Landscapes Forum: Peatlands Matter event in Jakarta on May 18, which brought together 425 diverse stakeholders from the government, private sector, science and civil society to accelerate positive action in the management of global peatlands.

She presented her research during one of the Forum’s afternoon science discussions titled, The rediscovered carbon stocks in tropical wetlands and peatlands, which was hosted and moderated by scientists from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). The session discussed the latest tools for identifying and locating wetlands and peatlands, and revealed how scientists are reassessing carbon stocks.

Miles spoke to Forests News’ Editor-in-Chief Leona Liu about how to ensure the sustainability of these newly-discovered peatlands.

*Read the full transcript of the TV interview below

Tell me about your work at UN Environment. What area do you focus on?

I am based at the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Center, which is in the U.K. Over the last ten years really, we have been working on UN REDD+, largely supporting the UN REDD+ program and countries within that program to think about how they are going to manage their forest carbon stocks in a way that promotes other values too – making sure their biodiversity is protected, the ecosystem services that people depend on are protected. So that includes mapping work that looks at how those values are distributed across the forest and also, some of the safeguards that are in place.

You just had a session at today’s event looking at what you call ‘black gold’, or the carbon stocks that is found in peat. Can you talk about what you presented at that discussion forum?

Indonesia, for a long time, has known that they have very important carbon stocks in their peatlands, as well as their forests. But for other countries such as Peru and the Republic of Congo and the Democratic of Congo, it is only coming to their attention more recently that there are significant carbon stocks in the peatlands below ground as well. So I’ve been talking about the Central Congo Basin.

Between the two countries, there is a depression called the Cuvette Centrale. It is about the size of Germany and there has been some work done very recently by a team of researchers from the U.K. and the Republic of Congo, and they have identified that about half of it is probably peat swamp forest. People have known for a long time that there is peatland in this region, but it is much more peatland than anybody had ever anticipated and much more carbon stock.

This gives the countries a new and very important thing to think about when they are working out how they are going to make sure they are contributing to climate change mitigation and looking after their ecosystem carbon stocks.

How significant is this discovery?

We knew that these colleagues had been working on the topic, but I was really surprised at the extent of the peatlands, which is about five times what people had previously thought. The amount of carbon in those peatlands is estimated to be about 30 gigatons of carbon, which is about the same as the carbon stocks in all of the forest biomass of those whole countries, so it’s very concentrated stock.

What are the next steps forward? What should be done?

Well, so far, this area has remained pretty intact, which is good news. It’s in a good condition. Now, it’s up to everyone in the international community to support those two countries to make sure that it stays that way because it’s newly on the radar for them, as well as everybody else.

We’ve known that the area has been important for other reasons already- they have a high biodiversity value, there are gorillas in some of the forests, there are bonobos in the region. There are many reasons that this area of is global importance already, but this is another reason. That means we need to think a bit more about how that land is going to be used in the future.

The thing I haven’t mentioned is that whilst this area has been, so far, largely undamaged, there’s a little bit of deforestation you can see from the global maps of tree cover loss around the edges of the area. But it’s in good condition. However, there are a few forest concessions around the edge (concessions for exploration of oil and gas or mining), so it feels like we could be at a turning point for this region. And it’s the right time to discover this additional importance, but it means there is an important job to do of working out how the area can be conserved.

The Global Landscapes Forum is a platform that aims to get everyone to sit down at the table, rather than sit in silos. How have you found the day so far, and have you been having conversations across the table?

Absolutely, and also I’ve been at the Global Peatlands Initiative Second Partners Meeting before this, so we’ve had an opportunity to chat about these topics for three days now, including having a field visit to Riau in Sumatra, which was extraordinary for me because I haven’t visited that ecosystem before.

Seeing how Indonesia is starting to implement the restoration of the hydrology of those systems is really encouraging. And it was so lovely to see the enthusiasm of everybody in the province, from government right down to the villagers who we visited.

I also really enjoyed the plenary sessions this morning [at the Global Landscapes Forum: Peatlands Matter]. Again, hearing from the local people about how they’ve been using the peatlands, how they’ve been needing to adapt their agricultural systems to deal with the prohibition on the use of fire, the strategies that they’re trying out- it all feels like it’s moving in a good direction. It’s a big job.

*This is part of a series of video interviews from the 2017 Global Landscapes Forum: Peatlands Matter thematic event in Jakarta, Indonesia

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Topic(s) :   Blue carbon, mangroves and peatlands REDD+ Peatlands Climate change Wetlands