CongoPeat: Past, Present and Future of the Peatlands of the Central Congo Basin

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: Sch of Geography


We recently discovered the world's largest tropical peatland complex, spanning an area larger than England, in the heart of Africa. This proposal brings together an interdisciplinary team of scientists to study this newly discovered ecosystem. Our goal is to understand how the peatland became established, how it functions today, and how it will respond to human-induced climate change and differing future development pathways. We will use the results to inform critical policy decisions about the region.

Peat is partially decomposed plant matter. Peatlands are some of the most carbon-dense ecosystems on Earth. Covering 3% of Earth's land surface, they store one-third of soil carbon. A recent NERC-funded PhD, led by CongoPeat PI Professor Lewis, showed for the first time that the largest wetland in Africa, in the central Congo Basin, contains extensive peat deposits. This research, published in 2017 in Nature, estimates that the peatland stores 30 billion tonnes of carbon (C). By comparison, in 2016, UK emissions were 0.1 billion tonnes of C. Our discovery increases global tropical peatland C stocks by 36%.

We know very little about this new globally important ecosystem. Our data show peat accumulation began about 10,600 years ago, when central Africa's climate became wetter. Accumulation has been slow - on average just 2 m has accumulated over this period - but it is unknown whether this is due to a constant slow build-up of peat and C, or fast rates interspersed with losses in drier periods. Our evidence suggests that the peatlands are fed by rainfall, but such peatlands usually form domes ('raised bogs'), yet satellite data do not show this feature. Thus, we do not know how this peatland system developed, how it functions today, or how vulnerable it is to future climate and land use changes.

Tropical peatlands in SE Asia have been extensively damaged by drainage for industrial agriculture, particularly oil palm, with serious biodiversity, climate and human health implications. Oil palm is now rapidly expanding across Africa. Congolese peatlands could become a globally significant source of atmospheric CO2 if they are drained, leading to their decay. A prerequisite of following a different development pathway is a scientific understanding of the region.

The CongoPeat proposal therefore brings together leading experts from six UK universities, a science-policy communication specialist, and five Congolese partner organisations, to gain:

1. An integrated understanding of the origin and development of the central Congo peatland complex over the last 10,000 years. We will analyse peat deposit sequences from across the region, extracting preserved pollen grains, charcoal, and chemical markers, to reconstruct the changing environment through time. We will use an unmanned aerial vehicle to map peatland surface topography, and develop a mathematical model of peatland development.

2. A better estimate of the amount of C stored in the peat, its distribution, and the amounts of important greenhouse gases, CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide, being exchanged with the atmosphere. This will be achieved via extensive fieldwork to map peat distribution, and by installing intensive measurement stations to determine the flows of C into and out of the ecosystem.

3. An understanding of the possible future scenarios for the Congo peatlands. A range of models will be used to simulate the possible impacts of future climate and land-use change on the peatland, at local to global scales.

Finally, we will effectively communicate these results to policy-makers in Africa and internationally via briefings and active media engagement.

The CongoPeat team will produce the first comprehensive assessment of the genesis, development, and future of the world's largest tropical peatland, enabling the UK to retain world-leading expertise in understanding how the Earth functions as an integrated system and how humans are changing it.

Planned Impact

Our research has enormous potential for Impact. We will be highly pro-active and strategic in ensuring that we achieve this potential. We will engage directly with policy-makers, those who influence policy, and those who enact management of Congo peatlands, via tailored high-level written and verbal policy briefings, and actively engage with the media to raise wider public awareness to provide a mandate for policy action. Our written briefings will be translated into French for maximum impact.

The development pathways of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Republic of Congo (RoC) governments will be impacted by our research. We will provide maps of the peatlands and knowledge, via modelling efforts, of likely impacts of changing land-use and climate. Indeed, since our discovery of the peatland (Dargie, Lewis et al. 2017, Nature), the RoC is considering extending the Lac Tele Community Reserve (co-managed by PP WCS-Congo), while DRC has decreed a new Peatlands Management Unit to be created.

We will also engage directly with other organisations that influence the decisions of the two governments, including international institutions, donors and advisers, e.g. the Central African intergovernmental organisation COMIFAC (Commission des Forets d'Afrique Centrale), the UN REDD+ scheme (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), and major donor governments whose aid programmes include the peatland region (US, UK, Norway, France, Germany, Japan, Belgium, World Bank). Norwegian government is accessible via PP Global Peatlands Initiative.

We will provide written and verbal briefings to UK government, in collaboration with PP Hadley Centre. PI Lewis and Co-I's Betts and Miles are experienced in giving such briefings having done so to COMIFAC, US, UK, European donor governments, UN processes and the World Bank.

CongoPeat will increase UK Earth system science capability, paving the way for modelling of tropical peat, benefiting future IPCC assessments. We will contribute to the first UNFCCC "global stocktake" under the Paris Agreement, exploiting our data on central African C stock and GHG flux data, as part of planning and enacting 1.5/2C emissions pathways.

Commodity production organisations with a carbon mitigation focus (e.g. Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), and international conservation organisations (e.g. Wetlands International, Ramsar Convention on Wetlands), will benefit from improved maps and C stock estimates allowing peatland protection policies to be developed.

Our research may alter land values, leading to investments to improve livelihoods, as the Green Climate Fund did for a Peruvian peatland, benefitting 20,000 local people. We will advocate for inclusion of local people in decisions on their future (Lewis et al. 2015, Science), with a focus on the Lac Tele Community Reserve, near our intensive sampling sites. Our findings may improve land-use decisions by including more environmental externalities, often via public campaigns. We will provide verbal and written briefings to NGOs supporting the rights of local people in the region.

Other beneficiaries are scientists working with our PPs at Marien Ngouabi University in Brazzaville (RoC), University of Kisangani (DRC), WCS-Congo, and WCS-DR Congo. We will build capacity by training to improve knowledge and skills allowing local scientists to better understand and monitor this globally important ecosystem.

Our timely, targeted and high-quality scientific information may then allow central Congo's peatlands to escape the destructive fate of SE Asian peatlands thereby avoiding serious climate, biodiversity, and regional human health impacts. A UNEP-WCMC briefing led by Co-I Miles to country governments following our Congo peatland discovery shows a route for scientific information to impact policy to allow the region to follow socially, economically and environmentally-beneficial development pathways into the future.


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Description The grant was awarded to begin 1 September 2018. The initial field campaigns began in January 2019. Thus, at the time of writing, early March 2019, we have no specific discoveries to report. However, the initial field campaign to Likouala department, Republic of Congo is proceeding according to plan and on time - teams are in the field at the time of writing. The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle was successfully flown over the peatlands to map their topography, which will produce the first ever topographic map of a Congolese peatland. The new intensive ground monitoring stations are installed and the monthly measurements of carbon fluxes has begun.
Exploitation Route Too early to say as data collection has only just begun.
Sectors Environment

Description Article to explain CongoPeat for launch of project. 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Wrote an article for leading website CarbonBrief, to announce the CongoPeat project and explain it to the public. Also translated into French.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Press conference with Republic of Congo Minister of Environment and Tourism to explain the CongoPeat project to Congolese public 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Press conference in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, for Prof Simon Lewis and Her Excellency the Minister for Environment and Tourism, Mrs Arlette Sudan-Nonault, to explain the new CongoPeat project to the Congolese public. Addended by c. 200 people, covered by main TV news, radio, newspaper and other outlets.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019