Revealed: the carbon time-bomb inside the world’s largest tropical peatland

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

The world’s largest tropical peatland has recently been discovered in the swamp forests of the Congo Basin. This unique ecosystem, which covers an area larger than England, is reckoned to be one of the most carbon-rich ecosystems on Earth, holding more carbon than all of the rainforest trees of the entire Congo Basin. It is also home to large populations of endangered gorillas and elephants.

The academics who mapped the peatland for the first time have stated that its maintenance and protection could be “Central Africa’s greatest contribution to the global climate change problem”. The same academics note that while the area remains relatively undisturbed, it could soon face the threat of drainage for agricultural plantations.

In fact the area already faces just such a threat. By far the largest current risk to this uniquely valuable ecosystem is a giant concession issued to Malaysian firm Atama Plantation for the development of palm oil. This company has been repeatedly found to be operating illegally.

Atama’s Cuvette oil palm plantation land overlaid on the newly mapped ‘world’s largest peatland’

In 2010, Atama was issued a license for a total of 470,000 hectares of land in the Cuvette and Sangha provinces of Republic of Congo. Most of the license area is covered in dense forest, the majority of it virgin ‘intact forest landscape’ and home to large populations of endangered animals, including some of the highest concentrations of gorillas in the world.

The largest of the two sections of land allocated to Atama is in Cuvette, officially covering an area of just over 400,000 hectares, but mapped by Earthsight as encompassing more than half a million hectares: an area three times the size of Greater London. The boundaries of this area enclose a large swathe of the newly discovered peatland (see Figure).

In 2012, the Congolese authorities and its officially mandated ‘independent observer’ of forest law enforcement published evidence of serious illegalities relating to the project. Hundreds of trees had been cut but not recorded in official felling reports, records had been illegally altered, and the company had cleared forest for more than two kilometres outside the boundaries of its existing deforestation permit. The independent monitor could also find no evidence of any Environmental Impact Assessment having been completed and approved in advance of activities, as required by law. It recommended that operations should be suspended and the company prosecuted.

Neither happened. Satellite images analysed by Earthsight clearly show that Atama has continued to clear forest and cut timber ever since. In 2014 and again in 2016, the independent observer investigated and found fresh evidence of serious illegality by the company. The most recent investigation, published just this month, found the company cutting trees within an area of the concession on which the deforestation permit had expired, and failing to pay taxes.

Potentially even more serious is the opaque history of the ownership of the company, which involves multiple shells in such secrecy jurisdictions as Mauritius and the British Virgin Islands, shielding the identities of the original ultimate beneficial owners. These owners profited to the tune of millions when a majority share of the firm was sold to stock-exchange listed Wah Seong, a Malaysian firm with no prior experience of plantation development. Wah Seong have since diluted their share to 49 percent and are now reported to be trying to sell their remaining stake.

To date, all of Atama’s illegal logging and bulldozing has been concentrated in a separate concession area further north in Sangha province, not on peatland. Satellite images confirm that their 5,000 square kilometre ‘time-bomb’ in Cuvette remains untouched, for now. But the contract has never been cancelled. Even if the land does prove un-plantable, it is possible that Atama may still seek to cut the most valuable timber. It might also seek to profit from its rights to the land, by charging international donors a carbon fee for refraining from clearing it. The concession was included in the ‘baseline’ for the country under the international Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) initiative which envisages such payments. If any such payments are ever made, they would be massively perverse, since they would most likely be used by Atama to bankroll expansion of its forest clearance elsewhere.

Based on the figures for the peatland as a whole, Earthsight estimates that at least four billion tonnes of CO2 would be released if Atama’s ‘time-bomb’ was cleared and drained for palm oil, leading the peat to rot or burn. That is twice as much as all of America’s cars and trucks combined produce in a year.