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The race to defuse Congo’s carbon bomb

BOLOMBA TERRITORY, Democratic Republic of Congo — The parishioner approached the pastor after morning prayer to tell him she’d had a dream the night before — a premonition, really — that a White man would walk into their remote village soon and change their lives forever.

The arrival of professor Simon Lewis and his colleagues in Ikenge just months later would indeed upend this calm idyll tucked away in one of the world’s remaining rainforests.

The village — home to a few dozen families living in earthen houses ringed by fields of cassava — is exceptionally secluded. Reaching it requires journeying for at least a day in dugout canoes up charcoal-black tributaries, often while torrential thunderstorms crisscross overhead. Ikenge’s residents are familiar with the world beyond the forest, though they seldom interact with it.

So when Lewis and his colleagues began talking in giddy, hushed tones about carbon and a substance called “tourbière” in French, Pastor Timothée Bombala sensed the premonition was coming true.

“They kept saying, ‘This is the biggest and deepest we have ever seen.’ They were very excited,” Bombala recalled of that momentous day in 2019. “They took many pieces of it with them.”

“And when they left, they told us not to disturb it,” he added. “ ‘Do not damage the swamp because there is great wealth there’ — that’s what one of them said to me.”

The “wealth” in question had the sound of veins of gold and ore to Bombala — and he wished it were so — but they instead referred to plain-old “potopoto,” or mud, in Lingala, the regional language.

And rather than wealth derived from extraction — common in Congo, which has been exploited of its vast natural resources by outsiders for well over a century at the cost of millions of Congolese lives — this mud, they were told, would generate wealth only if they left it in the ground.

The “it,” after all, was not just potopoto, but peat, a slurry of very slowly decomposing organic matter and one of the terrestrial world’s densest stores of carbon. When disturbed, peatlands can release their stores in a short amount of time in what some who study them call a carbon bomb.

Lewis and his team were about to confirm a major scientific discovery: Ikenge sits in the midst of the largest swath of tropical peatland on the planet. People in Ikenge were thrilled because they thought peat might turn to profit much like Congo’s mineral wealth.

“It’s not something to dig up and sell, but explaining why can be a struggle,” said Lewis, a blond, bespectacled Briton affiliated with universities in Leeds and London who sees his work partly as pure science, and partly as activism on behalf of the environment and of the Congolese people. “People drinking river water don’t have the most basic thing — a water pump, a well. They want the benefit immediately.”

At around 56,000 square miles (about the size of Iowa) and more than 30 feet deep in places, the peatland Congo shares with its neighbor, the Republic of Congo, holds at least as much carbon as the whole world currently emits in three years of burning fossil fuels.

Some patches of the peatlands in Congo’s Central Basin have been accumulating and storing carbon since the late days of the Earth’s last major ice age, around 17,000 years ago.

Industrializing countries around the world — from Europe and the United States in past centuries to southeast Asia in the 21st century — drained vast areas of peatlands, drying them and releasing immense wafts of carbon dioxide as well as smaller quantities of nitrous oxide, another potent greenhouse gas. The mass conversion of peatland into farmland over the centuries is estimated to have released as much as 250 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Congo wants what the rest of the world got from its peatlands: an economic development boost. The enormous Central African country is near rock-bottom on key development indicators, including life expectancy, access to education and electrification.

But herein lies one of the great paradoxes of our age: Industrialization has already irreversibly and harmfully changed our climate, and the countries responsible for most of those emissions are tasked by the United Nations with helping the rest of the world develop without repeating the mistakes of the past.

If Congo were to drain its pristine peatlands, it is near certain that hundreds of millions or even billions of tons of carbon dioxide would be emitted into the atmosphere.

“If the international community, scientists and economists can’t figure out how to keep that kind of place intact and raise the livelihoods of a relatively small number of people,” said Lewis, “where can we?”

On that point — that Congo must benefit from its peatlands — everyone agrees. But how?

Will Congo follow history and replicate European and Asian peat-to-farmland economies? Will the government move forward with drilling for the vast quantities of oil some claim lies underneath the peat; will it lease the rainforest to loggers? Or will conservation-minded institutions, mostly in the West, come up with a better offer, one in which the carbon stays in the ground and Congo still gets a payout? The answer could have global implications.

In Ikenge, two years have now passed since Lewis’s brief sojourn, but hope for a way to turn peat into profit persists.

As a dizzyingly humid day came to a close, thousands of whirring insects thronged the village’s single solar-powered lamp. Women pounded dry cassava into flour as the sunlight dimmed. Bombala, an evangelical Christian, led a group of men in prayer.

“We pray that the day is not far when we will be rescued from poverty,” he said, his eyes closed, his hands raised above his head, his fingers reaching for God. “The peat is a miracle sent directly from the Lord, and we pray that it will deliver us. Amen.”

A journey into the heart of Congo’s peatland

Peatland extent data from Dargie et al. 2017

The day-long trip to Ikenge starts in Mbandaka, a provincial capital with more than a million people that has no electricity and just two paved roads.

Satellite imagery from Planet Labs PBC
(Videos by Max Bearak/The Washington Post)

Mbandaka sits on the Congo River, the second most voluminous in the world after the Amazon – and miles wide at some points.

In a dugout canoe fitted with a small motor, a Washington Post reporter and crew went up a tributary, the Ikelemba, which runs black because of the rich, peaty soil it travels through.

People who live along the river often build temporary houses of wood and thatch and subsist off small gardens, hunted jungle animals and river fish.

Torrential downpours pound the rainforest for much of the year.

The final stretch to Ikenge, a remote village in the heart of the peatlands, takes the boat through a flooded forest under which peat has accumulated over thousands of years.

A short motorcycle ride ends up at the home of Pastor Timothée Bombala, head of Ikenge’s affairs in both the terrestrial and spiritual realms.

A legacy of colonial exploitation

When the professor and the pastor met in the village, a gulf created by a traumatic history stood between them.

White Europeans have subjugated the Democratic Republic of Congo and undermined its development for more than a century. In 1885, Belgium’s King Leopold II used a private militia to seize what is now Congo. They forced locals to harvest rubber and ivory, cutting off their hands if they came up short of quotas.

As many as 10 million Congolese died of exhaustion or disease or were killed outright by Leopold’s Force Publique in what some describe as a genocide. The riches derived from that brutal period, including the giant Royal Museum for Central Africa, are still visible in Brussels’ modern grandeur.

In 1885, Belgium’s King Leopold II used a private militia to seize what is now Congo. (Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images) Under Leopold, severing hands was a common policy to punish people who came up short of quotas in the forced harvest of rubber and ivory. In this photo, the seated boy's hands were destroyed by gangrene after being tied too tightly by the colonizing soldiers, according to the book "King Leopold's Ghost." The young girl's hand was amputated by soldiers. (1900 photo by Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty images) A Belgian administrator is carried through the bush. (1950 photo by H. Christoph/Ullstein Bild/Getty Images)

After the atrocities caused an outcry in Europe, the Belgian state annexed the territory from the king in 1908. But when Belgium reluctantly granted Congo independence in 1960, Brussels engineered — with the CIA’s help — the assassination of its first elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, who was seen as leaning toward communism.

Belgium, the United States and Western financial institutions then propped up Mobutu Sese Seko, an eccentric autocrat widely regarded as one of, if not the greatest, embezzlers of state coffers of all time. In return, he protected Western mining interests. Congo’s economy remains centered in mining regions, while the one surrounding the peatland has seen barely any government investment.

The entire country remains deeply impoverished despite more than a century of producing minerals as historically significant as the uranium used in the atomic bombs the United States dropped on Japan and the vast majority of cobalt used in nearly every smartphone and electric vehicle battery on Earth. Its government continues to be one of the world’s least accountable, ranking 170th out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s corruption index.

Seeing the White professor, Bombala suspected he was yet another in a long line of plunderers. Seeing Bombala, Lewis worried hostility toward outsiders would prevent his research from getting done.

“It’s one of the things we find incredibly difficult to convey in Congo: That we are there as scientists, to understand for the benefit of everyone and not for our own personal enrichment,” said Lewis, recalling the meeting. “But it does seem absurd that we’d travel from so far to scrabble around and get dirty in the hot swamp.”

In 2017, Greta Dargie, a doctoral student of Lewis’s, published a paper in the journal Nature along with Congolese and other colleagues, estimating that the Congo Basin’s peatlands were the biggest in the world’s tropics. The work they were doing on peat gained publicity and funding, including from the environmental group Greenpeace, which saw its symbolic significance as an intact yet threatened ecosystem.

Two years later, when the researchers visited Ikenge, they plunged thin pipes into swamps across Congo’s Central Basin, then pulled up cylindrical cores of mud to see how deep the peat went.

On one excursion, they trudged nearly 40 miles through the swamp, building platforms out of logs each night to pitch their tents on. Somewhere along the way and during a heavy downpour, a local they had hired to help carry equipment accidentally stepped on a dwarf crocodile, swiftly killed it, and the group spent hours in the rain under a tarp waiting for water to boil over a meager fire so they could eat the crocodile meat.

In this part of the Congo rainforest, around six feet of rain falls in an average year. The swampiness keeps most larger animals, such as forest elephants and leopards, away, but small animals, including river hogs, thrive. Many of the fish are blind, having adapted to the black, peat-infused water.

Bush meat, fermented cassava and smoked fish provided sustenance for the research team. Field notes were taken on waterproof paper with waterproof ink.

Lewis, who spent months in Congo on the 2019 trip, hoped his team’s work would ultimately confirm that the peatland was indeed the world’s largest in the tropics.

Before their work, there was little to no scientific record of peat in the Congo Basin. From satellite imagery, tropical peat’s presence can be predicted by various types of plant cover — trees of the uapaca genus, varieties of trunkless palm — but it can only be verified by physical sampling.

Holding it in your hand, peat looks and feels like a gray-brown chunky peanut butter. It squelches underfoot.

Peat is made up of semi-decomposed organic material, mostly leaves and bark and other plant remains, and it normally takes thousands of years to form into thick layers, attaining an unmatched carbon density in the process. In just a few days, however, it can be drained of moisture, setting off chemical processes that irreversibly release its carbon over the course of ensuing decades.

The growing understanding of the swiftness with which peatlands can be disturbed has added urgency among researchers to map out peat’s presence throughout the world, in hopes governments will move to protect it.

“Countries are not fully aware about their distribution of organic soils,” said Hans Joosten, a peatlands expert at the University of Greifswald in Germany. Governments may not realize, he said, that they “have such an enormous stock of carbon, [and] that when it is mobilized it immediately goes up like a bomb.”

Want to know how much a ton of greenhouse gases really amounts to? Use our calculator throughout the story.

For hundreds of years, the human practice of draining peatlands for agriculture — a process largely conducted by digging ditches and canals to channel the water out — released billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the northern hemisphere alone, according to research by Chunjing Qiu and Philippe Ciais of France’s Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences.

In Belgium, as in much of Europe, peatlands were drained extensively over the past centuries and today, 60 percent to 80 percent of the remaining peat has been damaged by human incursions, research shows. That’s precisely what scientists say cannot happen in the vastly larger peatlands of its former colony.

A proper historical accounting of the world’s lost peatlands is impossible because once drained for 30 years to 50 years, peatland becomes indistinguishable from other land types. In much of the West, that window has long since passed.

More recently, peat draining has shifted to developing countries, such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Joosten estimates that, at present, the equivalent of 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide are released by peatlands every year. That figure includes peat fires, the most dramatic cause of peat emissions, and would make the world’s peatlands, if they were a country, the fifth-biggest greenhouse gas emitter behind China, the United States, the European Union and India.

Particularly intense peat fires in Indonesia in 2015 released an estimated 1.75 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, the result of the country’s rapid conversion of vast tracts of swamp into palm oil plantations. The smoke and resulting health implications were so severe that the Indonesian government has tried something unprecedented in scale: “rewetting” some recently drained peatlands in an attempt to return them to their original state.

A recent study spanning three decades of global carbon emissions showed that Indonesia is not alone: Again and again, economic growth has been tightly coupled with dramatically higher carbon emissions.

‘It is like a hostage situation now’

In the days before a White Washington Post reporter and an interpreter embarked on their river journey to Ikenge, local officials repeatedly told them that all the interest in peat surely indicated that the substance was akin to Congo’s famously lucrative minerals — and something to be exploited.

Leon Mosuluka, the local government administrator of the area that includes Ikenge, called to say he had learned with consternation that “exploitation would happen without me.”

“You Whites have already come prospecting,” Mosuluka said, referencing Lewis and his team. “Why are you telling us to leave it in the ground when you are organizing yourselves to come and take it away?”

Isaac Ngambi, a provincial politician, put it more bluntly in a separate, furtive phone call: “I know where the peat is. Together we can make money.”

On the banks of the Ikelemba River on the way to Ikenge, those who heard the distinct sound of The Post team’s incoming 40-horsepower boat motor gathered to offer peat for sale in outstretched hands.

“We have peat, give us money,” was the simple refrain they called out.

Economic development is needed desperately in the region. There are no paved roads, no clinics, no milling machines, and illiteracy is near total. In Mbandaka, the capital of the Équateur Province and a city of more than 1 million people, there is no power plant. The few who have fuel-powered generators can live in the age of electricity at great cost.

The example set by Indonesia and Malaysia — converting peatland to large-scale commercial palm oil plantations — is alluring. Palm oil exports earned Indonesia $23 billion in 2017 alone.

While such a conversion is likely at least a decade away because Congo would need a massive investment in supply chain infrastructure to enable it, the emissions implications it would entail are worrisome and difficult to project. Congo’s last official report on its emissions to the United Nations is more than 10 years out of date.

LEFT: Clément Botefa, the manager of a botanical garden, and his team measure the depth of the peat in the forest outside Mbandaka in the Équateur Province. RIGHT: A sample of peat from the swamps of the Congo Basin.

Furthermore, the emissions resulting from peatland drainage are among the hardest to track and measure. Even in countries with sophisticated monitoring, huge amounts are missed.

Joosten’s colleagues at the University of Greifswald, John Couwenberg and Alexandra Barthelmes, parsed reported emissions from European Union countries and Britain and analyzed how accurately they were describing their peatland areas and the emissions from them. They estimate that those countries are still missing 74 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from peatlands each year, a figure close to those from midsize countries, such as Greece (82 million tons in 2019) and Austria (75 million tons in 2019).

As for less industrialized nations, a Post investigation found that Malaysia, one of the top countries for peat drainage in service to the palm oil industry, dramatically underestimates resulting emissions.

Developing peatlands in rainforests also leads to widespread deforestation, which only worsens the greenhouse effect. The Congo Basin has the world’s second-largest expanse of tropical forest after Brazil, and its trees tend to be more massive and carbon dense, often towering 150 feet in the air. The country is already losing forests, largely due to the widespread clearance of land for small-scale farming, which the majority of Congolese people rely on for food.

The country’s growing population has led to the annual deforestation of about half a million hectares of forest — roughly the size of Delaware — in recent years, according to Global Forest Watch.

In its latest official emissions report to the United Nations, more than a decade out of date, Congo claimed that forest growth was entirely offsetting deforestation.

And yet, in a striking contradiction, the country also reported a massive volume of emissions in a separate 2018 document filed to the United Nations as part of a separate program focused on reducing deforestation. Congo, which stands to gain millions of dollars in payments if it shows improvement, claimed that its present-day losses from deforestation already exceed a billion tons of carbon dioxide per year.

LEFT: A farmer stands in a rice field in an agricultural area next to the peat bog in Indjolo, in the area of Bikoro, Équateur Province. Rice fields offer a source of income for surrounding communities. RIGHT: Logs lay sawed in a rice field. Environmentalists fear that peatlands will be sold off to loggers, which would release vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Scientific reviewers for the United Nations flagged the numbers, noting that the report “does not maintain consistency” with the country’s own prior filings about its emissions. Any draining of Congo’s peatlands would likely cause a similarly murky but massive amount of carbon emissions silently seeping into the atmosphere without being accurately counted — unless financial aid is offered to carry out better measurements.

“I think it is a crucial country to be supported, given its relevance,” said Giacomo Grassi, an expert on forests and their emissions at the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission.

In Congo, the argument that peat is precious and must be left in the ground to sustain any hope of averting climate calamity is a hard sell.

When Congolese representatives from Greenpeace arrived in Ikenge, for instance, they were accused of conspiring to plunder the peatlands.

“We tried our best, but I can’t say they were even 50 percent convinced by our explanation of why peat must stay in the ground,” said Irene Wabiwa, who heads Greenpeace’s forest protection campaign in Congo. “Unfortunately the prevailing attitude has become: Either you pay us, or we destroy the peat. It is like a hostage situation now.”

Under the Paris agreement, developed countries were supposed to provide $100 billion per year to the developing world by the year 2020, principally to support adaptation to climate change and a transition to clean energy.

But to date, the funding has fallen short. For Congo, the Green Climate Fund, one principal body designated to distribute the funds, says it has spent $65.8 million on five projects so far. At the latest international climate meeting in Glasgow, however, international funders pledged $500 million to the country over the next five years to help it preserve its forests.

The new funding is a “major step,” said Glenn Bush, an environmental economist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center who works with colleagues in Congo to preserve the country’s central peatland region. But, he cautioned, “there remains a much higher level of investment in economic activity in other sectors, like agriculture and mining, that lead to deforestation and forest degradation.”

There is also modest international funding devoted to tracking emissions and getting the numbers right — something that is critical in Congo, given the immense potential for emissions to grow because of deforestation and peatland exploitation.

One organization that provides support to help developing countries catalogue their greenhouse gas emissions is the Global Environment Facility, which says it has funded all of Congo’s official emissions reports in the past and has invested $852,000 for two forthcoming reports that could provide clarity. But these are not expected until 2022 and 2023, the agency said.

Whether wealthier institutions as well as Western governments can be convinced that larger-scale investments in the conservation of Congo’s peatlands are worthwhile remains to be seen. If not, it is likely local imperatives to develop the peatland in the manner Southeast Asian countries are doing will gain momentum.

“I have no doubt peatland is incredibly fertile — sure to be some of the best farmland in Congo. Grow whatever you want, you know?” said Jean Mbangi, a local entrepreneur who already has converted a few hundred peatland-adjacent acres in Équateur Province into palm oil plantations.

“The only thing is that clearing the peatlands like they’ve done in other parts of the world takes a lot of money: cutting, uprooting, draining,” he said. “If someone comes with the capital, I can assure you that is the route this region will take.”

Congo’s government has a clear stance on the path forward: Leaving their peatlands undisturbed will only happen if they are reimbursed for the developmental setback. Environment minister Eve Bazaiba doesn’t just want a payout, she wants a steadier drip, almost like a stock dividend.

“We are moving to join the global carbon market,” she said in an interview. “The Congolese population is ready to make sacrifices for the sake of humanity, but the world must abide by the principles of compensation.”

There are global mechanisms for what is essentially compensation for conservation, although they are fledgling and in most cases their dividends would be dwarfed by the kinds of investments industrialization would entail. They also often rely on accurate measurements of emissions, which thus far Congo does not produce regularly.

“We don’t even know the amount of carbon in here, if we’re being honest,” said Joseph Zambo, a researcher with the Woodwell Climate Research Center who is based in Congo’s peatlands. “We know it is massive, but a serious, scientific valuation would be helpful because that is the language that the whole carbon market system speaks.”

While nonindustrial deforestation is Congo’s leading driver of emissions now, the government also is proposing oil drilling and logging in peatland zones, though it is unclear how quickly those industries could be built. Bazaiba also announced her ministry’s intention to lift a moratorium on new logging allotments.

The government has signed oil production sharing agreements with two little-known private companies over the past decade for swaths of land that include most of the Central Basin peatland, drawing ire from conservation groups. While some of the companies’ other agreements in Congo have been subject to legal doubt because of changes to the country’s regulatory laws since they were signed, Congo’s hydrocarbons minister, Didier Budimbu Ntubuanga, provided The Post with a map indicating the peatland allotments were still considered valid by the government.

In an interview, Ntubuanga said that preliminary studies commissioned by his office show that in just two proposed oil exploration blocks in peatland areas, Congo could stand to make more than $1.5 billion per month. He said he was impatient for oil exploration because the world’s use of oil as a fuel is expected to diminish in the coming decade.

“Our country must move forward — we must find the money,” he said. “Our large equatorial forest already compensates the world by helping it maintain atmospheric equilibrium — in that sense, the world is already in our debt and should be compensating us for that. But we cannot sacrifice the economy for the sake of the environment.”

Zambo believes the government’s current stance might be changed if leaders understood the sheer amount of carbon locked in the Central Basin’s peat. And sharper messaging about the Congolese rainforest’s direct role in weather patterns across Africa — including promoting rainfall as far afield as Ethiopia’s highlands, which are Sudan and Egypt’s main source of water — could incentivize greater political involvement from other African governments.

“Right now, the world, the government and the people who live here too — they would only have a vague idea of what they were destroying, so who can blame them?” he said. “Actually no one in the world knows how big of a catastrophe that would be.”

Bazaiba, the environment minister, said that measuring carbon stocks required more funds and governmental consensus, which is contentious because the Congolese government’s general stance is that no burden should be placed on them to mitigate climate change and that economic development is the top priority. Environmental groups know they are fighting an uphill battle without concerted international support.

“Logging, oil, even industrial agriculture — to carry it out in Congo, all you need is to know the right people. If there are laws in the way, they will be changed, it’s happened before, again and again,” Wabiwa, of Greenpeace, said. “The carbon compensation conversation is going nowhere right now. We have not mapped carbon, but the oil people have mapped oil. I just don’t see us catching up.”

“Who will arrive first in Ikenge?” seems to be the question. Will it be industrialists with their relatively simple economic proposition? Or conservationists with a more novel, if far-fetched idea: paying the Congolese government millions of dollars and hoping the money is not diverted by corruption but goes toward more sustainable development in the region.

Whoever it is will encounter a highly skeptical Bombala. All this talk about “potopoto” has been confounding. Can’t someone just get on with it and turn this peat into money?

“No one so far has told us the whole truth,” the pastor said as he bade more visitors from distant lands farewell.

“If we have been blessed by God to be the owners of it, then we must not be prevented from benefiting from it. We fear — we greatly, greatly fear — that there are many cunning people who will come to steal it from us,” he said. “We will remain hypervigilant. It is ours, and we will sell it to the one who pays us the best price.”

About this story

Editing by Trish Wilson. Graphics editing by Monica Ulmanu. Graphics by John Muyskens. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Photography by Ley Uwera. Video editing by Luis Velarde. Videos by Max Bearak. Design editing by Matthew Callahan. Design and development by Garland Potts. Additional development by Lo Bénichou. Copy editing by Anastasia Marks and Wayne Lockwood. Project management by Julie Vitkovskaya.

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Max Bearak is The Washington Post's Nairobi bureau chief. Previously, he reported from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Somalia and Washington, D.C., for The Post, following stints in Delhi and Mumbai reporting for the New York Times and others.
Chris Mooney is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter covering climate change, energy, and the environment. He has reported from the 2015 Paris climate negotiations, the Northwest Passage, and the Greenland ice sheet, among other locations, and has written four books about science, politics and climate change.
John Muyskens is a graphics reporter who focuses on climate change and environmental justice.