Researchers say the Congo Basin's rainforest sequesters more greenhouse gases than it emits

Scientists fight to protect Democratic Republic of the Congo rainforest as threats rise

The rainforests in the Congo Basin absorb more greenhouse gases than they emit, researchers say.

Annie Thomas and Ernest Mukuli

A tower studded with sensors rises above the treetops in northern Democratic Republic of the Congo and measures carbon dioxide emissions from the world’s second-largest rainforest.

The rainforests of the Congo Basin, covering several countries in Central Africa, cover a huge area and are home to a dizzying array of species.

But fears are growing for the future of the forest, considered critical for CO2 sequestration, as loggers and farmers push deeper into the interior.

Scientists at the Yangambi Biosphere Reserve in Tsopo province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are studying the role of tropical forests in climate change, a subject that has received little attention until recently.

The 55-meter-tall CO2 flux measurement tower was commissioned in 2020 in a 250,000-hectare (620,000-acre) lush nature reserve.

Yangambi was known for his research into tropical agronomy during the Belgian colonial era.

He also hosted scientists this week for meetings in the DRC, dubbed pre-COP 27, ahead of the COP27 climate summit in Egypt in November.

Thomas Sibret, project manager for CO2 measurement at CongoFlux, said flux columns are common throughout the world.

But until one was created in Yangambi, it wasn’t in the Congo, which “limited our understanding of this ecosystem,” he said.

About 30 billion tons of carbon is stored in the Congo Basin, researchers calculated in a study published in the journal Nature in 2016. This figure is roughly equivalent to three years of global emissions.

Sibret said more time is needed to draw definitive conclusions from the data collected by the DRC Fluxing Tower, but one thing is certain: Rainforests trap more greenhouse gases than they emit.

– “There are no more trees” –

Paolo Cerutti, head of the Center for International Forestry Research in the Congo, said the news was good.

In Latin America, “we’re starting to see evidence that the Amazon (rainforest) is becoming a bigger source of emissions,” he said.

“We are betting big on the Congo Basin, especially the DRC, where 160 million hectares of forest are still able to sequester carbon.”

But Cerutti warned that slash-and-burn agriculture was a particular threat to the future of the rainforest, noting that half a million hectares of forest were lost last year.

In slash-and-burn farming, villagers cultivate land until it is depleted, then cut down forests to create new land, and the cycle repeats.

As the DRC’s population of about 100 million is expected to increase, many fear the forest is in serious danger.

Jean-Pierre Botomoito, head of the Yanong area about 40 kilometers (24 miles) from Yangambi, said he once thought the forest was inexhaustible.

But “there are no trees here,” he said.

Villagers in his once forested area now have to travel long distances on narrow, muddy paths to find tree-dwelling caterpillars, a local delicacy.

Charcoal, used for cooking in the absence of electricity and gas, is also hard to come by.

Efforts are being made to help farmers in a remote and impoverished region make a living while preserving the environment.

For example, a project heavily funded by the EU trains farmers to rotate cassava and peanut crops between fast-growing acacia trees.

Farmers can harvest acacia trees for charcoal after six years.

Experts are also encouraging the use of more efficient stoves to produce more charcoal and educate loggers on how to select trees for felling.

– Vandalism –

Jean Amis, head of the local farmers’ organization, was enthusiastic about the project.

“Before, we didn’t always have the right practice,” he said.

Others too.

Helen Fatuma, president of the women’s association, says fishponds at the edge of the forest now produce 1,450kg of fish in six months, up from 30 as before.

But not all residents of the neighborhood support the various schemes.

Some people believe that the stream tower, for example, is stealing oxygen, or that it is a prelude to taking over land.

Researchers often find that dendrometers—devices for measuring the size of trees—have been vandalized, and some traditional chiefs think the forest will grow on its own without outside interference.

The Indonesian Center for International Forestry Research argues that resistance to the schemes can be overcome by raising awareness.

Dieu Mercy Assoumani, director of the DRC’s National Institute for Agricultural Research, agreed.

But he said more funding is needed for local residents who don’t see much benefit from promised funds to protect the rainforest.

Assumani cited as an example a $500 million deal to protect the rainforests of the Congo Basin signed by President Felix Tshisekedi and then British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Glasgow last year.

“Commitments are good, but they have to be kept,” he said.

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