Another Deposit in the Earth's Bank: World's Largest Protected Wetlands in the Congo

Lake TumbaIf you thought the Canadian boreal forest preservation plan was big, get a load of this one straight out of Southern Africa. The Democratic Republic of Congo recently announced the designation of the Ngiri-Tumba-Maindombe area around Lake Tumba as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention. It's a move that turns this region into the largest protected wetland on the entire planet and preserves its valuable carbon-storing capabilities.

You may recall the boreal forest, which contains the world's third largest wetland, is twice the size of England. While the Congo wetlands comprise a smaller parcel at a still-impressive 65,696+ square kilometers (more than 16 million acres), or twice the size of Belgium, it contains Africa's largest body of freshwater. It's an enormous natural asset, and the whole region is at risk:

"Recognition by the Convention, which was signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, means that there is now a framework to conserve the wetland, which is under threat from illegal logging, fishing and poaching, and a decline in water levels that is most likely attributable to climate change." - WWF

While illegal fishing and poaching constitute an immediate, obvious threat to Congo's wildlife, development of the land itself poses dangers as well. Protection under Ramsar means saving habitats for these animals, a valuable asset for global biodiversity:

"The Lake Tumba landscape, encompassing some 80,000 square kilometers in total, has one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity anywhere in the world.

It contains species of conservation concern such as forest elephants, forest buffalo and leopards. There are an estimated 150 species of fish, a wide variety of birds, and three types of crocodile as well as hippopotamus." - Environment News Service

These animals rely on the water, land, and vegetation of the Ngiri-Tumba-Maindombe region, but humans do, too. Area communities rely on the wetlands for economically important crops, storm protection, and a clean water supply:

"Cassava, sweet potatoes, sugarcane and bananas are all grown in the Ngiri-Tumba-Maindombe site while oil palm plantations, groundnuts and rice are the principal commercial products. Fish from the area also helps to stimulate the economies of big cities such as Kinshasa, Brazzaville and Mbandaka. Vegetation cover at the flood basin acts as a buffer zone against floods for towns all along the Congo River and provides fish with breeding sites, while different forest types help filter water and maintain its quality." - WWF

As far as sheer numbers go, saving the Congo wetlands may have the greatest human impact as a major carbon sink for the world. In fact, both this protection and the Canadian boreal forest preservation plan deliver a powerful one-two punch to the recent grim and depressingly plausible vision of a global warming catastrophe.

As scientists proposed at the INTECOL International Wetlands Conference this month, since wetlands hold 20% of the carbon on Earth, we must preserve them as carbon sinks rather than drain and destroy as we have in the past.

Consider this scenario if we don't:

"If all the wetlands on the planet released the carbon they hold, it would contribute powerfully to the climate-warming greenhouse effect, said Paulo Teixeira, coordinator of the Pantanal Regional Environment Program in Brazil.

"We could call it the carbon bomb," Teixeira said by telephone from Cuiaba, Brazil, site of the conference. "It's a very tricky situation." - Environmental News Network

If the world's wealth of marshes, swamps and river deltas disappear or buckle under unchecked development or overhunting and fishing, so does a dangerous amount of our potential to store the carbon of a warming-up climate.

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  • Posted on Aug. 11, 2008. Listed in:

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