Belarus shows model for protecting world's fragile Peat-Lands

18 Oct 2010

As delegates from around the world gather this week at an international biodiversity conference in Nagoya, Japan, a project supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Global Environment Facility (GEF) is being presented as a successful model for protection of a uniquely rich area of wildlife.

The tenth conference of parties (COP10) to the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, from 18 to 29 October, will focus in depth on inland, coastal, marine and mountain environments and look at the impact of climate change, and arrangements for protection  and sustainable use of ecologically sensitive areas.

Among the world’s fragile sites are the more than four million square kilometres of peat-land in 180 countries. A four-year UNDP-GEF backed project completed this year has succeeded in safeguarding 28,200 hectares of Belarus’ peat swamps that cover some 6.4 percent of the country.

The 2006-2010 restoration project, focused on 17 swamp areas that had been drained between 1950 and 1990 due to large-scale extraction or agriculture works. The peat was mined due to its value as a fuel source and material for insulation.

Drainage of the sites dried the earth, making them highly vulnerable to long-burning fires that released approximately 235,000 tons of CO2 annually. Rehydration of the swamps—by filling drainage ditches and building dams to raise groundwater levels—extinguished the fires and cut public spending on firefighting by an estimated US$ 1.5 million annually.

Restoration, which cost an average of US$50 toUS$100 per hectare, also halted the CO2 emissions, and created a more fertile environment for cranberry picking, fishing, hunting and tourism, and for flora and fauna, including endangered birds such as the Curlew and the Greater spotted Eagle.

“We hope that parties at this conference will prioritize the protection, restoration and wise use of the world’s peat-lands as essential and cost-effective measures for biodiversity conservation and ecosystem based mitigation and adaptation,” said Nik Sekhran, UNDP’s principal technical adviser on biodiversity.

The Belarus project led to the Government’s adoption of a policy on peat-land areas where mining activity has taken place. According to the policy, disturbed areas are to be restored at the end of their “economic life”. They had previously been turned into reservoirs or forestland.

The project team is currently sharing its experiences with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and supporting negotiations to include peat-lands in future carbon trading mechanisms under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Peat-lands store about one-third of global soil carbon and are one of the planet’s major carbon pools.