Why do we need to know about our peatlands?

April 21, 2021

Photography: Viktor Malyshchic

Alexander Kozulin, Scientific Coordinator, UNDP-GEF “Wetlands” project.

In the last century, Belarus lost more than 40 percent of its wetlands to a large-scale drainage campaign aimed at boosting the economy. Even so, the country still has 8,533 peatlands which cover 12.3% of its territory.

Today, Belarus can rightly be called a regional leader in peatland conservation and restoration: joining efforts with UNDP, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the European Union, KfW Bank (Germany) and the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS), the country invested over US$ 4 million in restoring damaged and preserving natural peatlands. Thanks to these efforts, more than 60 thousand hectares of damaged and inefficiently drained peatlands across Belarus have been re-wetted and restored.

With a worsening climate crisis and rapidly declining biodiversity, it is now necessary to scale up these initiatives and foster a systemic approach to sustainable peatland management, paying special attention to wetlands that have been preserved in their near-natural state.

The government’s approval of a new law on the protection and sustainable use of peatlands in December 2019 was an important milestone. Unique for Europe, the law regulates the sustainable use of peatlands’ resources and aims to preserve and restore ecological functions, as well as implement the rights of citizens to a healthy environment and the use of natural resources. The law also promotes Belarus’ voluntary commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 35% by 2030, including wetland rewetting and peatland restoration, which will lead to a reduction in CO2 emissions for the country in general.

Mapping and monitoring peatlands online

The law particularly applies to natural mires, which are under increasing pressure from human activities. But, in order to apply the law, peatlands’ boundaries must be clearly defined and documented, and their health status or condition up to date.

With UNDP support and the GEF funding, Belarus started mapping all its peatlands with the aim to have an exhaustive digital register by 2025.

This means that the country will soon have a complete picture of peatlands’ distribution by region and district, their conditions, water storage capacities and other categories. All peatlands are mapped in the registry according to their current state: natural mires, damaged mires, re-wetted mires, peat deposits for peat extraction - drained lands with peat soils.

Photography: Dmitry Lasko for UNDP in Belarus

Brest was the first region of Belarus where peatlands were carefully studied and included in the register. Today the database contains comprehensive information on 420 regional peatlands with a total area of 627,405 ha, of which 400,000 ha are undisturbed mires.

Based on sound science, evidence synthesis and meta-analysis, the digital peatlands register will serve as a robust decision support tool for the protection and sustainable use of peatlands in Belarus, advancing climate policy, biodiversity conservation, water management and the green economy.

For example, it can be used in drafting national nature conservation programmes and policies, in developing regional economy roadmaps, or in managing plans for the use of peatlands biological resources. It is also expected that the collected data will be available for free for both specialists and the public.

To date, the Belarus’ national peatland register is unique for Europe.

Until the 1990s, inventories of Belarus peatlands were carried out to study the prospects of industrial and agricultural exploitation of peat deposits.

In 2010, as part of a BirdLife Belarus project, a large-scale inventory of all peatlands with superficies over 10 hectares was executed. As a result, the boundaries of peatlands were identified and digitized, the damaged done to peatlands was assessed and a list of wetlands was drafted according to their administrative-territorial distribution. However, the peatlands’ boundaries were determined according to the distribution of peat deposits and did not take into account the borders of land users, which made it impossible to apply the law for their protection and sustainable management.

The new register is based on the peatlands inventory, made by the Scientific and Production Center of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus on Bioresources and the Institute of Nature Management of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus within the framework of the international UNDP-Ministry of Environment project "Landscape approach to management of peatlands aiming at multiple ecological benefits", funded by the GEF.