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monday 20 july

Surprisingly, I’m discovering the book you haven’t written may be the most timely one you need to read. Over the weekend that idea began as a flicker in the back of my brain and by late Sunday night it felt like a solar flare. I realized it was time to get back to writing, writing that book about this great ape mess, the bigger conservation failure mess, and to figure out where I am in it all.

Many years ago I came to the conclusion, after much travel trial and error, that periodically I needed to simply stop, and take stock of where I was, how things were going, and wash my clothes. Yes, wash my clothes. I found that on the road I can go about three weeks before I just need a “day off” to wash clothes, clean gear, catch up with myself, and in the process, examine or re-examine the course I am on. The interesting thing was I never thought I needed to “wash my clothes” at home. In this case washing was writing.

Writing is like teaching—if you can teach it you know it. If I don’t really know something, feel the information residing internally, I end up just fumbling around with words. So it made sense that scribbling out in words what I know should shine a bright light on what I do in fact know, but more importantly, what I do not know.

Early this morning I cracked open that digital manuscript I have been throwing words, quotes and ideas at for the past 18 months and decided to start with a review my chapter headers. It took all of 30 seconds to find my first omission — peat swamps. Perhaps the most critical issue underpinning palm oil plantations in Sumatra and Kalimantan, global climate chaos, the larger question of conservation failure in that part of the world. Furthermore, with a area of peat swamp the size of England sitting in Congo Basin it’s an issue that is certainly going to rear its oily head in the other great ape epicenter Africa, as oil palm plantations invade and mushroom across that region in the coming decade.

I began google-sleuthing on the next door laptop. Five minutes later, a half-dozen windows were vying for attention on the screen. The story lines were much the same — this is one of Earth’s most important habitats and richest carbon stores, and we have been clueless about protecting it and saving it.

Peat swamp was not at the top of my list as I thought about writing this past weekend. It wasn’t even on the list when I woke this morning, or clicked on my laptop. And apparently it hasn’t been on my list solidly enough over the past couple years or I would have made some mention in the manuscript. As I read my way through a few peat swamp articles I realized my experience with peat swamps was older and greater than my knowledge of their workings and carbon sequestering role.

In 1995 I was invited to join a rapid assessment survey into one of the most remote rainforests on one of the most remote places in the world, the Kikori River drainage of Papua New Guinea. Nearly two-dozen scientists, representing a score of disciplines, were going to be dropped (actually dropped by helicopter – it was one of those Indiana Jones adventures of a lifetime) into this unseen corner of our world and over five weeks attempt to take — literally hundreds of biological samples (I did my taking via photographs) — a living snapshot of what was found there. The reason? Oil. Shale oil and it’s accompanying hydrocarbon cousin, natural gas. Chevron PNG Ltd. had guessed right and the global carbon addiction had made the mountains staring down on the Papuan Gulf worth drilling into. The rapid assessment survey was to see what was there before non-indegenous humans began playing god with the landscape. I realize now the vast wet lowlands I was exploring were peat swamps, not just tropical rainforests.

So here I am again, and again it’s about oil, this time palm oil, that tempts humans to play god with the landscape. The difference ironically is that oil (and gas) didn’t require raping the landscape to get it, just a minor amount of molestation. The new oil is predicated on rape and pillage. Peat swamps have been lying innocently building at an imperceptible rate of 0.5-2mm—yes, millimeters—per year, for thousands of years. Just imagine how long it takes to accumulate a modest meter at the rate of a coin’s width every twelve months?

Here is a little of what that mental solar flare illuminated: 

Smoldering combustion can occur in peatlands, where the soil is made up of partially decayed plant remains and has very low mineral content. Peat creates an anaerobic – low oxygen – environment where decomposition rates are slow, allowing plant production to exceed decomposition. As layer upon layer of partially decomposed organic matter accumulates, peat is formed and is transferred below the water table where decomposition in minimal. “Peatlands cover only about 2–3% of the Earth’s land surface but store around 25% of the world’s soil carbon,” Their destruction via draining for palm oil plantations in Indonesia is why that country rates third globally behind the USA and China in pushing the accelerator on climate chaos through CO2 emission. Overall, according to the study, peatlands store an amount of carbon comparable to the entire atmospheric load.[1] On top of that, “Draining tropical peatlands for oil palm plantations may result in nearly twice as much carbon loss as official estimates, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment and the Union of Concerned Scientists in the journal Environmental Research Letters.”[2]

Wow, what I still don’t know.

That was easy — laundry done — a new week of clarity! The agenda for the week, dig into the digital world of peat swamps. Next week, back to writing.

The tough part is, why did it take so long to recognize a full laundry basket?


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2015-2016 Global research and reporting on great apes made possible in part through the generous financial support of the Philadelphia Zoo

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