mapping sustainable futures

Enthusiasm about final declaration of the conference Power to the Peatlands – interview with Rachel Beckham

Over 500 delegates representing scientists, site managers, farmers, entrepreneurs, non-governmental organisations and decision-makers attended Power to the Peatlands in Antwerp, a conference about conservation and restoration of peatlands. This is the largest conference of peatland experts and practitioners ever held in the world.

Together they developed evidence-based policy recommendations for Europe as part of a conference declaration. It aimed to centralise peatlands as the core of European nature and climate policy. Moreover, a declaration was made to urge European policymakers to take action on sustainable peatland management and restoration.

Prof. Rachel Beckham, Peatland University, presented her paper on contemporary paludiculture and states in the final declaration that she is supportive to advance this new agricultural practice, for example by rewetting. We met during the final day of the conference, after a long afternoon full of sessions. Researchers, famers and politicians started to go home, but luckily Rachel was so kind to summarise all the important things that were said at the conference.

Why is the call-to-action Power to the Peatlands so important?
“It is important as a quick agreement among EU institutions is necessary to underline the importance of peatlands restoration that is still currently missing in many local and regional governmental policies.” She said with lots of passion in her eyes. “Therefore, clear-cut targets on peatland restoration are vital for starting action such as large-scale rewetting. This way, the critical benefits of peatlands can be elevated, for example within agriculture use. Existing peatlands and peaty soils need to be preserved to avoid more carbon losses, whereas restoring degraded peatlands need to be accelerated. Moreover, sustainable land-use practices need to be promoted. These actions are all necessary to meet the EU climate, biodiversity, water and soil objectives.”

Why is peatland conservation and restoration so vital within these policies?
“Intact peatlands provide major ecosystem services, like carbon storage and sequestration, water regulation, flood control and habitat for biodiversity.” Rachel lists fluently. “Peatlands store more carbon than rainforests and are the largest and most efficient terrestrial carbon storage on earth. Drained peatlands on the other hand release the previously stored carbon, and on a global scale they emit more than double the greenhouse gasses produced by air travel.”

Is there enough research about these topics?
She shakes her head in disagreement and says: “Although a lot of research is being done, existing data on peatlands needs to be made available to a wider public, while there is still the urgent need for more monitoring and research. In doing so, we know when conservation and restoration efforts are leading us into the right direction. More education on these matters raise the public awareness about the importance of peatlands and thus creates more political leverage for their conservation and restoration.” After a short pause, she adds: “More inter- and transdisciplinary research and data will promote more applied solutions and innovations. Therefore, it is important for decision-makers to stimulate multi-stakeholder collaborations between for example knowledge institutes, education, industry and the arts to make sure research and policy are put into the needed action.”

What kind of actions can one think of here?
“First and foremost, it is vital to not drain any intact peatlands with organic soils that are left in Europe. Also, we must accelerate rewetting of drained peatlands to reduce carbon emissions and enhance water retention, water quality and biodiversity . Although rewetted peatlands hardly ever restore to their original ‘pristine’ state, they are still more capable of providing essential ecosystem services than drained peatlands.” She further stresses that “it is necessary to strive for both conservation of existing peatlands and restoration of drained peatlands in local policies depending on the local context. Even though results vary, rewetted peatlands store more greenhouse gases than in their former drained state so this should be stimulated.”

What does this all mean for policy and related actions for the users of peatlands, such as farmers?
She laughs and says: “I know, it is good to make all this research more concrete, I just spoke about it with Mayor of Peatland about it, who also attended. To put into practice these scientific recommendations, farmers, landowners and enterprises need to be offered sustainable, just and profitable business models on peatlands. Think of embedding paludiculture, rewetting measures and carbon farming in agricultural policy and related subsidies instead of investing in damaging, drainage-based land use practices. This means banks and (local) governments could offer financial incentives to switch to forms of peatland-friendly alternatives where environmental benefits are integrated.” She adds firmly: “Governments could stimulate the phase-out of all drainage-based land use and public payments that encourage these. Education, collaboration and communication are key to make sure landowners make use of these incentives and are willing to change to these alternatives. Policy makers should trust the creative entrepreneurship of farmers, landowners and downstream industries here.”
On this note on the importance of collaboration, Rachel excuses herself as she has to run for the train that brings her back to Peatland.

Would you like to know more about financing peatland-friendly paludiculture? Various procedures and guidelines have already been developed to help out, such a report on financing opportunities, value chain analyses, and a methodology to connect farmers to peatland-friendly sustainable markets. It is important to start dialogue with these groups, create learning processes and establish trust in order to tackle this transition to peatland-friendly land use fairly. Here, cultural customs and social resistance should not be underestimated. For example, the extraction and use of turf as fuel should be stopped in order to achieve the envisioned policy targets although it is still a traditional custom to burn it for domestic energy use in Ireland.

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