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  • Peatland fire policy: From past to present

Peatland fire policy: From past to present

Forest fires are often caused by human activity. Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo credit: Rini Sulaiman/CIFOR
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Forest fires are often caused by human activity. Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo credit: Rini Sulaiman/CIFOR

Analyzing 20 years of peat fire management intervention in Indonesia

Indonesia – Almost two decades after the devastating Indonesian wildfires of 1997-1998 drew international attention and prompted a wave of management attempts, extensive fires returned in 2013, 2014, and most severely in 2015, producing a humanitarian and ecological crisis. Since 1998, wildfires have become increasingly decoupled from climate anomaly years, instead occurring on an almost yearly basis.

The destructiveness of the 2015 event has created a renewed burst of political will and governance experimentation around fire management and sustainable management of Indonesian peatlands. It is an opportune moment to take stock of what has been done, and how we can learn from past Fire Management Intervention (FMI) efforts.

The scientific community has been commenting on FMI for some time now. A common thread that has emerged in regard to Indonesian FMI is a critique of the bluntness of the policy instruments- mainly that FMI fail to target their resources strategically (i.e. towards the situations and actors most associated with haze and escaped fire), thus compromising their efficiency, equity, and effectiveness.

This body of scientific work also offers a clear account of the many proximate variables relevant to predicting haze and escaped fire in Indonesia. These include soil type, burn month, and landholder type. We should be asking ourselves whether these variables are being accounted for in FMI targeting, and if so, by who. Are there other methods by which FMI have been specifying targets?

Peat burns in the Tumbang Nusa research forest outside Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan. Photo by Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR

An ongoing study conducted by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), led by researchers Una Jefferson, Rachel Carmenta, and Jacob Phelps, aims to identify the tendencies between the sector (NGO, business, government, or mixed) mandating FMI, and the methods used to specify the target of intervention resources. In this case, “resources” can mean anything from enforcement capacity to project funds.

The CIFOR study analyzes the suite of FMI addressing peat fires in Riau Province, a center of peat fire activity in Indonesia. The dataset includes FMI between January of 1999 and December of 2016, and was verified through policy document analysis, literature review (both grey and scientific), and consultations with key stakeholders.

It allows the formal content of interventions and the sector and scale of the institutions behind them to be examined, shedding light on the dynamics at play in Indonesia’s diverse environmental governance arena. Although the research is still ongoing, initial analysis of the dataset indicates some early results.

FMI FOCUS ON PREVENTION AND SMALLHOLDERS

What do we know about the focus of FMI? First, the data shows that since 1998, FMI have maintained a de jure emphasis on fire prevention, rather than short-term suppression. This long-standing focus (at least on paper) on addressing underlying causes of the ignition and spread of fires contradicts commentary suggesting that a shift in priorities towards preventative measures is recent. Instead, perhaps the “contemporary” prevention shift consists of a burst of political commitment towards bringing these FMI off the paper and into de facto reality.

Most FMI focus their efforts on landholders, and the bulk of these focus on smallholders rather than on businesses. Around a quarter of FMI target landholders, but they don’t distinguish between landholder types. This is an unfortunate omission, as a nuanced specification of actor type is important in addressing peat fires.

MORE SPECIFICITY NEEDED TO MAXIMIZE FMI PERFORMANCE

Preliminary results suggest the suite of variables linked to causes of haze and escaped fire are not being accounted for in targeting FMI. Soil type (peat or mineral) has important implications for fire incidence and fire escape, not to mention fire-related problems from haze to carbon emissions, and indeed it was the most commonly used of the targeting variables in our set.

Yet soil type was only specified by around half of FMI, and only one quarter were specifically tailored to peatland contexts.

Far fewer interventions target regulatory or project resources to high-risk fire periods (i.e. defined by weather parameters, month, or a set threshold of fire severity). Fewer still distinguish between more than two functional categories of landholder statuses — “smallholder” and “business” — in targeting, despite evidence that this dichotomy masks differences that are critical for the crafting of peat fire policy.

Overall, these results suggest that a crucial element of policy potential is not being harnessed, as policies need to be targeted to specific contexts to maximize their performance.

DIRECT TARGETING: A NON-GOVERNMENT TOOL WITH PUBLIC POLICY POTENTIAL?

Proximate variables are not the only way to specify targets for FMI. Non-government FMI often use fire and haze occurrence itself as a basis for the selection of targets for intervention resources more frequently than government initiatives.

For example, of business- and NGO-driven FMI that employ sanctions and rewards, for the majority disbursement is conditional on performance, while government initiatives emphasize adherence to prescribed codes of conduct that are often broadly applied in areas where the evidence base suggests nuance is needed.

Similarly, the majority of business-driven interventions explicitly employ fire history in site selection for FMI, while until recently (i.e. Peatland Restoration Agency), government FMI tended not to do so.

While the use of proximate targeting variables is similar across sectors, more direct methods are employed by non-government initiatives. This divergence in tools suggests potential for cross-sector policy learning.

RESEARCH CONTINUES

CIFOR’s research will continue through end 2017. Further analysis will include an elaborated, systematic and comprehensive categorization of the scalar and sectorial characteristics of the institutional framework behind FMI and their policy targeting performance.

This will hopefully enable reflection on the specific competencies of the diverse groups determining environmental governance in Indonesia, indicate potential for policy learning, and point to gaps between the content of FMI and the base of scientific evidence that could be addressed in the future.

By Una Jefferson and Rachel Carmenta, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News.


For more information on this topic, please contact Rachel Carmenta at [email protected].

This research was supported by DFID-KNOWFOR.


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  • Getting down and dirty in degraded lands

Getting down and dirty in degraded lands

CIFOR's SWAMP project works at peatlands restoration sites in various parts of Indonesia. Outside Dumai in Riau, one site is now planted with rubber trees, which local residents tap to make additional income. Photo: Deanna Ramsay/CIFOR
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CIFOR’s SWAMP project works at peatlands restoration sites in various parts of Indonesia. Outside Dumai in Riau, one site is now planted with rubber trees, which local residents tap to make additional income. Photo: Deanna Ramsay/CIFOR

By Deanna Ramsay, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News

Tropical peatlands are massive carbon sinks. But what happens when they are depleted of the water that sustains them, or subject to other land-use changes?

After fires raged in 2015 over Sumatra and Kalimantan in Indonesia, in part due to the widespread draining of peatlands, these wetland ecosystems and their environmental significance catapulted to the center of global discussions.

“Protecting tropical peatlands is essential to combating climate change. By monitoring the emissions from degraded peat and the resulting fires, we now know just how important they are,” says Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) scientist Daniel Murdiyarso.

At one of Murdiyarso’s research sites in Riau – a swath of Sumatra now covered in oil palm – he is looking into what happens after peatlands are drained, burned and then subject to restoration.

But what that restoration looks like varies, as is how it is defined.

CIFOR’s SWAMP project uses a variety of measurements to better understand peatlands, their degradation and their restoration. Photo by Deanna Ramsay/CIFOR

THICK DESCRIPTION

“There have been few studies of restoration of tropical peatlands. Boreal, yes,” he says, an indication of why this work off a bumpy road from Dumai is so important, and cutting-edge.

According to Murdiyarso, the restoration question is a complex one, involving not just ecological processes but also socioeconomic ones that likely led to degradation in the first place.

“We need to involve the local community, and use local initiative in these landscapes,” he says, work that is necessary if we want to protect peatlands and prevent further degradation.

On peatlands in Indonesia – which is home to most of the world’s tropical peat – the first step is to block the canals that had served to drain the land of its moisture, enabling the water table to rise again.

But does this allow the peat to return to its original state?

Dendrometer bands measure tree growth, here on a rubber tree planted on degraded peatland. Photo by Deanna Ramsay/CIFOR

“Re-wetting peatlands has to be combined with re-vegetating the landscape,” Murdiyarso says, adding that the organic materials present in peat are often forgotten amid the bigger restoration picture.

In order to determine how peatlands degrade and how best to rehabilitate them, CIFOR scientists have established research sites in Sumatra and Kalimantan with partners, including the University of Riau, Palangkaraya University and government agencies. The emerging scientific evidence is being used to inform the country’s Peatlands Restoration Agency (BRG), as well as global climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies.

WATERLOGGED

The work comprises a range of data gathering tasks, such as measuring carbon emissions, analyzing soil composition and monitoring tree growth.

A seven-hectare research site outside Tanjung Leban village in Bengkalis district, Riau, has peatland plots ringed by now-blocked canals, with watergates managed by the local community. The land is covered with a mix of peat swamp tree species, oil palm and rubber.

Sofyan Kurnianto, a PhD student at Oregon State University who works with CIFOR, researches water levels in intact and degraded peat.

Peatlands are important carbon sinks, and part of the study of degraded peatlands involves monitoring carbon emissions, as is being done here. Photo by Deanna Ramsay/CIFOR

“Canal blocking will influence how much water the peat can store. The big question among scientists is – after restoration – how much that storage capacity changes,” he says.

Draining and re-wetting causes peat to shrink and expand, resulting in changes in surface elevation. To monitor these kinds of changes, several rod surface elevation tables (RSETs) were installed to monitor subsidence.

And, in a pioneering move, Ground Penetrating Radar was employed. The innovative survey technique involves transmissions to receiving antennas, and is frequently used to study boreal peatlands, but used here in tropical peatlands for the first time.

PRETTY PEAT

The work resulted in peat depth mapping of each land-use type, offering valuable information about these rich, muddy landscapes.

In Riau, this groundbreaking research – in both the literal and figurative senses – is developing the science to impact these policy processes and the restoration they steer. Scientists are also training others to continue this necessary monitoring, data analysis and interpretation work.

“Research on peatlands is very important in Indonesia, especially in Riau as it is the dominant landscape. Management is important, and mismanagement will have a big impact on human life and the environment,” said Sigit Sutikno, a professor at the University of Riau who was visiting the research site with his students.

In the shade of trees dripping with fresh rubber, scientists and scientists-in-the-making practiced soil coring, jabbing a spear-like instrument into loamy soil over and over and collecting portions in plastic bags to be taken back to a Bogor laboratory. They measured ground-level carbon stocks, placing a small device into specific plots of peat and noting the results. Dozens of dendrometers were carefully fixed around tree trunks both small and large, with litter traps to collect forest debris adorning the area in bright orange.

Sutikno researches the effectiveness of canal blocking for ground water. His peatland research includes modeling to both estimate and predict peat water levels.

“Hydrological modeling in peatlands is not easy because peatland hydrology is unique,” he says, adding that an important element is understanding how to mitigate the risk of fire.

Charred pieces of wood are scattered about the site in Riau, remnants of fires that burned there years ago. Now planted with rubber trees tapped by nearby residents to earn extra income, and oil palm trees in a plot managed by a local landowner, the restoration that is underway has definitely taken its own shape.

When asked the tricky question of how to define “restored” peatlands, Murdiyarso said simply, “The return of original species and water regimes.”

Whether this is possible is another question, but we know at least one species has returned – humans.


This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and was supported by USAID and the US Forest Service.

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  • Can communities and lawmakers stop Indonesian peatfires?

Can communities and lawmakers stop Indonesian peatfires?

CIFOR's scientist Herry Purnomo with the community group and government representative of Bengkalis, Riau, at the sagoo planting site. This is one of the efforts to keep peatland from fires. Photo by Mokhamad Edliadi/CIFOR
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CIFOR’s scientist Herry Purnomo with the community group and government representative of Bengkalis, Riau, at the sagoo planting site. This is one of the efforts to keep peatland from fires. Photo by Mokhamad Edliadi/CIFOR

By Rose Foley, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News

On the outskirts of Dompas village in Riau province, a group of men is peeling back the black earth with rhythmic strokes. Armed with hoes, they move slowly in the afternoon sunshine, sliding scores of thick-set seedlings into the ground, one by one. These baby sago palms are being planted on Indonesian peatlands that are degraded, drying and highly vulnerable to fire.

However, the canal that once ran along the edge of this plantation and sapped the site of its water and vital nutrients, has now been transformed into a deep mirror. Blocked by villagers with a series of small concrete dams, it is now feeding resources back into the soil.

Experts from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) have been working with the local community for several months, advising on measures to tackle peatland fires.

“Riau province has the most frequent fires in the whole of Indonesia,” says scientist Herry Purnomo, who runs the project for CIFOR. “These blazes are contributing to climate change and the smoke causes serious public health issues.”

Canal-blocking and crop planting serve important practical purposes. Dried or degraded peatlands are highly flammable due to their high carbon content. They are often set alight by companies and individuals to make way for more financially lucrative palm oil plantations. By encouraging communities to rewet the degraded land by blocking canals and replanting native vegetation that they can sell and eat, a viable economic and environmental alternative is introduced.

Aerial view of canal blocking in Dompas, Riau.
Photo by Mokhamad Edliadi/CIFOR

DEEPER IMPACT

However, this particular project also serves a wider purpose. It plays a vital role in an investigation by CIFOR into the deeper economic, social and political reasons behind the fires in Riau.


New research shows that local elites often control and exploit peatland fires, siphoning off the majority of earned profits. This, combined with complex systems of patronage, lack of law enforcement, and few resources allocated centrally, mean that the Indonesian government’s attempts to address the problem of forest and land fires over the past 18 years have been severely hampered.

The study suggests a number of ways to help overcome this stalemate. One of them is to introduce local laws at both district and provincial levels to hold individuals and companies accountable. National laws are often poorly implemented and, up until now, other measures have been largely nonexistent.

“We should not rely on national initiatives only,” says Purnomo. “Legislation adopted at the local level is closer to the community and is much more likely to be enforced and have a positive impact on the ground.”

CIFOR’s consulations on canal-blocking and crop planting are designed to show communities the kind of fire prevention and peatland restoration work that a new law could help fund and enforce. They are also an excellent opportunity for researchers to seek local views on how to stop fires and what measures would be helpful to include in the local laws.

DEVELOPING LOCAL LAWS

The process of developing local laws in Riau first began in February 2016, focusing on two sets of legislation for the district level in Bengkalis and the provincial level in Riau. A large number of concerned parties were consulted – from parliament members to NGOs, academics, farmers, government and the private sector.

Each constituency has its own view on what the laws need to address. Local communities asked for provision for fire prevention tools like pumps and water cannons. Others asked for clear prohibitions on burning, for the law to be binding and for it to be tied to the existing national legislation. CIFOR’s research findings on issues like the economic incentives for peatland fires and restoration, de-facto mapping of land at local level and canal blocking and peat restoration costs, also fed into the process.

Overwhelmingly, all groups asked for a clear budget to be allocated for fire prevention and restoration work. Complaints ranged from the police saying they do not have the budget to investigate fires to local communities saying they do not have the resources to invest in fire-fighting kits or alternative ways of making a living.

“I asked local authorities why they are not giving money to fire prevention and they said there is no obligation by law,” says Purnomo. “No one is telling them that they have to allocate sufficient money for peat restoration, mapping, law enforcement.”

The draft laws, incorporating all of these elements, are now with parliamentarians. Purnomo hopes that they will be passed by the end of 2017. Jambi is currently the only province that has comparable legislation.


Back in Dompas, even local politicians, the police chief and the provincial parliamentarian have pitched in with the sago palm project. 800 seedlings have been planted in total.

However, as long as agricultural land remains more profitable than forest land, and the power structures ruled by local elites maintain an iron grip, huge challenges remain to stopping peatland fires.

“There is support from the community in Dompas, but this is just one site,” says Purnomo. “We hope the laws will lead to more actions on peat restoration and canal-blocking all over the province and that we will see the development of more local laws in other areas across Indonesia.”


For more information on this topic, please contact Herry Purnomo at [email protected].

This research was supported by DFID-KNOWFOR
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  • Peatland restoration: the role of agroforestry

Peatland restoration: the role of agroforestry

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  • COP22 Special: Why should we care about peat?

COP22 Special: Why should we care about peat?

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Originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News

Peat is partially decayed, dead vegetation that has accumulated over thousands of years. Though peatlands are generally saturated with water and difficult to set ablaze, they can become tinderboxes when they are drained to make way for agricultural plantations like pulp and paper and palm oil.

When peatlands burn, huge amounts of CO2 are released.

Although peatlands cover just 3-5 percent of the Earth’s surface, they store more than 30 percent of all soil carbon. And while the area of peatland currently classified as drained and degrading covers less than 0.4 percent of the global land surface, it is responsible for 5 percent of global anthropogenic emissions, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

INDONESIA’S PEAT PROBLEM

Military troops help to extinguish peat fires in Indonesia. Photo by Aulia Erlangga/ CIFOR
Military troops help to extinguish peat fires in Indonesia. Photo by Aulia Erlangga/ CIFOR

Fires in forests and former forestlands occur in Indonesia in the dry season every year – particularly in the provinces of Riau and Jambi on the island of Sumatra, and West Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan on the island of Borneo.

However, the haze that spreads to other countries is no longer restricted to drought years, and has become increasingly frequent due to ongoing deforestation of peatlands in Indonesia.

The 2015 forest fires in Indonesia were devastating for the environment, resulting in 884 million tons of carbon dioxide being released in the region – with 97 percent originating from burning in Indonesia. The corresponding carbon emissions were 289 million tons, with 1.2 billion tons of associated carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions.

The gravity of this environmental crisis motivated Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo to pledge to restore two million hectares of the country’s degraded peatlands by 2020 to prevent future fires.

Under the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, CIFOR is studying the complex socioeconomic, ecological and governance factors at play in peatland restoration, as well as directly engaging with communities on the ground in Dompas village, Riau province, Sumatra.

A NEW GLOBAL PEAT INITIATIVE

Peatland soil in Lake Sentarum, West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by Ricki Martin for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
Peatland soil in Lake Sentarum, West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by Ricki Martin for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Policymakers at COP22 are now looking more closely at how peatlands can be better managed in order to curb carbon emissions. While the launch of the peatland hotspots map at COP21 in Paris last year marked the start of work to develop an online Global Peatland Atlas, more work needs to be done.

For one, there is a need for better mapping before restoration and conservation can begin in some areas. Additionally, new partners will need to be mobilized to make real progress towards sustainable peatland management. In an effort to achieve this goal, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is set to unveil its new initiative at the Global Landscapes Forum on 16 November in Marrakesh, Morocco.

The Global Peatlands Initiative aims to increase the conservation, restoration and sustainable management of peatlands in countries with significant peat deposits delivering benefits for agriculture, biodiversity and the climate. In terms of scale and scope, the initiative goes beyond any recent collaborative efforts on peat.

Among its founding members are: the governments of Indonesia, Peru and the Republic of Congo, UNEP, FAO, IFAD, the EC, Wetlands International, UNEP-WCMC, GRID-Arendal, Ramsar Secretariat, European Space Agency, WRI, Greifswald Mire Centre and SarVision/Sateligence.

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  • Tax amnesty, the green economy and peat restoration

Tax amnesty, the green economy and peat restoration

Photo: Flickr/401Kcalculator.org
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Peat is partially decayed vegetation that has accumulated over many years. When peatlands are cleared and drained for plantations, including those for palm oil and pulp and paper, it becomes dry and vulnerable to fires.
Peat is partially decayed vegetation that has accumulated over many years. When peatlands are cleared and drained for plantations, including those for palm oil and pulp and paper, it becomes dry and vulnerable to fires.

By Herry Purnomo, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News

The Indonesian government seeks to collect USD 13 billion from its tax amnesty program this year, says the country’s Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati.

Although less than USD six  billion has been collected for tax amnesty so far during the first period (July- September 2016) until September 27th,  the minister is optimistic that this target can be achieved.

With a potential USD 50 billion total to be obtained from the amnesty, President Joko Widodo hopes to use this extra cash to boost infrastructure development to drive progress in the country.

There are many ways he can achieve this.

At the 2nd Asia-Pacific Rainforest Summit (APRS) in Brunei Darussalam this past August, panelists for a session on the green economy suggested that the government use part of this tax amnesty money towards peat restoration.

In 2015, Indonesia experienced the widespread burning of approximately 2.6 million hectares of land and forest. More than 19 people died. Half a million people developed respiratory infections. 43 million people were exposed to toxic haze. Economic losses from the catastrophe clocked in at USD 16.1 billion, according to the World Bank.

Last January, the government of Indonesia established the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG), mandated to restore 2.2 million hectares of peat in state, community and concession lands in the next five years. Restoration efforts include the rewetting of peat, re-vegetation and livelihood development.

Photo: Flickr/401Kcalculator.org
Photo: Flickr/401Kcalculator.org

MONEY MATTERS

This will require a lot of investment.

The cost of peat rewetting and re-vegetation per hectare together can reach USD 2,000 while livelihood development costs can fetch USD 500. Annual costs would be approximately USD 1.1 billion. Therefore, the restoration of Indonesia’s burnt land and forest would require nearly USD 5.5 billion over five years.

The huge investment required for peat restoration cannot be born solely by the government. Partnerships are needed, because if the BRG is responsible for providing one-third of the amount required for peat restoration, the rest must be provided by the private sector. Under the current government’s tight budget, it seems that BRG will not receive a sufficient amount of funding.

If the government target of USD 13 billion from the tax amnesty is received, then only three percent of that would suffice to add to the lack in the BRG budget, at least for the next year.

Many Indonesian citizens do not report their income and property to avoid paying taxes, and some even deposit their money in neighboring countries like Singapore. Under the new tax amnesty law, the government provides a limited-time opportunity for taxpayers to pay a defined amount in exchange for forgiveness of a tax liability related to a previous tax period or periods unaccounted for without fear of criminal prosecution.

An Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) flies over burning peat. Outside Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan. Photo by Aulia Erlangga/ CIFOR
An Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) flies over burning peat. Outside Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan. Photo by Aulia Erlangga/ CIFOR

Using part of this money to restore the country’s already damaged peatlands would be a wise way to both support the country in its conservation efforts and to assuage critics of the program who argue that the money could come from tax crime, corruption and illegal logging and fishing.

Even if a portion of tax amnesty funds stem from one of the aforementioned illegal activities, the outcome would still be positive if it was invested in peat restoration or forest certification.

Tax amnesty payers would then be participating in a green economy that benefits all, while the government would boost its green economy.

STRENGTHENING PARTNERSHIPS

At the APRS, discussants urged Asia-Pacific countries – where rapid deforestation has been taking place – to take collective and measurable efforts to boost public-people-private partnerships to lower carbon emissions to meet objects set out in the Paris Agreement, conserve forests and reduce poverty.

Those concerned about peat conservation and development recently gathered in Malaysia for the 15th International Peat Congress. With a focus on peat deforestation in the tropics, one of the Congress’s goals was to promote the conservation and sustainable development of peatlands and to reinforce public-people-private partnerships.

Indonesia can learn how to conserve and sustainably develop its peat from others around the world, including those with boreal and temperate peat. The government of Malaysia even envisions developing peat commodities, including palm oil, in harmony with the environment and ecosystems.

The theme of the Congress, “Peatland in harmony”, highlights the closely intertwined relationship of the environment, industry and socio-economic factors in relation to peat.

From Brunei Darussalam to Malaysia, people in the Asia-Pacific region are discussing the sustainability of forests, landscapes and peat. Harmony between conservation and development is urgent and necessary.

The huge contribution of forestry and palm oil industries to economies and livelihoods in the region is clear. But it often comes at the expense of the other values offered by forests. Shifting to a green economy addresses many of the challenges associated with balancing the value of natural capital with the needs of a developing economy.

The people of Indonesia would likely welcome more tax amnesty if it wasn’t a mere question of economics, but rather one about poverty alleviation, small and medium enterprises, environmental conservation and carbon emissions reduction – as outlined in the green economy.

That way President Jokowi would not only win an economic recovery, but also people’s hearts.

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.
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  • Setting the record straight on oil palm and peat in South East Asia: Letter by 139 scientists

Setting the record straight on oil palm and peat in South East Asia: Letter by 139 scientists

Researchers use geo-radar technology to measure peat depth in the Tumbang Nusa research forest, outside Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan. Photo by Aulia Erlangga/ CIFOR
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Researchers use geo-radar technology to measure peat depth in the Tumbang Nusa research forest, outside Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan. Photo by Aulia Erlangga/ CIFOR
Researchers use geo-radar technology to measure peat depth in the Tumbang Nusa research forest, outside Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan. Photo by Aulia Erlangga/ CIFOR

Adapted from CIAT Blog

A group of 139 scientists, including from the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, have published a letter in response to recent newspaper reports carrying comments made by a Malaysian government minister about the country’s peatlands.

The Minister of Modernisation, Agriculture and Rural Economy, Douglas Uggah Embas, described oil palm production – one of the biggest culprits in the destruction of Malaysia’s peatlands – as being “handled well” and “responsibly” in the country.

The comments were made to reporters by during an official dinner of the 16th International Peat Congress in Sarawak, in August, and were widely reported in regional media.

Writing in Global Change Biology, the scientists, representing 115 government, academic, industry and non-governmental organisations from 20 countries, describe the comments as a state of denial, with potentially “devastating consequences.”

The letter goes on to clarify that Mr Uggah’s view is not shared by the majority of the participants who attended the Congress, nor does it reflect the evidence presented there, which is backed by several decades of scientific research.

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Watch: What really happens when peat swamp-forest is cleared?

“Peat is an enormously valuable and extremely threatened resource,” said Louis Verchot, leader of CIAT’s Soils Research Program, and one of the scientists who signed the letter. “The Deputy Chief Minister is entitled to his opinion, but it is not shared by the vast majority of participants at the Congress, nor is it supported by science.

“It’s vital that these important issues are better understood. Our letter is an attempt to do that.”

The letter says that business-as-usual management of tropical peatland in SE Asia – which frequently includes burning to clear the land for oil palm plantation – is not sustainable and can no longer be justified.


Also read: Peatland loss could emit 2,800 years’ worth of carbon in an evolutionary eyeblink: study


1. What is peat?

Peat is what we call an organic soil, or in scientific terms, a histosol. It is made up of partially decayed plant matter (humus) that has accumulated in places with wet conditions where low levels of oxygen greatly slow the breakdown of organic matter.

Watch: Greenhouse Gas Emissions Associated with Land Use Change in Tropical Peat Swamp Forest
Watch: Greenhouse Gas Emissions Associated with Land Use Change in Tropical Peat Swamp Forest

2. Peat soils worldwide store as much carbon as the atmosphere

Soils worldwide store about three times as much carbon as is found in the atmosphere and one-third of this soil carbon is found in peat soils. In turn, tropical peatlands store at least one-third of the global peat carbon.  We say “at least” because tropical peatlands are poorly mapped and many scientists believe that these estimates are low.

Science has consistently shown that draining and clearing of peat swamps – usually for agriculture – causes the release of very large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

3. Burning of peatlands and noxious smog

As well as draining peatlands for farming, the vegetation growing there is also cleared – usually by burning it. When the vegetation burns, the peat material often catches fire and even larger amounts of carbon dioxide along with other noxious chemicals (carbon monoxide, methane, nitric oxide, cyanide, formaldehyde and other aldehydes, ammonia, particulates (PM10 and PM2.5), etc. This has happened on such an enormous scale that it has resulted in the notorious Southeast Asian haze, a blanket of noxious smog that has enveloped major capitals in the region over the last few years.

4. Oil palm production is a major cause of deforestation in peatlands

Peatlands in Southeast Asia are being cleared at alarmingly high rates.  Forest clearing generally in the region was about 1% per year between 2000 and 2010, but for peatlands the rate was more than double that, with oil palm a major driver there.

5. Draining peatlands for agriculture is unsustainable…

Tropical peatlands naturally form a dome of organic matter between two rivers.  The area between the rivers can be several meters above these water courses.  When peat is drained for production, the domes subside over time.  As the surface lowers, water from the rivers floods into the peat.  Thus, over time the area becomes seasonally flooded and finally permanently flooded.  At this point it is no longer economically feasible to pump water out of the peatlands and agricultural production cannot be sustained in these areas. One estimate suggests that over 40% of the region’s coastal peatlands could be flooded within the next 25 years if current practices continue.

6…And the search for sustainable use of peatland continues

The scientists argue that truly sustainable uses of peatland for agriculture do not yet exist.  They agree that finding a solution will require crops that can be grown in flooded conditions, and as yet no viable alternatives exist.  There have been suggestions that some native trees that grow naturally in these flooded conditions might be domesticated such as Borneo Tallow Nut or Jelutung (a latex producing species).  Maintaining the hydrological integrity of these systems will be essential for sustainability.

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Benefits, burdens and solutions to Indonesian Peatland Fires

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What really happens when peat swamp-forest is cleared?

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Indonesian with English subtitles

Originally published by World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF)

When peat land is cleared for other uses it releases greenhouse gasses that cause air pollution and contribute to global warming. This animation describes the process.

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  • Finding long-term solutions for degraded peat land

Finding long-term solutions for degraded peat land

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Originally published at Agroforestry World Blog

Tanjung Jabung Barat district, Sumatra, Indonesia
Tanjung Jabung Barat district, Sumatra, Indonesia

Protecting peat lands to reduce CO2 emissions while securing people’s livelihoods is a challenge in Indonesia. A video released by the World Agroforestry Centre documents the background and research carried out by a team of Indonesian and international scientists to help the Tanjung Jabung Barat district government on the Indonesian island of Sumatra identify which parts of the district have been producing the most greenhouse gasses from different land uses. The research is supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA). ICRAF’s Rob Finlayson knows more about this.

Each of the more than 400 district governments in the country is required to prepare plans to reduce greenhouse gasses as part of the national government’s commitment to bring down emissions by up to 41% by 2025. Preparing such plans is a challenge for most districts owing to a shortage of skilled staff.

The Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation is funding a project called Securing Ecosystems and Carbon Benefits by Unlocking Reversal of Emissions Drivers in Landscapes (Secured Landscapes). Under this project, the World Agroforestry Centre has been working with the Tanjung Jabung Barat government and farmers to find land-use options that will contribute to reducing emissions.

Around 40% of the district is peat land, most of which had been covered by dense swamp forest until as recently as the 2000s, when much of the forests were removed to make way for agriculture and plantations, predominantly oil palm.

Peat can be many metres thick. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

Peat can be many metres thick. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

Using various techniques, such as spatial and carbon analyses, the scientists found that removing the district’s peat-swamp forests had released a lot of greenhouse gasses because of the large amount of carbon stored in the decaying, sodden, plant litter, which can be meters thick. When the trees are removed and the swamp drained, the peat becomes dry and can easily burn. The scientists also found that even after the forests had been cleared the peat was still emitting greenhouse gasses.

Benefits of peat protection

The research team argued that stopping clearance of the peat-swamp forests could more easily reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from the district compared to changing logging practices associated with timber-production forests that were mainly on mineral soils in other parts of the district.

The peat-swamp forests were cleared mostly by internal migrants from other parts of Indonesia, who sold the timber and established farms, as part of a ‘pioneering’ tradition supported historically by the government’s transmigration program, designed to move people from densely-populated areas, such as Java, to less populated regions, often to work on plantations.


Also read Collaboration key to Dyera return to peat


To try and keep the remaining forests and repair the degraded land, the district government declared peat-swamp forest land was protected and could not be cleared or used for farming. However, this mainly resulted in conflict between the government and the people who had cleared the land and now relied on it.

The migrants were often unaware that the forest they were clearing had been designated as ‘protection’ forest by the government or that they even ‘belonged’ to anyone and continued to clear the peat-swamp forests anyway. They were aided by a ‘land market’, which involved local people selling the forests or other land even though they had little or no legal right to do so. Indonesia has a long and complex history of conflicting claims over land by government, traditional communities and migrants.

 

A row of young jelutung trees between young oil palms in Tabung Jabung Barat District. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson
A row of young jelutung trees between young oil palms in Tabung Jabung Barat District. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

From research to policy

Based on the research, the  district government and the researchers agreed that rehabilitation was necessary for halting further environmental damage in the already-degraded peat-swamp forests but any such program had to address conflict over land ownership and the need to make a living.

To try and resolve these problems, the research team experimented to find the ‘best practice’ for agroforests on degraded peat land and the district forestry office started a peat-swamp rehabilitation program.

The star of that program is ‘jelutung’ (Dyera pollyphylla), a once-widespread indigenous tree. Its latex was in the past the primary ingredient of chewing gum but was also widely used in other industries. Its habitat—the peat-swamp forests—had been largely destroyed. Demand for jelutung latex had also dropped over the years and the tree had lost much of its economic value. But the government felt other markets could be found for the tree’s products.

The researchers worked with farmers and the forestry office to test different combinations of jelutung and other trees and plants—such as rubber, coffee, fruit and pineapple—that grow well on the unique qualities of peat soil.

Community forestry as the solution

The researchers also concluded that the best solution for all these problems—rehabilitating degraded land to reduce emissions and further clearing of forests, land rights and the need for farmers to make a living—was a government licence for land use known as Community Forestry (Hutan Kemasyarakatan). The licence included secure tenure as a non-financial incentive for rehabilitating land, which under certain conditions could also be used for making a living.

To promote the use of Community Forestry licences, the researchers explained the idea to local government officials and community groups. They took  farmers and officials on visits to other villages that already had Community Forestry licences, mapped potential community forests with the farmers, trained them in how to plant and manage jelutung for greatest benefits, and improved the relationship between farmers and district government officials so that the process of applying for a licence would run more smoothly.

Now the farmers are working together with the scientists and the government and can look forward to great results. The jelutung and other crops are growing well and the first Community Forestry licence proposal has been submitted and awaits final approval.

The district government now has evidence and strong hope that Community Forestry on peat-swamp land will not only restore the ecological functions of the land but also improve the economic situation of the local farmers, help to mitigate the effects of climate change by storing more carbon while also securing land tenure and incomes.

The video will be used to promote the process and findings to district governments throughout Indonesia (in Indonesian) and to international audiences (in English). An animation used in the videos to promote better understanding of peat processes is also available as a separate video.


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