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ICRAF explores why people matter and jelutung holds promise for Indonesia’s peat

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A man plants jelutung amid other crops in a young oil-palm plantation. Photo by Robert Finlayson/ICRAF
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A peatland farming family poses for a portrait in Jambi, Indonesia. Photo by Robert Finlayson/ICRAF

Better management of Indonesia’s vast peatlands, some of the biggest and most efficient carbon stores on the planet, which have been extensively degraded, means working with the people who make their living from them.

A representative panel organized by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) at the Global Landscapes Forum: Peatlands Matter, a CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA)-related event held on May 18, 2017, in Jakarta, Indonesia, discussed the challenges and successes of improving the management of peatland in the country.

Indonesia has suffered massive economic, environmental and health losses owing to fires that annually ravage peatland and from general poor management of the unique landscapes.

Slamet Supriyadi (left) speaks on stage beside Atiek Widayati. Photo by Robert Finlayson/ICRAF

By way of background, Slamet Supriyadi, a farmer from Jambi province, provided firsthand testimony about how he had cleared peat forest and then planted oil palm, jelutung (Dyera polyphylla, a once-widespread, indigenous tree that produces a latex that was formerly the main ingredient in chewing gum), coconut and coffee.

“We were eventually reprimanded by the government,” he said, “because the land status was ‘protection forest’. We were in conflict with the local forestry office, which intimidated us but through negotiations facilitated by ICRAF we were able to understand each other. We stopped trying to blame each other.

“We understood we were wrong and yet the government wouldn’t evict us because we had explained to them that our livelihoods depended on the peatland. So the government came up with a solution: they told us they needed to preserve the land and that we had to comply with the regulations, such as planting certain kinds of trees like mango (Mangifera indica), durian (Durio zibethinus), jelutung and nutmeg (Myristica fragrans).

“ICRAF helped us obtain a Community-based Forest Management (Hutan Kemasyarakatan/HKm) permit. So now we are very happy and comfortable, at least for the time being. We’ve been there since 1997.”

Watch: Finding long-term solutions for degraded peatlands 

Workers prepare to transport oil-palm fruit. Photo by Robert Finlayson/ICRAF

FTA scientist Atiek Widayati, leader of the Securing Ecosystems and Carbon Benefits by Unlocking Reversal of Emissions Drivers in Landscapes project (2013–2015) that was funded by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, confirmed the testimony of Supriyadi from the project’s own participatory research, part of which included the facilitation of the negotiations mentioned.

The overall aim of the project in Indonesia was to assist the Tanjung Jabung Barat district government and farmers to find land-use options that would reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and also improve their livelihoods.

The situation described by Supriyadi was a common one, Widayati said, with its roots as far back as the 1970s and the beginnings of Indonesia’s transmigration schemes that shifted people from densely-populated islands to work on plantations and open new land for smallholding agriculture.

“The communities saw the land as wasteland that they could use as they liked,” she explained. ‘They occupied the fringes of peat forests, dug drainage ditches and grew cash crops like coconut to make a living. This shows that agriculture on peatland can transform livelihoods positively. The challenge comes with disasters like the fires and the over-use of peatland.

“These days, commodity crops have to be in line with sustainable-practice principles and we need to protect peatland communities’ welfare through strengthening markets and the capacities of farmers, building trust and accepting that they did not mean to violate the law.”

Watch: ICRAF Geospatial Analyst Atiek Widayati talks about people and peat at GLF

A man plants jelutung amid other crops in a young oil-palm plantation. Photo by Robert Finlayson/ICRAF

Hesti Tata Lestari, a researcher at the Forestry Research, Development and Innovation Agency of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, had researched peatland rehabilitation using jelutung, which is one of the tree species that has specialized roots that allow growth in areas with a high watertable.

“Communities in Sumatra had already planted jelutung with other forest-tree types,” she explained.

“This had also been happening in Central Kalimantan. The problem at the moment is that there is a limited market for jelutung latex so it is important to rebuild it to motivate farmers to plant more of the species. They also need support in how to manage the tree and process the latex. This knowledge was lost from the last generation.

“Rehabilitation of degraded peatland isn’t just about planting trees, however, but can include using the drainage canals to farm fish so that communities can have more products from which they benefit and which will encourage them to maintain the rehabilitated areas well.”

The moderator of the discussion, FTA scientist Ingrid Öborn, ICRAF’s regional coordinator for Southeast Asia, noted that these examples showed that farmers and governments can collaborate and create a synergy in which people work in their own interest yet produce mutual benefits.

There was, moreover, a large potential to magnify this kind of cooperation by taking advantage of the extensive canal systems that were originally designed to drain the peat (and which led to it being more prone to burning) and other waterbodies.

Sri Dewi Titisari, head of the Marine and Fisheries Office of South Sumatra province, pointed out that South Sumatra alone had 17 districts and 2.5 million hectares of canals, rivers, ponds, lakes and marshes scattered throughout them.

“In peatland,” she said, “we already have canals and we plan to manage them so that the pH can be around 7–8 because if a canal isn’t prepared properly and isn’t linked to tidal or river movements then the pH is too low at 2.8 or 3; it’s too acidic. We want to apply technology so that those canals can become fish farms. In South Sumatra, we have 233 native fish species but if the water is too acidic we couldn’t even farm them let alone exotic species.”

To assist, the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries established a Southeast Asian fisheries development center in South Sumatra that is operating pilots of ‘fish forests’ or ‘silvi-fishery’ in canals that are at least 500 meters from a river or coastline so as not to disturb riverine vegetation or mangrove systems.

Newly cleared peatland is seen beside remnant ‘protection’ forest in Jambi. Photo Robert Finlayson/ICRAF

“There are things we must observe,” she cautioned, “such as choosing canals and ponds that are adjacent to communities so that they can manage the fisheries and use the products for household consumption, for food and nutrition security.

“This is a collaboration between the departments of fisheries and forestry in developing products that will benefit the communities. There is big potential because as well as processing into salted and dried products they could be consumed fresh locally as well as exported. We have been testing various technologies with the private sector and others and, hopefully soon, our local delicacies will be providing revenues for communities and the state.”

Read also: FTA seeks to influence debate at GLF on peatlands

Aulia Perdana, a market specialist with ICRAF, confirmed that rewetting peatland as a critical part of rehabilitating it and maintaining its function as a carbon store did offer market opportunities as mentioned by the previous speakers.

“The jelutung market does have opportunities,” he explained. “A company in Central Kalimantan is working on development for sales to chewing-gum manufacturers in Singapore and Japan that are searching for edible gums, especially from jelutung in Indonesia. Production in Jambi and other provinces has fallen a lot but the demand is increasing for chewing gum made from natural ingredients. Similarly, gemor (Alseodaphne sp), a tree that is used in the production of mosquito coils, has enjoyed a revival of interest owing to an increase in demand for natural repellents.”

Other peatland products, such as rattan, sago and nypa palm (Nypa fruticans), also showed promise for further development, he said.

In conclusion, the moderator reiterated that while there were many challenges, from the nature of the peatland itself through to the markets for its products, the panelists had demonstrated that were many opportunities for them to be overcome through continuing and expanding collaboration between farmers, governments and the private sector.

By Rob Finlayson, originally published at ICRAF’s Agroforestry World

This work forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA). We thank all donors who support research in development through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.

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Eyes on the livelihoods of peatland communities

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A road runs through an oil palm plantation in Indonesia. Photo by Ryan Woo/CIFOR
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FTA scientist Atiek Widayati of ICRAF speaks during the “People and peat: Livelihoods in context” science discussion at the Global Landscapes Forum in Jakarta. Photo by CIFOR

Global market demands and ecological conditions force ground-level change – and collaboration.

It’s not just the types of trees that grow in the forests – and, in some cases, the orangutans or Probiscis monkeys that live in them – or the way the rivers wind like thread through islands of wild green that make each peatland landscape unique. Each peatland ecosystem also derives its identity from the people that call it home.

Despite their oft-remote locales, these communities are directly impacted by changes in the global market. Demands for chewing gum in Japan, for instance, can change how a farmer in Central Kalimantan chooses to use his plot of land, and an uptick in natural body creams can fatten the wallets of smallholders in Sumatra.

This ever-evolving relationship between peatland communities and their means of income was the focus of the People and peat: Livelihoods in context science discussion at the Global Landscapes Forum: Peatlands Matter event on May 18 in Jakarta. Five panelists from across different sectors, including FTA researchers, sat down to share ground-level changes they’ve witnessed, and brainstorm ways communities may be able to better thrive in the future.

Read also: FTA seeks to influence debate at GLF on peatlands


Due to years of exploitation, the peatland forests of Sumatra’s Tanjung Jabung Barat (more simply known as Tanjabar) district were completely degraded at the start of the millennium.

They were no longer sustainable for agriculture, and the farming communities who had long lived there were struggling. This led the Forest District Office of Tanjabar (currently known as Forest Management Unit of Tanjabar) to take action in 2009, beginning restoration efforts by planting some 500 hectares of the Bram Itam peat forest reserve using jelutung trees.

A farmer shows coffee beans after harvesting in Indonesia. Photo by Yusuf Ahmad/ICRAF

While the forest was being given a facelift, farmers began using surrounding areas to diversify their land nurseries by planting a variety of other trees for rubber, coffee, betel nuts, oil palm, coconut, galangal, ginger, and pineapple. It was better for the land and their income too.

In other villages, such as Senyerang (in northwest Tanjabar), farmers had begun domesticating jelutung trees as well, as the trees’ sap was very profitable for its use in latex and gums.


However, the Bram Itam peat swamp forest reserve was also prone to illegal logging, as well as migrants coming in and converting land to estate crops that sucked moisture from the ground. Again, the local government stepped in and offered a solution, allowing local farmers to harvest oil palm from previously protected, reforested areas for a period of time, so they could continue to economically sustain themselves without breaking the peace with the new influx of land dwellers.

“A profitability study conducted by the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF) showed that the tree-based agroforestry systems on the Tanjabar peatlands provided weekly and monthly income for farmers,” said Hesti Lestari Tata, a scientist at FOERDIA, the Research, Development, and Innovation Agency within the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry.

This story can be seen as a lesson: in the same way different types of crops are needed to sustain the environment and the economy, there’s a pressing need for different groups of stakeholders to work together in order to profit from these landscapes.

“The typology of peatlands needs to be addressed from the beginning,” said Ingrid Öborn, Southeast Asia regional coordinator for ICRAF. “This takes in the complexity of peatlands – depth, maturity, and water conditions, as well as socio-economic and land governance conditions. Conflict areas and non-conflict areas need to be documented. This can be the starting point for learning and upscaling the lessons to other areas.”

This begins with open communication and negotiations between different groups of stakeholders in each area, coupled with more formal principles, such as free prior informed consent (FPIC), which holds that communities have the right to decline proposed projects that affect the land they own, use, or occupy.

“There should be a trade-off between ecological and environmental needs versus social and economic needs,” said Tata. “How can we balance the two?”


Along with being constantly changing social landscapes, peatlands are also constantly shifting based on what commodities the world wants and needs at any given time.

A road runs through an oil palm plantation in Indonesia. Photo by Ryan Woo/CIFOR

“Usually, the market is the main driver of the domestication of peatlands,” said Tata. Some local crops have long been in demand: in Sumatra’s Tanjabar district, betel nuts and Liberica coffee brought to Indonesia from Africa in the late 19th century; in Riau, sago, which is ground into starch; and everywhere, oil palm.

However, not every peatland has the right conditions to grow these crops, and communities must work within the inherent confines of their landscapes.

“Coffee and betel nuts are suitable to be planted on shallow peat that’s either hemic [partially decomposed] or sapric [decomposed],” Tata explained. “Jelutung can be domesticated almost anywhere. But the market first has to be established to secure the value chain.”

This has particularly been witnessed in regards to jelutung. In Central Kalimantan and the Jambi province of Sumatra, farmers used to enjoy a high demand and valuable price for their jelutung sap.

Read also: Agroforestry on peatlands: combining productive and protective functions as part of restoration

However, a recent plummet in the market left some communities floundering for an alternative. According to Aulia Perdana, a marketing specialist from ICRAF, only one company – PT. Sampit – is currently trying to source jelutung from Indonesia, to be sold to chewing gum manufacturers in Singapore and Japan.

As a forward-thinking marketer, Perdana is always considering what other options are available and could be profitable in the future. Right now, he says these could include rattan; decorative or ornamental fish that can be cultivated in peatland waters; bark of the gemor tree, used in incense and the increasingly-popular natural insect repellents; and the nypa palms, whose sugar-rich sap can be tapped for up to 50 years and serves as a natural buffer for the habitats of aquatic fauna.

Fisheries, too, are being increasingly incorporated in peatland areas, and the panelists agreed that a mix of fishing and agriculture is quite beneficial to the overall sustainability of the landscape – healthy land and water conditions lead to increased productivity of both. But again, this requires an intentional dialogue between different stakeholders.

“We need to get farmers and fisheries to be together responsible for managing land and water,” said Ibu Titi, who works in the South Sumatra provincial government. There needs to be a strong interaction between the two to monitor water pH levels, fish, trees, and crops all at the same time.”

“I think we need more collaboration between researchers, trade organizations, and farmers,” said Aulia. “That’s the best way forward to develop the market – growing local markets in a collaborative and participatory way.”

By Gabrielle Lipton, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

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