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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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  • The power of science communication: How can the media help protect peatlands?

The power of science communication: How can the media help protect peatlands?

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For some residents of South Sumatra, Indonesia, peat is a constant preoccupation. 

“Life keeps getting harder,” says 53-year-old Maemunah. She lives in Talangnangka village in the center of the province, among peatland that was once covered in forest.

Large swathes have now been drained and set alight in order to clear space for agricultural use, setting off a dangerous ripple effect. The local rubber plantation was recently caught up in one of the fires and was completely destroyed. Water levels in the rivers have also dropped as the peat around them dries.

“Now it’s difficult to find fish,” says Maemunah. “Before, I could sell them and get Rp 100,000 [US$7.50] a day. Now, earning Rp 10,000 [75 cents] is a struggle. Peat should be looked after, but it’s not.”

Read also: Eyes on the livelihoods of peatland communities

In Prigi village, Yandri farms rice and is used to slashing and burning his fields every year to get rid of pests and allow the ash to fertilize the soil. He knows the practice is now illegal, as authorities try to protect peatlands, but he has no idea what alternative to turn to.

“Those of us from the community don’t understand how to manage peatland correctly,” he says.


The confusion among locals about how to effectively handle the peatlands they depend on significantly contributes to South Sumatra’s problems. The province is home to some of the largest areas of peat in Indonesia.

It has also experienced some of the country’s largest forest fires as these zones are converted into agricultural plantations to make products like palm oil. In the process, huge amounts of carbon have been released from the peat into the atmosphere. Rare plants and animals have been also been destroyed and the toxic air has caused long-term public health concerns.

Researchers are desperate to stem the tide and local people’s uncertainty by reaching them with important messages that can protect peatlands and their livelihoods. They also want to effectively communicate the personal struggles of people living on peatlands to policymakers.

Journalists take part in training with Budhy Kristanty, Communications Coordinator for CIFOR’s Indonesia program. Photo by Icaro Cooke Vieira/CIFOR


Many believe the media could hold the key. Television is the dominant source of news and entertainment in Indonesia. Radio and newspapers are also common, with radio in particular as an important way to reach people in remote rural areas. Online readership is growing, with recent studies suggesting a rapidly growing rate of Internet access and social media use across the country.

“To make scientific language popular, we need the media,” says Budhy Kristanty, Communications Coordinator for Indonesia at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), which leads the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) with its partners. Kristanty recently organized a media training workshop, The role of integrated landscapes on issues of fires, peatland and bioenergy, for 40 Indonesian journalists in Palembang, South Sumatra.

“The media can become an agent of change that can encourage behavioral changes,” she says.

“We write and it’s understood by the common people, and understood by professors,” says Muhammad Arif Eko Wibowo, a journalist from MNC Media South Sumatra, who attended the workshop.


With a team of four CIFOR scientists, Kristanty ran two days of training for 40 journalists – some with extensive knowledge of peatlands, some with little or none. As well as a field visit to an affected community, it included presentations by the scientists on peat and deforestation and introductions to their research projects on bioenergy and conservation in Indonesia.

“It’s really important to have science communicated to wider communities including the media,” says Himlal Baral, a senior scientist at CIFOR, who presented his research on using bioenergy crops to restore degraded lands in Kalimantan, Indonesia, during the training.

Himlal Baral, Senior Scientist at CIFOR, gives a presentation to journalists at the media training. Photo by Icaro Cooke Vieira/CIFOR

“As a scientist, we investigate answers to complex issues and we present them in scientific papers or journals, which are not much of interest to wider communities, especially local communities or policymakers,” he says. “Media can help turn them into a simpler form.”

Research has already shown some positive engagement by Indonesian media on related issues, such as the REDD+ project that aims to reduce emissions from deforestation and foster conservation.

However, overall, the media still has a ways to go.

“It turns out basic knowledge on peatlands, forests and the environment is generally lacking,” says Kristanty. “Some local journalists here don’t even know what peatlands are, or why peatland conservation is important.”

What’s more, getting media interested in covering stories with scientific angles can be difficult.

“In Indonesia, in my opinion, the general media is rarely interested in covering environmental news unless there’s a major event, which makes it important to cover, like forest fires, or floods and landslides,” says Kristanty.

After meeting and interviewing scientists directly during the sessions, journalists revealed their own analysis on the lack of scientific coverage in their media: A shortage of sources.

“We tend to have trouble finding researchers in the region who are concerned about discussing environmental issues,” says Tasma Sindo, a journalist with Koran Sindo newspaper in Palembang. “For instance, it’s hard for us to compare academics or the opinions of NGOs in the region; there tends to be a bias with news only coming from the government or other official stakeholders.”


The media training was timed to run in conjunction with the Bonn Challenge High-Level Roundtable Meeting in Palembang, South Sumatra a few days later (May 9-10).

Started in 2011, The Bonn Challenge is a global effort to restore 150 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded land by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030. It’s designed to help countries realize existing international commitments, including REDD+. To date, 44 governments, alliances and private sector organizations have committed to restoring over 150 million hectares of land to help meet the challenge.

Although not yet officially part of the Bonn Challenge, Indonesia has vowed to restore more than 29,000,000 hectares of land. In order to help meet this, the government has already set up the national Peatland Restoration Agency, outlawed slash and burn techniques and banned the conversion of peatlands to agricultural plantations.

Read also: Peatlands: The view from space

Scientists hope that if the media can help publicize their research on mitigating climate change and balancing livelihoods on degraded peatlands by turning to sustainable solutions like bioenergy and landscape restoration, local communities will be able to do more to contribute to these objectives.

“The Bonn Challenge is key for restoration because they have a target,” says Herry Purnomo, a CIFOR scientist who took part in the training. “It’s important for media to support that kind of vision, that kind of action.”

Back on the peatlands, Maemunah and Yandri are anxious for just this kind of practical information that could help them safely continue making their living. Researchers hope that not only will media outlets reach them with relevant news directly, but journalists will also help transmit their experiences to the provincial and national capitals, to help bring about broader change.

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

For more information on this topic, please contact Budhy Kristanty at

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry. This work is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.

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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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Guardians of the forest inspire at Global Landscapes Forum

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Speaker Emmanuela Shinta of the Ranu Welum Foundation gestures as she speaks during the GLF plenary session on community perspectives and priorities in peatlands. Photo by CIFOR
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Akhmad Tamanuruddin, a Kalampangan community member, speaks during the Global Landscapes Forum’s plenary session on community perspectives and priorities in peatlands. Photo by CIFOR

Indonesian community leaders fight back to preserve their peatlands.

Indonesia – The sky turned yellow just before the 2015 peatland fires reached their height in Kalimantan, Indonesia. Then it turned dark, like a phantom’s mask covering the island of Borneo with thick, humid brown haze. The particles in the air were so dense that people’s eyes burned and it became difficult to see, and so toxic that a nine-year-old girl riding her bicycle to school suddenly collapsed in the middle of the road.

This environmental crisis gave peatland communities a terrible reputation – that they’re ignorant and irresponsible, damaging the environment and putting not just themselves, but millions of others at major health risk. But is this reputation truly merited?

The Indonesian community leaders invited to speak at the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF): Peatlands Matter event in Jakarta on 18 May begged to differ, sharing their unique perspectives on what it is like to live within peatland ecosystems.

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

Peatland communities throughout Indonesia have had to relearn how to live peaceably with their environments. It is estimated that peatlands contain nearly twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests combined, despite the fact that they cover only 3-5 percent of the world’s surface, making them saving graces for climate control when protected, but terrifyingly destructive when burned and carbon dioxide is released.

Agricultural peatland communities have long cleared their land primarily through controlled burning, by selectively burning sections of land at a time, relying on the peat’s moisture to keep fires from blazing out of control. The ashes would fertilize and balance the highly-acidic soil.

However, the development of cash crop plantations like palm oil that require the drainage of peatlands, combined with rising temperatures from global warming, have rendered peatlands into tinderboxes. Despite re-wetting mechanisms – such as digging out canals that can be blocked to flood the land – the agricultural method of controlled burning is now dangerous, unpredictable and unsustainable.

Peatland communities are now facing a conundrum of developing new ways to profit from their native landscapes while ensuring their sustainability. As was illuminated at the Forum, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution – the closest one may be bringing communities together to share best practices on peat management and restoration.

Researchers fly an Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) over burning peat outside Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan, in 2015. Photo by Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR

Taking matters into their own hands

In 1980, Akhmad Tamanuruddin was uprooted from his home in East Java as part of the Indonesian government’s transmigration initiative to unify the country by spreading Javanese culture across the archipelago. He was relocated to Palangkaraya, the provincial capital of Central Kalimantan, where he was given 2 hectares of peatland. When he wasn’t in a classroom working as a schoolteacher, he worked on his property, trying to coax it into productivity.

“Initially, I planted spinach in areas that had been burned and were fertile. In the areas that hadn’t been burned, the spinach wouldn’t grow,” he told the audience during one of the Forum’s plenary sessions. “That’s why people have this habit of burning the land.”

He was, however, aware of the harmful effects of burning. Driven by curiosity, Tamanuruddin began searching for an alternative and tinkering with soil mixtures that he could scatter atop his land – something akin to icing on a cake – to increase its fertility.

Watch: People and peat: Making a living on protected land

In time, he developed his own recipe: different soil brought in from other regions mixed with fertilizer, or manure and lime. “Each ingredient has a function, such as the lime reducing the acidity of peat. In a few years, my soil became darker, a sign of fertility.”

He stopped burning altogether in 2004 – 11 years before Indonesian president Joko Widodo banned not just peatland burning, but peatland clearing altogether, as well as the conversion of recently burned land. Tamanuruddin had developed a solution long before he was legally required to do so.

It’s not a perfect method. Five cubic meters of his special concoction is enough for one hectare of land, but converting large areas means trucking in mass amounts of outsourced soil and developing adequate roads to do so.

Additionally, the age, depth, and mineral levels of different peatlands means that what works in one place may not work in another. As such, he’s still toying with how to optimize his method. “I’ve collaborated with a research body from Banjarbaru and tried to make use of their knowledge. I now plant different local woods, and the dry leaves are helping things grow.”

Entrepreneurial thinking

This homegrown approach to turning peatlands into profit demonstrates an enterprising spirit that’s required to tackle peatland challenges on a local level. Few people demonstrate this drive better than Emmanuela Shinta, a 24-year-old documentary filmmaker and founder of the Ranu Welum Foundation, a local activist group that is committed not only to raising awareness about peatland communities, but also implementing mitigation efforts on a community level in Kalimantan.

Born and raised in a Central Kalimantan native Dayak community, Shinta witnessed many tragedies during the 2015 fires, such as the young girl collapsing on her bike due to lung failure. Shinta’s eyes glisten with moisture beneath her red sumping headpiece – at public events, she always dresses in traditional Dayak clothing – as she recalls how the fires were not only pivotal for the global environmental community, but also for her own life.

“Growing up, when I woke up in the morning, there was always the sound of birds,” she said. “I would go on adventures as a kid into the forest, running in the peatlands, water up to my knees. It smelled so good. I remember it not only in my mind, but also in my heart.”

The first peatland fires occurred in Kalimantan in 1997. By the time she moved to Palangkaraya in 2009 for her university studies, she said that everything had changed. The air no longer carried the scent of fresh forest, but the harsh stench of burning.

“In 2015, Indonesia was surprised, all the world was surprised. But we locals weren’t surprised. The situation had been brewing for 18 years.”

Speaker Emmanuela Shinta of the Ranu Welum Foundation gestures as she speaks during the GLF plenary session on community perspectives and priorities in peatlands. Photo by CIFOR

Borneo, formerly nicknamed the “lungs of the world”, now seemed to have contracted lung cancer. The air quality index, at which 300 indicates a hazardous level of toxicity, skyrocketed to 3,000 within a week. “We were starving of oxygen,” said Shinta. “Can you imagine breathing in such poisonous air for three months?”

Shinta felt called to action, and without any professional skills, she did what she could: cook. She and her friends gathered scraps of money from the community and prepared meals for the local firefighters who had been surviving solely on eggs and noodles for days.

She also began documenting the crisis on film, to show to others elsewhere what was actually happening on the ground. From then on, her camera became her primary tool to help her community. Her latest documentary film, entitled When Women Fight, tells the stories of people who lived through the crisis firsthand. It was screened at the ASEAN People’s Film Forum in Timor Leste and at the Freedom Film Festival in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

But spreading information is only one part of her mission. She is also distributing anti-pollution facemasks and developing airtight rooms for when the air quality index level heightens again. The Dayak people, she said, define themselves as the “guardians of the forest” and they should recover this identity. As her work goes to show, perhaps this begins with becoming guardians of each other.

Change in the air

Indonesia is now the world’s largest producer of palm oil. However, when oil palm crops were first instituted on a mass scale, a requisite transfer of knowledge did not follow.

As Eddy Saputra, a community leader from Sumatra, Indonesia, described in the Forum’s opening plenary, this crop has not been adequately tailored to the archipelago, let alone to the communities residing within it.

For hundreds of years, he said, his community managed the land by controlled, contained burning. “We used to always have water, so [land clearing] never burned trees all the way to the ground. But palm makes the land drier, so now it burns much more easily.”

Watch: Rewetting Indonesia’s peatlands

Observations of the change in ground conditions, alongside the government’s ban on peatland clearing, led Saputra to begin seeking other ways for his community to profit from their land. But they weren’t familiar with other farming methods, and the expense of herbicide to fertilize land was unaffordable. “Not burning means higher costs,” he said. “And the government never gave us alternate solutions.

It was a new environmental era, and it was up to him and his community to figure out how to adapt. In 2014, his community began planting rubber, and then in 2016, asked the government to help convert some of their land into rice paddies. They’ve also begun producing and marketing local handicrafts. His community has not used burning methods in recent years, and even through abnormally long dry seasons, their land has remained fire-free.

Nevertheless, finding economically-viable solutions while simultaneously upending longstanding practices of their community is a huge struggle. “We understand that burning is a bad practice. We’re trying to change our habits.”

The sky grows yellow due to the thick smoke of peat fires in Sebangau National Park, Central Kalimantan, in 2015. Photo by Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR

Bagus, a leader of a fishing community in a flood-prone area of East Kalimantan, also witnessed a change for the better in the habits of his community. Every five years or so, he said, his community would be at risk of a wildfire if they weren’t vigilant, but normally they experience one or two major floods a year. “Flooding is a fortune for us, because then the fish will be abundant,” he said.

His community was forced to question their centuries-old way of life a few years ago when a palm oil plantation bought and began clearing neighboring hectares of land. They didn’t want to give up their fishing economy, but conversations began with the local government on what to do with their land, revolving around the question: To sell, or not to sell?

Rather than reacting, they decided to wait and observe. After all, it seemed unnatural to live off the land in such a flood-prone area – and this proved to be true. The plantation’s planting abilities were dictated by the flooding and the weather, leading to a lack of rhythm and lack of profits.

“Our neighbors have been planting oil palm for two years, but without any significant yield because of the floods. Our community sees that if we clear the land and plant palm, we won’t get any benefits. And, the forest can’t be restored once it’s cleared.”

Ultimately, Bagus’s community not only kept their land, but they went one step further and decided to ensure its protection, establishing 27,000 hectares as a conservation area.

In Shinta’s words, they have become “guardians of the forest”.

By Gabrielle Lipton, originally published at CIFOR’s Forest News.

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

We would like to thank all donors who supported this research through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.

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  • ‘Black gold’ for climate mitigation

‘Black gold’ for climate mitigation

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CIFOR’s Daniel Murdiyarso, left, speaks during a panel discussion on “Black gold for climate mitigation? The rediscovered carbon stocks in tropical wetlands and peatlands” at the Global Landscapes Forum: Peatlands Matter in Jakarta. Photo credit: CIFOR
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CIFOR’s Daniel Murdiyarso, left, speaks during a panel discussion on “Black gold for climate mitigation? The rediscovered carbon stocks in tropical wetlands and peatlands” at the Global Landscapes Forum: Peatlands Matter in Jakarta. Photo credit: CIFOR

Measuring the wealth of carbon stocks in peatlands.

Indonesia – New tools and new discoveries are drastically altering our knowledge of peatlands. Scientists have recently discovered the existence of huge, previously unknown areas of peatland in central Africa and South America – and the numbers are quite astonishing.

A new map developed by CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) partner the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) suggests much more peat exists in the tropics than was originally estimated – a total of around 1.7 million square kilometers.

Additional research published this year revealed that as much as 30 billion tons of carbon may be locked away in the Cuvette Centrale peatland that straddles the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Compare that with the estimated 10 billion tons of carbon the world emits each year.

The peat swamp covers just four percent of the Congo Basin – and yet stores as much carbon in its waterlogged soils as all the trees across the surface area of the two Congo Basin countries combined. The two countries could use this new discovery as a major opportunity to help crack down on global climate problems.

Given their renewed value, these countries need to move quickly to protect these precious carbon stocks, according to panelists at the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF): Peatlands Matter event in Jakarta on May 18, where numerous FTA scientists appeared.

The science discussion forum, entitled The rediscovered carbon stocks in tropical wetlands and peatlands, was organized and moderated by CIFOR and featured panelists from Indonesia’s Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG), as well as UN Environment.

Panelists discussed the latest tools for identifying and locating wetlands and peatlands, and revealed how scientists are using them to reassess carbon stocks.

A disaster for the climate? 

But will this new discovery of peat in the Congo Basin be a boon or a liability for global climate change mitigation? That depends on what happens next, said panelist Lera Miles, senior program officer at the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

“We need to make sure that it’s not a risk,” she said. “Now is the time to be proactive, and think about what can we do to make sure that any use of this resource is sustainable. From a carbon perspective, the number one thing to do is to make sure there is no drainage.”

When peatlands are drained and dried out, and the organic matter they contain is exposed to the air, large amounts of carbon dioxide are emitted into the atmosphere. The dried-out soil becomes extremely vulnerable to fire.

In addition to the GLF event, Miles was also in Jakarta for a meeting of the Global Peatlands Initiative, alongside policymakers from both the Republic of Congo and DRC. The group went on a field trip to Riau, Sumatra, to observe firsthand the efforts Indonesia is making to try to re-wet and restore peatlands that have been badly damaged by deforestation and oil palm cultivation.

“Restoration is much more resource intensive than conservation from the onset,” said Miles. “We know that it is not sustainable to drain peatlands because of the fire risk, huge associated regional health problems, and the damage to the soil itself which eventually makes it impossible to grow anything.”

“And obviously it would be disastrous for the global climate if there were widespread degradation in these newly-discovered peatlands in central Africa.”

That means tropical countries need international support to plan and fund policies to protect these areas and to make sure they are developed sustainably.

“It certainly wouldn’t be fair to expect the countries to take on that burden completely by themselves,” she said.

Firefighters put out fires spreading in Sebangau national park, Central Kalimantan. Photo by Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR

Magic map 

But international awareness of peatlands’ importance for climate change still seems to be lagging behind, FTA scientist and moderator, Christopher Martius of CIFOR, told the panel.

Martius analyzed the plans made by countries to the UNFCCC for how they will reduce their carbon emissions. Of the 139 Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) submitted so far, there were 68 mentions of ‘forest’ and 18 mentions of ‘mangrove’. None, however, mentioned ‘peatlands’.

“That means we need to do more to move peatlands into the awareness of policymakers,” said Martius. “Peatlands may be implicit when countries talk about land use, but it’s important that more attention is given to this high-carbon ecosystem.”

CIFOR Principal Scientist Daniel Murdiyarso told the audience that wetlands and peatlands should be on the agenda of every annual UNFCCC meeting, and that countries should explicitly incorporate them into their NDCs.

CIFOR’s new map showing the extent of global peatlands can help with this process, he said. It is freely available and interactive, and the scientific and policy community can help to make it more accurate.

“The map isn’t ours, it’s yours, it’s open for the public,” Murdiyarso said. “We need your knowledge to refine the interactive map – this will make the map more convincing to governments, communities and practitioners.”

Policymakers can already use the map to locate carbon assets, and plan how to protect and manage wetlands and peatlands more wisely, he said.

Act now 

Miles told the panel that the Global Peatlands Initiative is working on a rapid response assessment of the global peat resource to help bring these issues to global attention.

More information is needed to confirm the extent of the peatland area, she said. In addition, for a more accurate estimate of the carbon stocks, it is also necessary to find out how deep and carbon-dense those peat bogs are – but pinning down the area and distribution is the first priority, she says.

“Once it starts to degrade, whether it’s two meters or five meters deep, you’ll still be getting significant annual greenhouse gas emissions.”

However, countries should already act now to protect these places, Miles said. “I don’t think we ought to be waiting for better field information before starting to take this issue seriously.”

“Even if we need more precise information about how widespread the peat swamp is for the purposes of spatial planning, we don’t need to wait to identify how the development needs of this area can be met in a way that still protects its valuable ecosystem and all of its services – not just its carbon stocks.”

By Kate Evans, originally published at CIFOR’s Forest News

For more information on this topic, please contact Daniel Murdiyarso at or Christopher Martius at

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

We would like to thank all donors who supported this research through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.

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  • Green growth in Indonesia meets the Bonn Challenge

Green growth in Indonesia meets the Bonn Challenge

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Peat fires can smolder for many months, emitting large amounts of smoke and greenhouse gases. Photo by Robert Finlayson/ICRAF
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Peat fires can smolder for many months, emitting large amounts of smoke and greenhouse gases. Photo by Robert Finlayson/ICRAF

At the First Asia Bonn Challenge High-level Meeting in Palembang, South Sumatra province, Indonesia’s first Masterplan for Renewable Resources-Driven Green Growth was launched thanks to the technical support of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), a CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) partner.

Hosted by South Sumatra Governor H. Alex Noerdin, representatives of 28 nations and international research and development organizations met to discuss commitments to reforestation and progress towards them. The Bonn Challenge is a global effort to bring 150 million ha of the world’s deforested and degraded land into restoration by 2020, and 350 million hectares by 2030.

Under the leadership of the Environment and Forestry Ministry at the national level and of Noerdin in the province, South Sumatra is becoming a world leader in that commitment to restoration and the creation of a ‘green’ economy based on sustainable use of natural resources.

South Sumatra is of particular importance since more than 700,000 hectares of forest and peatland in the province were destroyed by fire in 2015, blanketing the province and neighboring parts of Sumatra, Singapore and Malaysia in a toxic, choking haze for months on end. In responding to such a catastrophe, a huge effort has been made by the provincial and national governments with strong support from nations such as Norway and Germany to ensure that it never happens again.

However, in a complex landscape such as South Sumatra, simply buying more fire trucks won’t do the job. An integrated, cross-sectoral approach is needed to address all the issues that contribute to land degradation and fires.

An oil-palm and forest landscape is seen from above in South Sumatra. Photo by ICRAF

The greater part of South Sumatra consists of low-lying plains covered with plantations, marshes, mangroves and remnants of natural forests, most of which were converted to monocultural rubber, oil-palm and pulp-wood plantations. The area under oil palm has increased rapidly from 0.87 million ha in 2011 to 1.11 million in 2014. Nearly half of the plantations are on farmers’ smallholdings of around 1–2 hectares. Clearing of the remaining forests, whether ‘protected’ or some other status, continues as people look for opportunities to establish or expand their livelihoods.

The results of the conversions by large companies and smallholders alike has increased economic growth but has also had negative effects, such as deforestation and then draining of peatland (16% of the province) resulting in high carbon emissions from the drying peat and its subsequent burning, illegal logging and a general deterioration of all ecosystems, highlighted by the declaration of the Musi River Watershed as one of the most critical in Indonesia. These effects, in turn, are having an impact on the very economic growth that drove them.

According to the World Bank, estimates of the total economic cost of the fires in 2015 in South Sumatra and several other provinces exceeded USD 16 billion, equal to nearly 2% of the nation’s gross domestic product. This estimate includes losses to agriculture, forestry, transport, trade, industry and tourism. Some of these costs are direct losses of crops, forests, houses and infrastructure, as well as the costs of responding to the fires and disruption of air, land and sea travel owing to the haze, or toxic smoke (featuring carbon monoxide, cyanide and ammonium), which also caused widespread respiratory, eye and skin ailments and deaths, especially among the very young and elderly.

Daily greenhouse-gas emissions from the fires exceeded those from the entire US economy. If Indonesia could stop the fires, it would meet its stated target of reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 29% by the year 2030.

At the heart of the province’s response to these seemingly insurmountable challenges is the Masterplan for Renewable Resources-Driven Green Growth, developed by ICRAF in collaboration with IDH, the sustainable trade initiative, which was launched by Noerdin at the meeting, timed to coincide with a major conference of the challenge in Bonn, Germany. The publication will be available to the public shortly.

Noerdin’s initiative has inspired other Sumatran provinces. Representatives of the 10 provinces of Sumatra signed a joint declaration of commitment to green growth commitment following the launch of the masterplan.

The vision of the South Sumatra administration for a fire-free and sustainable province features five areas of achievement adopted from Indonesia’s national development goals: sustainable economic growth; inclusive and equitable growth; social, economic, and environmental resilience; healthy and productive ecosystems as environmental services’ providers; and reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions.

Inspired by the vision, ICRAF’s Sonya Dewi and team used three principles to guide their approach to development of the masterplan. The first was ‘inclusivity’, in which government agencies, communities and businesses were actively involved in the creation of various growth scenarios, ensuring that aspirations and barriers were identified early on.

The second principle demanded ‘integration’ of the plethora of national and provincial government programs, particularly the province’s spatial and development plans, to ensure no overlap or conflict. The third, ‘informed’, stressed the necessity of valid evidence and scientific modeling that could project the socioeconomic and environmental impact of any particular development scenario, to be used to analyze trade-offs between economic growth and environmental health and in making decisions about which was the optimal scenario.

Sonya Dewi (left) and H. Alex Noerdin at the First Asia Bonn Challenge High-level Meeting. Photo by Arizka Mufida/ICRAF

The Land-use Planning for Multiple Environmental Services (LUMENS) methodology and software created by ICRAF, which forms part of FTA research, was used to develop green-growth scenarios and compare them with ‘business as usual’. LUMENS had previously been mandated by the Ministry for National Development Planning for use in all 34 provinces.

“To transform a process that has existed for years and years within an established bureaucracy is not easy,” acknowledged Dewi.

“Improvements in policies and technical abilities along with a change in mindset are needed for successful green development. In the past, actions did not run well and were uncoordinated. Hence the need for a jointly agreed plan that involves everyone, including local officials, the private sector and the commitment of the leader, which we have in Governor Noerdin.”

In essence, the masterplan combines the government’s spatial and land-use plans and its development plans to focus on low environmental impact, drive economic growth and ensure high engagement among the people of South Sumatra and beyond.

Dewi and team designed the masterplan to be implemented in several steps. First, government land-use plans need to be adjusted to include the actual existing conservation and commodity-crop areas, which at present are not well delineated. Further, degraded land is identified for restoration, including agroforestry, and social justice and agrarian reform carried out to distribute land to the poor as part of the national government’s programs.

Second, people’s capacity in all sectors of government, community and business needs to be built, based on the ‘five capitals’ of finance, human resources, physical, natural resources and social. Third, productivity of specific commodity crops needs to be improved through application of good agricultural practices, agroforestry and better management.

Fourth, value chains for commodities need to be improved hand in hand with building the capacity of farmers’ management and entrepreneurship skills to achieve the best possible post-harvest results. Fifth, remote agricultural production areas need to be better connected with transit centres and distribution lines by developing infrastructure.

Sixth, restoration of degraded land needs to be carried out. Land currently under agriculture will not be able to meet the needs of the people. Hence, degraded land needs to be brought into production through forest-landscape restoration, agroforestry and other restoration methods.

Finally, mechanisms need to be established to reward people for maintaining and improving the services provided by ecosystems, such as clean and plentiful water, and for innovating to ensure continuous supply of quality commodities or eco-certification for higher sale prices. The masterplan, if implemented successfully, will allow South Sumatra to grow economically in an equitable manner and raise the resilience of farmers, maintain watershed functions and biodiversity, reduce fire risks, curb natural forest loss, and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

After the launch of the masterplan, discussions were held on the sidelines with a number of representatives of nations who were keen to continue their support of South Sumatra’s efforts as it begins implementation.

By Rob Finlayson and Angga Ariestya, originally published at ICRAF’s Agroforestry World. Edited by Hannah Maddison-Harris, FTA.

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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  • Interview: Leveraging peat to beat the heat in Peru

Interview: Leveraging peat to beat the heat in Peru

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Peatlands are home to diverse fauna and flora like this colorful butterfly. Photo by Jeffrey van Lent/CIFOR
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A researcher measures peat degradation in Peru. Photo by Kristell Hergoualc’h/CIFOR

FTA researchers are working to recognize the potential of Peru’s rich peatlands in tackling climate change.

Peru – Peruvian peatlands are of huge environmental importance, not only locally but also globally. They not only house enormous stores of carbon, but are home to diverse flora and fauna, and provide essential ecosystems services that support local livelihoods.

Located in Amazonia, the Pastaza Marañon Basin stores an amount of carbon in peat soil equivalent to more than 100 years of the country’s anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG).

However, most of this carbon has only been partially protected and now, Peruvian peatlands are showing clear signs of degradation. At this vital crossroad, these peatlands can either become part of the problem, or the solution in the global battle against climate change. This depends greatly on the country’s actions towards their sustainable management.

In work that forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, Kristell Hergoualc’h, a scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), has been studying Peruvian peatlands for CIFOR’s Sustainable Wetlands Adaptation and Mitigation Program (SWAMP).

Based in Peru, Hergoualc’h was part of a team of scientists who recently published a pilot study that was the first one to attempt to map and characterize the degradation of palm swamp peatlands in the Peruvian Amazon. The study combined remote sensing data and carbon in biomass from inventories.

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

Peatland is pictured in Peru. Photo by Kristell Hergoualc’h/CIFOR

“Providing solid and credible estimations of the impacts of degradation is an essential step in planning and adopting conservation strategies,” says Hergoualc’h. “Peruvian peatlands should be considered as priorities in any national conservation program for climate change mitigation.”

Hergoualc’h discussed the study’s results and the pressing need for the country to develop strategies and policies that ensure their sustainable management.

What are peatlands and why are they important, particularly in the context of Peru?

Peatlands are wetland ecosystems located in depressions that remain flooded during most of the year. The continued oxygen-poor conditions in the soil lead to a slow decomposition of the dead branches, leaves and roots and result, over thousands of years, in the accumulation of a soil layer extremely rich in carbon.

This layer can be very deep. For example, in Peru, peat deposits with a depth up to nine meters were found in the Amazon basin. Peatlands are therefore very important in terms of carbon storage and cycling. Peru holds a substantial area of peatlands, most of which is located in the Amazon basin, but there are also peatlands in the Andes. Lowland peatlands are mostly forests hosting a high density of Mauritia flexuosa palms – locally known as aguajes.

What is causing the current degradation of Peruvian peatlands?

There are different types of activities causing peatland degradation, such as peat extraction in the Andes or illegal gold mining in the region of Madre de Dios. We’ve been looking more specifically at the degradation of the palm-dominated forests that spans the entire Amazonian basin.

People consume the fruit of the aguaje palm and a weevil – called suri– that develops inside the dead trunk of the palms. These products are important sources of vitamins and proteins, especially for rural communities. Unfortunately, the harvest of the fruit has not been very sustainable. It has been extensively cultivated in the past decades by cutting down the entire palm instead of climbing it.

Water ripples in a peat landscape in Peru. Photo by Kristell Hergoualc’h/CIFOR

What are some of the conclusions of your recent study into the drivers of Peruvian peatland degradation?

We’ve been working in an area of about 350,000 hectares in the region of Loreto and combined data obtained by remote sensing and data collected on the ground to evaluate the extent of degradation and the impact of degradation on the structure and composition of the forest.

We found that 73 percent of the area of palm swamp forest on peat was degraded. Our results suggest that degradation induces a shift in forest composition; the forest becomes dominated by woody trees instead of palms.

We also found that degradation translates into significant reductions in tree carbon stocks with initial stocks decreased by 11 percent and 17 percent following medium and high degradation.

Are Peruvian peatlands being protected?

Some areas that include peatlands like the Pacaya Samiria reserve in Loreto are protected. However, Peru doesn’t have a regulatory framework for specifically protecting its peatlands. The country doesn’t have a soil classification map and has not adopted a definition for peat soil or peatlands. The term “peatland” appears in only one official document – The Wetlands National Strategy – where it is used to designate high-altitude peatlands in the Andes.

What actions should be taken to ensure their conservation?

The peatland areas that are legally under protection were effectively conserved which is encouraging, but these sites remain limited and should be extended. Initiatives such as REDD+ projects should be regarded as an opportunity for more peatland protection.

There is also a general need to bring awareness about what peatlands are and why they are important for Peru at the decision-making level in the national and regional governments, as well as in academia.

Peatlands are home to diverse fauna and flora like this colorful butterfly. Photo by Jeffrey van Lent/CIFOR

You have studied Indonesian peatlands as well, which have been largely deforested and degraded. What are some recommendations you have for Peru so that it does not encounter the same scenario?

Indonesian peatlands have been devastated as the result of large governmental programs aimed at relocating people within the country, expanding agriculture, and extracting timber. For these purposes peatlands have been drained and, as a consequence, turned into fire-prone areas. The environmental, social and economic damages caused by land-use change and fires in Indonesian peatlands are considerable and are of major international concern.

Read also: Managing peatlands in Indonesia: Challenges and opportunities for local and global communities

Peatlands are not suitable areas for agriculture because the soil is acid and nutrient-poor and most crops can’t cope with flooded conditions. It is unexpected and dicey for the Peruvian national strategy for forests and climate change to recommend technical capacity-building on wetland drainage as a way to reduce migration of communities towards fertile soils and/or forested areas.

The main lesson we learned about peatlands worldwide is that they should not be drained. There are other sustainable options for livelihoods in these ecosystems, and these need to be defined and developed in tandem with the communities living within them.

By Yoly Gutierrez, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News.

For more information on this topic, please contact Kristell Hergoualc’h at k.hergoualc’

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

This research was supported by USAID.

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  • People and peat: Making a living on protected land

People and peat: Making a living on protected land

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Indonesia – Deep in the forests of Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, the murmur of a paddle sliding through water joins the mesh of bird song. Lined on all sides by clouds of vegetation, Adam is maneuvering his wooden canoe through the peat-soaked river. Light begins to sift through the leaves. The day’s fishing has begun.

Adam catches up to 10 kilograms of sheatfish, kissing gourami and giant mudfish a day, making roughly 50,000 Indonesian rupiah (US$4). His family has lived in Parupuk village for decades. As fishermen, they exist in close relation with the peat and the waters that flood it.

“If there were no lakes like this, we’d be in trouble. We wouldn’t be able to eat,” he says.

The practice of draining, clearing and burning peatlands in this part of Indonesia – to clear space for agricultural plantations like palm oil and pulp wood – is putting Adam’s livelihood in jeopardy. As peat is extinguished, so is the water that naturally sustains it, along with its aquatic inhabitants.

“That peatland over there already has no water,” says Adam, pointing his finger across the horizon.

The sky takes on a yellowish hue due to the thick smoke of peatland fires in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan, in October 2015. Photo by Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR

Tough tactics

So-called slash and burn techniques – designed to clear land, eradicate pests, and fertilize ground with ash – have often spread into vast forest fires in Indonesia. They can smoulder for weeks on peatlands, which are highly flammable once dried and degraded.

The smoke and flames lead to devastating consequences for human health, endangered animals and plants, as well as the environment. The fires in September and October of 2015 in Indonesia alone released higher levels of carbon per day than the daily average emitted by the entire European Union over the same period.

In response, the Indonesian government introduced a series of measures designed to stop the fires. Slash and burn is now illegal, and a ban on converting peatlands to agricultural plantations has been expanded and solidified in law.

The government has also ratified the Paris Agreement on climate change, committing Indonesia to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 29 percent by 2030, and they have launched the national Peatland Restoration Agency with the aim of restoring 2.4 million hectares of peatland in seven provinces.

A difficult balancing act 

However, while many hail these restrictions (which, if enforced, should help boost the day-to-day living of fishermen like Adam), the consequences for small-scale farmers could be very different.

Authorities are facing a potential Catch-22. Could policy measures designed to protect the environment have unintended adverse effects on the local people’s livelihoods?

Farmer Alin works in a paddy field in Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by Mokhamad Edliadi/CIFOR

Alin has been successfully farming rice in Kampung Melayu village in Kalimantan for more than five years. Each year, he has cleared his paddy with fire, allowing the ashes to enrich the land for the next planting season.

But in 2017, everything changed.

“The harvest failed for the first time because I am no longer allowed to burn my land,” he says.

Alin is afraid of the long-term consequences for his family. “If it carries on like this, we’ll struggle because pests won’t be killed – like rats, rice bugs, birds, ants, caterpillars. All of them can cause harvest failure.”

And it is not just the failed harvest that is contributing to Alin’s financial worries.

“Before, when we would burn, we could just scatter the seeds and we could get rice,” he says. “Now, it’s not possible. Now, we have to pay to replant, pay to clear the grasses as well because grasses live if they’re not burned. For one hectare, it can cost 4-5 million rupiah [USD $300- $400].”

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

Working together 

The Indonesian government, research and civil society organizations are now taking steps to mitigate the effects of fire restrictions on individuals’ lives.

“Solutions are complex because they need to address several dimensions,” says Peter Holmgren, Director-General of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

“They need to address people’s livelihoods and they need to address how the climate is disrupted by emissions from peatlands. The solutions also need to take into account the need for biodiversity conservation.”

Across Indonesia, a variety of schemes are in place- from bringing in local laws that can help allocate budget to assist communities, to agroforestry, where trees or shrubs are grown in agricultural land.

The Indonesian government has also introduced measures to protect local livelihoods, with plans for social forestry across 12.7 million hectares of land and reforms that will provide 9 million hectares of land to communities.

Father of three Ayus taps a rubber tree in in Central Kalimantan. Photo by Mokhamad Edliadi/CIFOR

Sustainable alternatives 

In Central Kalimantan, the organization Rimba Makmur Utama is running a forest regeneration project, working with farmers on a variety of tactics, including diversifying the crops they grow. They operate hand-in-hand with local people to address the concerns and priorities they identify, rather than forcing solutions.

“Communities in peatland in Indonesia are currently in a very challenging situation,” says Dharsono Hartono, CEO of Rimba Makmur Utama. “There’s no quick fix.”

One key problem raised by the local community is the need for affordable alternatives to slash and burn farming, in order to manage and fertilize their soil. Now, the organization and smallholders are introducing what are called ‘cover crops’, like local beans, which are planted after harvest. These crops feed nutrients into the soil and protect it from bacteria and infection, so that the land is ready for planting season, without the need for burning.

“Once you have increased soil productivity through proper soil management, you can plant a lot of crops,” says Hartono.

Researchers emphasize that this practice of involving the community, and working together to consider and address their needs, is vital to successfully managing peatlands and reconciling diverging interests.

On 18 May, community leaders joined environmentalists, government officials, academics and policymakers at the Global Landscapes Forum: Peatlands Matter thematic event in Jakarta, Indonesia, to move forward the discussion.

“We need to bring different sectors and different perspectives into the solutions,” said Holmgren.

By Rose Foley, originally published at CIFOR’s Forest News.

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

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  • Rewetting Indonesia’s peatlands

Rewetting Indonesia’s peatlands

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Experts from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) have been working with the local community in Dompas village, Riau, for several months, advising on measures to tackle peatland fires. Riau province has the most frequent fires in the whole of Indonesia. One of the measures is rewetting the degraded land by blocking canals and replanting native vegetation that local villagers can sell and eat, thus introducing a viable economic and environmental alternative to burning land for agricultural purposes.

Originally published by CIFOR.

This research was supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

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  • Peatland fire policy: From past to present

Peatland fire policy: From past to present

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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

This research was supported by DFID-KNOWFOR.

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