Indonesia expands protection for peatland

Indonesian soldiers trying to extinguish a peat fire in Kampar, Riau province, in October. The blanket ban on the cultivation of carbon-rich peatland across the country takes effect immediately.
Indonesian soldiers trying to extinguish a peat fire in Kampar, Riau province, in October. The blanket ban on the cultivation of carbon-rich peatland across the country takes effect immediately.PHOTO: REUTERS

New law banning cultivation also covers concession land previously licensed to firms

Indonesia has issued a blanket ban on the cultivation of carbon-rich peatland across the country, in a move the United Nations says could slash greenhouse-gas emissions and prevent disastrous peat fires that have plagued the region in recent years.

The landmark decision, signed by President Joko Widodo into law on Dec 1, will prohibit the draining and clearing of not only new peatland, but also concession land previously licensed to plantation companies.

Indonesia's Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) said yesterday that the ban, which expands on an older moratorium on the clearing of forests for plantations and mining activities, takes effect immediately.

"So now, even with a licence, you are not allowed to open or drain intact peatland," BRG chief Nazir Foead told The Straits Times .

The new regulation follows an announcement in April by Mr Joko that he plans to push through a moratorium on new permits for oil palm plantations. It also comes after the 2015 haze crisis, which saw air pollution caused partly by peatland fires hitting record levels.

  • 43m Number of people affected by last year's peat fires in Indonesia, as suggested by recent studies.

  • 500,000 Number of people treated for respiratory disease

  • $22.8b Overall economic damage to the country..

Environment and Forestry Ministry secretary-general Bambang Hendroyono confirmed yesterday that the government will no longer issue permits to clear forests and areas listed as peatland under the new presidential decree.

He also said there will be further amendments to the regulation, once the ministry completes an ongoing exercise to update and verify data in a hydrology peat map, which will be issued later.

Only 3 per cent of global land mass is considered peatland, but the latter contains twice as much carbon as the entire bio-mass of forests in the world. The carbon is released as greenhouse gas into the atmosphere when peatland is cleared by draining or burning.

Latest studies have shown that 15 per cent of peatland around the world has been drained, and more areas are at risk of being destroyed to make way for oil palm crops, pulp-wood production and other uses. Experts have said that if this happens, the resulting increase in emissions could raise temperatures and exacerbate global warming.

A two-year moratorium to protect primary forests and peatland was first issued in 2011 by former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The law, which covered 63.8 million ha of land in places such as Kalimantan and Sumatra, was extended by Dr Yudhoyono in 2013.

But environmentalists had said that despite the moratorium, land was still being cleared using the slash-and-burn method in protected forest areas because of weak enforcement of the law.

The same moratorium was extended last year by Mr Joko a day before it expired, even as his new government was reviewing the regulation.

Mr Nazir said the new regulation, which prohibits activities that result in the clearing of peatland and requires concession owners to keep peatland moist, can potentially reduce carbon emissions by up to one gigaton annually - that is about twice its total fossil fuel emissions last year, according to the Global Carbon Atlas.

"This will now provide a stronger legal basis for the government to push all relevant stakeholders for sustainable peatland management," he added.

Recent studies suggest that last year's peat fires in Indonesia affected 43 million people and caused over 500,000 people to be treated for respiratory disease. It also cost US$16.1 billion (S$22.8 billion) in overall economic damage.

Mr Erik Solheim, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, praised Mr Joko's move, calling it a "positive and historic decision, both for Indonesia and for global efforts to tackle climate change".

World Resources Institute director Nirarta Samadhi said it will be "a relief to millions of Indonesians who suffer the effects of toxic haze from peat fires".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2016, with the headline 'Indonesia expands protection for peatland'. Print Edition | Subscribe