Reviving peatlands needs strict control: The Jakarta Post columnist

A worker holds harvested oil palm fruit at a plantation in Kertajaya, Banten Province, Indonesia.
A worker holds harvested oil palm fruit at a plantation in Kertajaya, Banten Province, Indonesia.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

The government's plan to issue a moratorium on new licences for oil palm plantations is certainly a breath of fresh air. Without a moratorium, it is predicted that 300,000 hectares of peatland will be converted every year for the next 20 years for palm oil production.

By Erlina Ekaputri

The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network

The initiative of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo to establish the Peatland Restoration Agency ( BRG ) is a very positive step for sustainable development.

The agency is tasked with restoring 2 million hectares of degraded peatland that resulted from land clearing and burning by industrial plantations for agricultural cultivation. 

The restoration target is part of the government's commitment to reduce greenhouse gas ( GHG ) emissions by 26 per cent. 

Some 80 per cent of Indonesia's GHG emissions arise from land use, particularly the clearing and burning of forests driven by land cultivation interests, and peatland fires. 

Fires on peatland are particularly difficult to detect and extinguish - made worse by activities like draining of peat forests for land use, which result in peat decomposition and CO2 release, as well as increased vulnerability to fire.

Every year, these forest and land fires lead to huge economic losses, devastating health impacts and major destruction of ecosystems and key species. 

A 2015 World Bank study found that the last fire and haze crisis caused a US$16 billion (S$22 billion) loss to the economy - twice the cost of reconstruction efforts following the 2004 tsunami and earthquake in Aceh and North Sumatra.

Of the many locations of the peatland restoration program, Pulang Pisau regency in Central Kalimantan is a priority for the agency. 

This region was selected due to the 3,808 hot spots detected last September, the highest number of hot spots in Central Kalimantan. 

Last year's analysis of burn scar mapping published by the Environment and Forestry Ministry shows that the destroyed land area reached 217,398 ha. 

Moreover, research conducted by the USAID Lestari project on the impacts from the 2015 forest and land fires in the Katingan-Kahayan Landscape underscored the significant economic losses endured by communities in Pulang Pisau. 

Almost 80 per cent of the paddy fields, rubber plantations, oil palm plantations and rattan forests were burnt. The income of more than 2,000 households in seven sub-districts declined by 75 per cent. 

These households also had to bear rising expenses amid increased prices of basic goods resulting from higher distribution costs faced by suppliers. 

Health costs soared by more than 200 per cent. The most common health problems were acute respiratory infections and diarrhea resulting from poor quality drinking water. 

Forest fires are considered common and locals have become accustomed to the haze. 

However, hotspots are increasing every year. Locals mostly blame the forest fires on the long drought due to El Niño conditions, followed by land clearing by locals and land clearing by private plantation companies. 

Alternatively, the spreading of forest fires can be seen as a result of a lack of government intervention.

This may be apparent in the weak law enforcement in addressing violators, limited firefighting equipment, the need for more water canals to be built in the region and the necessity for more programs empowering local community institutions to prevent forest fires.

Covering 12 million hectares, 80 per cent of the total area in Asia, carbon-rich peatland is vital to reducing GHG emissions and improving local livelihoods.

Peatland is strategic in supplying and managing millions of cubic meters of fresh water in Indonesia. 

Therefore, we must ensure harmony between the natural function of peatland and people's activities in that environment. 

Excessive exploitation of peatland that is converted to oil palm plantations should be avoided, as this would significantly increase CO2 emissions. 

Peatland converted to oil palm plantations with average drainage capacity of 60 centimeters can produce 54.6 tons of CO2 per ha annually, according to earlier studies. 

Therefore, the utilisation of peatland should be either minimised or stopped completely.

It should no longer be used for human settlement, agriculture, or industrial plantation development - except with strict and enforceable controls in place. 

The government's plan to issue a moratorium on new licenses for oil palm plantations is certainly a breath of fresh air.

Without a moratorium, it is predicted that 300,000 hectares of peatland will be converted every year for the next 20 years to achieve the palm oil production target of 40 million tons per year.

After last year's forest fires, peatland restoration was mostly carried out by involving revegetation and rehabilitation of the hydrological system through rewetting and installing barriers and canal covers. 

Another measure was strict law enforcement against corporations and individuals involved in causing forest fires. The government's efforts were based on good intentions. 

However, poor implementation may cause even more damage. 

For example, if canals are built without compliance to regulations, this would start destroying the peatland. 

As the researcher Bambang Setiadi wrote over a decade ago for the Center for International Forestry Research, "Don't build any water canals if you do not know where the water will flow to. The water will run uncontrollably and this would be the beginning of destruction of the peatland."

Researchers have identified two major issues in the utilization of peatland. The first relates to reclamation that includes providing accessibility, land clearing, drainage construction with wood mulch, erosion due to the sinking surface and management of the surface water. 

The second issue relates to agronomy, namely management of land fertility that leads to low productivity and intensified fertilizing.

Another issue is that local people - those most affected by the forest fires and those first to know when a fire starts - should be supported by institutionalizing their roles in preventing and extinguishing fires and reviving the peatland. 

Traditional communities should also be encouraged to apply local wisdom in controlling forest fires. 

Such efforts would ensure that local communities do not become apathetic and leave fire prevention and suppression responsibilities to the government. 

Reviving peatland is considered "indispensable" to curb forest and land fires, while preventing wider deforestation and mitigating the effects of climate change. 

Without protecting our peatland from forest fires, Indonesia will not only be infamous for spreading haze to its own people but also for "exporting" it to neighboring countries. 

* The author is the knowledge management coordinator at the Lestari Project for forestry under the US Agency for International Development ( USAID ).