Can peatland turn into oil palm fields and not cause haze?

Global group of scientists disputes Malaysian institute's claims of method that can do that

A dispute has erupted - politely - between scientists in the region over whether peatland can be converted into oil palm plantations in a manner that will not produce the seasonal haze.

On one side, there are the scientists from the Sarawak government-linked Tropical Peat Research Laboratory.

On the other, there are 139 scientists from international institutions led by National University of Singapore tropical peatland scientist Lahiru Wijedasa.

At the heart of the disagreement is whether the current method of converting peatland into oil palm plantations using mechanical soil compaction is sustainable and viable in the long run.

The Sarawak scientists had argued during the International Peat Congress held in Kuching, Sarawak, in August that this method could eradicate the negative impacts of peatland development - such as fires.

They also said that the compaction also reduces carbon dioxide emissions from peatland up to half from what was believed previously by many scientists, according to reports from The Jakarta Post.

This method involves flattening the peat so the soil remains wet even when water is drained for oil palm plantations.

But Mr Lahiru and the other scientists took issue with this.

"They are holding on to the scientifically unfounded belief that drained peatland agriculture can be made 'sustainable', and peat loss halted, via unproven methods such as peat compaction," Mr Lahiru, 33, told The Straits Times.

"Their insistence undermines the efforts taken by Indonesia, and other Indonesian and Malaysian agri-businesses, in working with independent scientists towards a sustainable solution."

He and the other 138 scientists signed a letter refuting the Malaysians' claims. It was published in science journal Global Change Biology online last Tuesday.

"Of great concern is that none of the agricultural management methods applied to date have been shown to prevent the loss of peat and the associated subsidence of the peatland surface following drainage," said the authors from institutions such as Oxford University and the Indonesia-based Centre for International Forestry Research. Also included are scientists from six Singapore institutions.

A study cited by these scientists found that physical compaction in peatland development could lead about 82 per cent of the Rajang river delta in Sarawak, East Malaysia to become irreversibly flooded within 100 years. Substantial areas are already having drainage problems, said the study commissioned last year by the non-profit Wetlands International and done by research institute Deltares.

Mr Pek Shi Bao, policy research analyst for sustainability at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said there was a difference between independent scientists and those from government-linked institutes. "For the latter, their objective may be to improve sustainability practices of cultivating on peat, whereas the stance of many in the scientific community is that we shouldn't be planting on peat at all, and looking at restoration instead."

Any firm that wants to be seen as credible has to engage both independent and "more pro-cultivation scientists", he added.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 04, 2016, with the headline Can peatland turn into oil palm fields and not cause haze?. Subscribe