Saving and protecting peatlands in Indonesia

Through a global effort and various initiatives, saving peatlands in Indonesia and across the globe can now be a reality.

by Nithin Coca

This story is supported by the Solutions Journalism Network LEDE Fellowship.

On the surface, Indonesia’s peatlands are unremarkable to the eye. These low-lying wetlands lack the dense networks of trees, plants, and animals present in nearby tropical forests. Their composition also makes them relatively easy to drain and convert into oil palm or paper pulp plantations — as has happened to millions of hectares on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, which has some of the world’s largest peat deposits. 

“Restoring these ecosystems is much more difficult than preventing their degradation,” says Mark Harrison, Co-Director of the Borneo Nature Foundation International, a non-profit organisation based in the United Kingdom. The organisation has been working in Borneo for over 20 years, with a focus on removing the artificial canals and channels that drain peat and cause them to dry. Their effort is part of a growing global movement, led by scientists, to better understand peatlands.

For years, peatlands have been neglected, especially in Indonesia. The archipelago country, home to 260 million residents living on more than 10,000 islands, is one of the world biodiversity hotspots. These islands are home to some of the Earth’s most precious flora and fauna and other natural resources. 

It is also a developing country, with a per-capita income of just $4284. Since the country declared independence from the Netherlands in 1945, economic development has been a key goal of the state, while the environmental impacts have been often disregarded.

Since 2015, Borneo Nature Foundation has expanded efforts to remove canals by working with local communities, plantation owners, and large agribusiness companies. They’ve also been using new technology, including drones, to better identify dry spots, and have also started working directly with firefighters during dry seasons on rapid-response fire prevention campaigns. This has all been boosted by the global attention peatlands are receiving today. Better knowledge is helping inform better interventions.

“The change is that 2015 elevated international and national interest in peatlands,” said Harrison. “It’s spurred on more research into peatland topics.”

Center for International Cooperation in the Sustainable Management of Tropical Peatlands (CIMTROP) fire team heading to a site in Sebangau, Indonesia. © Borneo Foundation
CIMTROP firefighting team carrying supplies to a fire site. © Borneo Foundation

The value of peatlands

Despite their appearance, peatlands are among the most important ecosystems. They come in all shapes and sizes. The bogs of England and Ireland are peatlands, as are the raised moors found in Northern Europe and North America. 

Tundra mires are also peatlands, covering more than 100,000 square kilometres of permafrost regions in Canada, Alaska, and Russia. And then there are peat swamps, which in itself is a rich category. The everglades, parts of the Amazon basin, and the lowland wetlands of Indonesia and Malaysia are all peat swamps.

What ties all these places together is their wetness, and peat – organic material which, due to rapid accumulation, cannot decompose. Over thousands of years, peat has built up to extraordinary amounts, forming some of the greatest carbon stocks in the world. More than 550 gigatonnes of carbon, representing 42 per cent of all soil carbon, can be found in peatlands. Moreover, the world’s remaining healthy peatlands sequester (remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in a carbon sink) at least 0.37 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide a year. 

Losing that carbon sink would make achieving global climate goals nearly impossible. This is  why the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an organisation working in the field of nature conservation and sustainable use of natural resources, calls peatlands “among the most valuable ecosystems on Earth,” adding that they are “highly significant to global efforts to combat climate change.”

Those figures are likely underestimates, as they keep changing as new data or research comes in. In fact, for the most part, it is rising. It seems the more we map, research, and analyze peatlands, the higher the carbon stock is.

“The exact extent is not known,” said Dianna Kopansky, coordinator of the Global Peatlands Initiative (GPI), a project launched in 2016 with the goal of saving peatlands and preventing their organic carbon stock from being emitted into the atmosphere. 

“They cover at least three per cent of the world’s surface, yet they house two times as much carbon as all of the world’s forests. They are condensed carbon storage and sequestration points,” added Kopansky. 

The burning of peatlands is far more than a public health crisis; it is a climate issue. © Borneo Foundation
CIMTROP team tackling smouldering peat fire. © Borneo Foundation

Burning peatlands is a public health issue

The two industries most responsible for degrading peatlands are the palm oil and paper pulp industries. Oil palm has become one of Indonesia’s top exports, driven by the biofuels demand in Europe, the increase in the use of non-hydrogenated oils in the United States, and, their increasing use as cooking oils in China and India, while the paper pulp is a key input for cardboard, toilet paper, and other in-demand commodities. 

For each incremental increase in air pollution, you get a certain incremental increase in mortality risk.

The main crops – oil palm, acacia, and eucalyptus, all grow better on dry land. So in order to grow them in naturally wet peatlands, canals are built to drain the land. This results in degradation, carbon emissions, and dangerous conditions during dry years.

In 2015, this led to a catastrophe. During an especially dry year, fires erupted across Indonesia, and many peatlands burned, releasing toxic haze into the atmosphere. The fires were a wake-up call, a signal that business, as usual, was not going to work anymore. And the cost of human life was huge. After the fires subsided, researchers from Harvard University and Columbia University in the United States estimated that as many as 90,000 excess deaths could be attributed to the haze.

“For each incremental increase in air pollution, you get a certain incremental increase in mortality risk,” said Jonathan Buonocore, co-author and research associate at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard, in a press statement.

In fact, the burning of peatlands is far more than a public health crisis; it is a climate issue. Peatland degradation is responsible for about between 5-10 per cent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. In years like 2015, that figure rises – at its peak, those fires emitted nearly 16 million tonnes of CO2 a day, which at the time was more than the daily emissions from the entire United States economy, according to data from the World Resources Institute.

“The fires highlighted the importance of… peatlands and good hydrological management of peatlands to prevent these kinds of disaster situations,” said Harrison. “The areas that were least affected by fires were generally forested areas that were relatively undisturbed. It highlighted the issue and some of the consequences of fires when  peatlands are not managed as well as they could be.”

Global Peatlands Initiative (GPI) is a project launched in 2016 with the goal of saving peatlands and preventing their organic carbon stock from being emitted into the atmosphere.  © GPI

Saving peatlands

Besides the Borneo Foundation, the Global Peatlands Initiative (GPI) — a project that started a year after the 2015 fires — is one that further catapulted the efforts to save peatlands.

During its launch, it had 13 founding NGO members, including the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), along with four partner countries that have high amounts of peatlands within their borders – Indonesia, Peru, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo-Brazzaville.

“Only recently are countries coming into the front on peatland and accounting for them, and their importance for their economies and climate change,” said Kopansky.

In fact, one of the amazing facts is that as recently as 2015, peatlands, especially tropical ones, were remarkably little known. For a landscape and ecosystem so crucial to global climate and the carbon cycle, this was astounding. 

Part of the challenge is that even defining peatlands is difficult, as the term refers to a wide spectrum of landscapes that share a few common attributes. Measuring them also required field visits with expensive tools and constant monitoring. This is often far beyond the capacity of developing countries, such as Indonesia or Peru.

The reason that peatlands are tough to identify is that most of the peat is underground (some fires even take place entirely underground). Satellite imagery can be of limited use too, from above, peatlands can be indistinguishable from dry savannas or tropical forests.

Thus, one of GPI’s main focuses has been to coordinate the sharing of knowledge across borders. They are also advocating for peatlands at conferences like the yearly United Nation Climate Conference and on social media. They want decision-makers everywhere to recognise peatlands like they currently recognise tropical forests or freshwater sources – crucially important environmentally and economically.

“Peatlands, in their different nuances, have varying levels or degrees of importance, but as a whole, if we’re talking about climate, biodiversity, water quality, the housing of rare and migratory species, peatlands are absolute hotspots and diamonds in the rough,” said Kopansky.

Another big effort is building the groundwork for comprehensive global peatlands maps. This would entail collecting data that various governments, academic institutions and non-profits have gathered, and combining it into a single, unified tool.

“It would be groundbreaking if we had better confidence in the extent of peatlands,” said Kopansky. “Most peatlands scientists feel that the current maps and data that we have are underestimates.”

Using drones to help tackle peat fires in Sebangau. © Borneo Foundation

Difficult but doable 

It is not easy. Because peatlands are often studied in isolation and can vary so much by climate, there is not even common language or standards for assessing them. Creating standards will be one part of GPI’s work, as will figuring out how remote sensing tools, such as satellites, can inform and work with on-the-ground knowledge.

GPI already can see, however, that knowledge can drive action. In less than four years, Kopansky has seen a real shift in the global discussion around peatlands. Their importance is increasingly acknowledged, and there is real action to protect them where they exist.

“I’m optimistic of our ability to build a better map, to know where peatlands are, and establish the methods to understand how they are changing, for climate change and the impacts that peatlands can have on infrastructure and food systems,” said Kopansky.

There is also movement on restoration. Indonesia, one of the founding members of the GPI, set up a peatland restoration agency after the 2015 fires, tasked with restoring about 2 million hectares of peatlands across the archipelago. Shortly thereafter, Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced a moratorium on all activities that could damage the nation’s peatlands. The moves were praised and were taken as a sign of hope, as these types of actions would have been unthinkable even a few years earlier.

“We’re in an age where urgent action is essential,” said Kopansky. “Urgent action can only be done by many people working together. A partnership like the Global Peatland Initiative, that has a spirit of togetherness, working on joint goals based on science, is really groundbreaking.”

The good news is that, so far, the extent of damage is not that extensive. According to GPI, current data shows that just a small percentage of peatlands around the world have been drained and degraded, especially in Southeast Asia.

I’m optimistic of our ability to build a better map, to know where peatlands are, and establish the methods to understand how they are changing, for climate change and the impacts that peatlands can have on infrastructure and food systems.

GPI has stated that 5-10% of all greenhouse gas emissions from human resources come from peatland degradation. Preventing these emissions means that restoration is important, especially in places like Sumatra and Borneo, where impacts from agribusinesses are clear. But elsewhere, once peatlands and their peat stock are identified, the goal should be preservation – to ensure that carbon stock remains in the ground, forever.

“Peatlands form over thousands of years,” said Harrison. “If you want to maintain the biodiversity and carbon benefits that peatlands provide, then preventing relatively intact peatlands from becoming degraded is a critically important thing to do.”

GPI hopes to have an initial assessment for key peatland countries finished within a few years. Once we know where peatlands are, and how much carbon they store, then we can protect them. The hope is that, with science-driven policies, events like the 2015 haze can be relegated to history. 

With healthy peatlands sucking up carbon, global climate goals, too, can become more feasible. Peatlands are small but mighty, and the movement to restore, protect, and nurture them is growing.

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