For peat’s sake

A peat swamp forest in Kalimantan. (Photo by Ruanda Agung Sugardiman)

A peat swamp forest in Kalimantan.
(Photo by Ruanda Agung Sugardiman)

The peat swamp forest in the south of Kalimantan is an unusual ecosystem that is home to many unique or rare species such as orangutans. It consists of diverse range of tropical trees standing on a layer of peat up to10-12m deep. The peat is partly decayed and waterlogged plant material, and it in turn covers relatively infertile soil. Peat is a major store of carbon, and provides complex regulation of local hydrology: like a sponge, peatlands soak up excess rain in the wet seasons, and let it out gradually in dry seasons. Peat swamp forests may take several centuries to regenerate (and this is only possible when conditions are conducive).

In 1996 the Indonesian government initiated the Mega Rice Project, which aimed to convert one million hectares of peat swamp forest to rice paddies, by clearing and draining the peat swamp forest. Where the forests had frequently flooded up to 2m deep in the rainy season, now their surface is often tinder dry, and nearby agriculture is subject to a cruel regime of floods and droughts. While government has abandoned the Project, the drying peat remains vulnerable to fires which continue to break out on a massive scale.

In addition to the loss of biodiversity and release of large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, the cleared and drained peat forests have released acid run off into the surrounding rivers reducing fish catches up to 150km upstream from the river mouth.

The Project region is now the focus of a global effort to reduce carbon emissions, with concurrent goals of reducing poverty through agricultural development, while also conserving and rehabilitating the biodiversity that’s left. The region is also a focus for widespread oil-palm development, and forestry activities. How do you reconcile all these expectations? How do you sustain the different environmental values (real and potential) embedded in this landscape? Elizabeth Law has been asking these very questions and you can read about what’s she’s found.

A satellite image of fires burning on cleared and drained peat forests in 2006. (Image by NASA, Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team)

A satellite image of fires burning on cleared and drained peat forests in 2006. (Image by NASA, Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team)

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