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The importance of peatland: Sustaining our environment and improving livelihoods


This article was originally published on medium.com on 19 December 2018. 

We often hear references to the environmental importance of peatland to Indonesia’s rainforest, particularly when discussing the topic of palm oil. However, how many of us truly understand peatland and its role in our environment? Understanding the importance of peatland is fundamental to understanding why agriculture must not encroach on this important natural resource.

What is peat?

Let’s start with the basics, what exactly is peat? Peat is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation matter. It usually forms in marshy areas, when plant material is inhibited from decaying fully. It is mainly composed of marshland vegetation, for example, trees, grasses as well as other types of organic remains, such as animal carcasses. Peat forms over thousands of years, growing at a rate of about a millimetre per year and is, under the right conditions, the earliest stage in the formation of coal.

Peatlands cover approximately three percent of the global land mass. In the tropics, large peat areas are found in Indonesia, Congo, and Brazil as well as Peru. Publications have indicated that peat areas in Indonesia span between 15–25 million hectares[1].

Why peat is so important for the environment?

Peat has an important role to play when it comes to climate change. While peatlands cover only a very small percentage of global land mass, it stores a tremendous amount of carbon, equivalent to one-third of the total global soil carbon. This is what makes its preservation so important if we are to keep carbon in the soil and CO2 out of our environment.

Degraded peatland in Indonesia

Unfortunately, peat can degrade by oxidation which leads to CO2 emissions and other greenhouse gases (GHG) being released into the atmosphere. Peat decomposition happens when drainage of peatlands leads to aeration of organic matter and hence, oxidation (aerobic decomposition). Peatlands can become degraded through human practices such as logging of natural forests on peatlands and their consequent deforestation to use it for agricultural plantations and agriculture by smallholder farmers.

After oxidation has started to take place, water management and other techniques such as compaction can reduce the rate at which it takes place but does not stop it. According to the IUCN, damaged peatlands contribute to about 10 percent of GHG emissions from the land use sector globally. The global CO2 emissions from drained peatlands are estimated to be at 1.3 gigatonnes of CO2 annually[2]. Protecting the peatland we have will be an important factor, as we all strive to reduce the rate of global warming and minimise the impacts of a changing climate.

The importance of peat to rural communities

Due to the sheer size of Indonesia’s peatlands, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people live in or adjacent to peat areas. Many of them depend on peat for their livelihood, working in industries such as fishing and aquaculture, agriculture (peat is famous for growing sweet pineapples), collection and utilisation of non-timber forest products such as the sap from the Jelutung tree. However, as the use of peatlands is getting more restrictive, due to increased awareness of its environmental importance, alternate sources of livelihood need to be provided and education is needed to allow peat-based communities to continue economic development. For example, it is crucial that communities around peat areas are involved in water management, so they can prevent drought during the dry season and floods during the rainy season.

How are we preventing degradation and restoring peatland?

Peatland rehabilitation area

At Golden Agri-Resources (GAR), we are promoting the responsible management and protection of peatlands to limit global temperature increase and climate change but also to protect communities in and adjacent to peat. Consequently, GAR has committed to not opening or converting any additional peatland into palm oil plantations. GAR is also committed to applying best practice management for existing plantations to minimise decomposition through oxidation.

As part of our commitment, GAR is restoring 2,600 hectares of degraded peat areas inside our PT Agro Lestari Mandiri concession in West Kalimantan. The area degraded over the years through encroachment by the local communities and regular fire. In 2015, a devastating fire destroyed more than 1,000 hectares and only some small forest patches remained.

GAR realised that for successful restoration, a participative approach is required and developed a system based on four pillars:

1) Water management and restoration of the hydraulic system in the conservation areas;

2) Reforestation with local tree species;

3) Installation of fire detection infrastructure and the instalment of emergency response teams and;

4) Provision of alternative livelihood models to local communities to allow economic development without the use of fire and encroachment into the conservation areas.

We are proud of what we have managed to achieve so far. As of October 2018, approximately 300 hectares have been replanted and natural regeneration can be observed throughout the peat area. Biodiversity assessments were done before and after the fire in 2015 and are being used as a baseline to measure the return of species into the area.

But more needs to be done

The most challenging part of making real change is to gain and sustain the commitment from the local communities to support peatland restoration in the long term. Land for agriculture is scarce, so we are seeing continued encroachment into the drier areas, located on mineral soil in conservation areas, to be used for agriculture. We understand that we cannot do all of this alone, so to strengthen our outreach to these communities, we have hired consultant firms LINKS and FIELD-Indonesia Foundation (Farmer Initiatives for Ecological Livelihoods and Democracy -Indonesia).

LINKS exists to create an equal partnership between companies and farmers, providing important research and education programmes to benefit farmers and manage social conflicts. Training and capacity building in ecological farming are conducted by FIELD for the communities to encourage farmers to give up bad practices and to support peat conservation efforts, all whilst improving their livelihoods. Having third-party support not only gives us additional feet on the ground but enables us to build trust in the community and measure our impact.

GAR is committed to protecting and restoring peatland, and by working with local communities we can help them to continue this practice for generations to come.

Read more about our peat restoration work here.

About the author: Dr Götz Martin is the Head of Sustainability Implementation at Golden Agri-Resources (GAR).

[1] http://www.cifor.org/publications/pdf_files/infobrief/6449-infobrief.pdf

[2] https://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/peatlands-and-climate-change

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