A bungled attempt to turn swaths of Indonesian peat swamps into rice plantations threatens to increase global warming on a massive scale, a scientist said yesterday.
Susan Page, a geography researcher at the University of Leicester, said annual fires provoked by peatland drainage on the island of Borneo were releasing enough carbon dioxide to swamp worldwide reductions in greenhouse gas emissions agreed under the Kyoto protocol.
She called for international action to reflood the peat swamps in Central Kalimantan province, which were drained by the dictator General Suharto in the mid 1990s and now catch fire each dry season.
Article continues Fires in the region in 1997 released up to 2.7bn tons of carbon dioxide, the largest single release since records began in 1957, and equivalent of up to 40% of annual global emissions from burning fossil fuels, Dr Page told the Royal Geographical Society’s meeting in London.
She said: “Tropical peatlands are vast stores of carbon that have accumulated over thousands of years. In a matter of months, peatland fires can liberate 1,000-2,000 years’ worth of carbon.
“The situation can only get worse. We need to stop the fires, and the best way is to re-wet the landscape.”
At the current rate of burning, the peat swamp’s entire carbon stocks, built up over 27,000 years from forest litter too wet to rot, will be released into the atmosphere by 2040.
Dr Page said the environmental problems caused by the massive smoke clouds each year had got international attention, but the scale of the carbon emissions had not.
Many of the fires are started deliberately by locals to clear land for agriculture, but they spread rapidly out of control.
The swamp drainage also threatens the survival of Borneo’s estimated 7,000 orangutans, the largest single population in the world.
Suharto’s project, called Mega Rice, was to convert more than a million hectares of peat swamp into rice fields.
Barely a grain was ever produced. The uneven ground made irrigation impossible and the soil proved too acidic, as the few local experts willing to speak out against Suharto’s plan had predicted.
Dr Page said: “People just don’t understand peatlands and don’t understand wetlands, as we’ve seen with the situation in New Orleans. People have a misguided impression of our abilities to manipulate natural ecosystems.”