Smoking out the world’s lungs

Smoking out the world’s lungs

12 February 2007

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Indonesia — Getting into the rainforest inKalimantan requires a bit of travel. A few kilometres by boat; another kilometreor so by hand-built rail-cart.

Pak Alim in the forest Pak Alim and others are trying to rehydrate the peatlands

As you move in under the canopy of trees, clouds of butterflies dart into thepath, and the sounds of insects cluster in the air.

But this is no virgin forest. This is a 10-year-old project to rehabilitatean area destroyed by logging.

Pak Alim is one of those involved. This project is important, he said,because it is perhaps the only research site in Central Kalimantan where theconditions of the rainforest have been reproduced.

This is a peat forest – built on metres of thick, high carbon soil. Peat isimportant because of its ability to process greenhouse gases like carbon dioxideand methane.

Pak Alim’s favourite name for them is “the lungs of the world”.

But those lungs are shrinking.

Forest fires

According to the conservation organisation Wetlands International, 48% of thecountry’s peatland forest has been deforested, and most of the rest degraded byillegal logging. And that has caused some major problems.

Marcel Silvius, a senior programme manager for Wetlands International,believes we are looking at one of the biggest environmental disasters of ourage.

Ratni We had to work very hard to transform it into the agricultural land you see today Ratni
Kalimantan farmer

“From the drainage of its peatlands alone,” he told me, “Indonesiais producing 632 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.

“But from its annual forest fires, it produces another 1,400 milliontonnes. That’s a total of 2,000 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. TheNetherlands emits 80 million.”

Indonesia’s annual forest fires are a major problem, and have been increasingover recent years.

Sometimes they are caused by companies wanting a fast, cheap way of clearingthe land for planting.

Sometimes, though, it is local villagers, eking out a living from smallpatches of land hewn out of the forest.

Ratni has lived here for 30 years. She arrived as part of a governmenttransmigration scheme, to put farmers to work in the southern peatlands ofKalimantan.

“At first it was very difficult,” she said. “There were noroads, and the soil was very difficult. When you put a cigarette out on theground, it would just burn. We had to work very hard to transform it into theagricultural land you see today.”

Ratni and her neighbours say they still use fires to clear their land eachyear.

But the peat forest round here has already been dried out by water channels,dug to drain the land for agriculture, or to transport timber, and fire spreadseasily. Last year’s blazes have left much of it blackened and sooty.

Flood fears

But one area of this forest is still green, and slim trees are beginning tofill out the landscape.

This is the site of a pilot project by Pak Alim and his colleagues torehydrate the peatlands.

Kalimantan peatlands Rehydrating the peatlands poses dilemmas for the government

He showed us a small dam, built to block one of the channels and keep thewater in.

“Since the dam was built,” he said, “we’re seeing more greenhere. Without it, the water level in the soil is very low and the area can’trecover from the fires.”

But he said, they had to be careful.

“If we take drastic measures and flood the whole area, yes we might seemore trees, but we’ll also kill the local community be flooding theiragricultural land,” he explained.

“Before, the thick trees would keep the water in during the wet season,now it would flood in all directions.”

The Indonesian government agrees that there is no simple solution for thepeatlands.

Agus Purnomo, a senior official at Indonesia’s environment ministry, believesthere are two major causes of the problem – big companies and local farmers.

For the big companies, the solution is to enforce the law, he said, and thatis the easy part.

“For the second problem, the issue we’re confronting is poverty,”he said.

“To prevent people opening up peatlands for agriculture or whatever, weneed to come up with development projects that directly benefit the local poor,and that is a challenge that has to be solved by the government as a whole.”

Environmental ironies

People like Ratni may be one of the causes of the destruction, but they arealso the first to feel its effects.

Each year, smog-like haze, caused by forest fires descends over thiscommunity for weeks at a time. It is bad for Ratni’s breathing, and her crops.


Rehydrating the peatlands nearby would help stop the fires – and the haze -but it could also put an end to Ratni’s home and livelihood.

And it would limit the government’s plans for expanding the country’sbio-fuels industry.

Global demand for alternative forms of energy – such as palm oil – is puttingpressure on Indonesia’s shrinking carbon sinks as plantation companies vie forland.

It is an irony that the global community will need to address if green energyis going to help stop climate change, rather than accelerate it.

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