Smoking Out The World’s Lungs

Smoking Out TheWorld’s Lungs

12 February 2007

Source: BBC News 
By Lucy Williamson 

Indonesia — Gettinginto the rainforest in Kalimantan requires a bit of travel. A few kilometres byboat; another kilometre or so by hand-built rail-cart. As you move in under thecanopy of trees, clouds of butterflies dart into the path, and the sounds ofinsects cluster in the air. But this is no virgin forest. This is a 10-year-oldproject to rehabilitate an area destroyed by logging.

Pak Alim is one of those involved. This project is important, he said, becauseit is perhaps the only research site in Central Kalimantan where the conditionsof the rainforest have been reproduced. This is a peat forest – built on metresof thick, high carbon soil. Peat is important because of its ability to processgreenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. Pak Alim’s favourite name forthem 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, believeswe are looking at one of the biggest environmental disasters of our age. “Fromthe drainage of its peatlands alone,” he told me, “Indonesia isproducing 632 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. “But from its annualforest fires, it produces another 1,400 million tonnes. That’s a total of 2,000million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. The Netherlands 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, cheapway of clearing the land for planting. Sometimes, though, it is local villagers,eking out a living from small patches 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. “Therewere no roads, and the soil was very difficult. When you put a cigarette out onthe ground, it would just burn. We had to work very hard to transform it intothe agricultural land you see today.”

Ratni and her neighbours say they still use fires to clear their land each year.But the peat forest round here has already been dried out by water channels, dugto 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 to fillout the landscape. This is the site of a pilot project by Pak Alim and hiscolleagues to rehydrate the peatlands. He showed us a small dam, built to blockone of the channels and keep the water in. “Since the dam was built,”he said, “we’re seeing more green here. Without it, the water level in thesoil is very low and the area can’t recover 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 keepthe 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,believes there are two major causes of the problem – big companies and localfarmers. For the big companies, the solution is to enforce the law, he said, andthat is the easy part. “For the second problem, the issue we’re confrontingis 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 are alsothe first to feel its effects. Each year, smog-like haze, caused by forest firesdescends over this community for weeks at a time. It is bad for Ratni’sbreathing, and her crops. Rehydrating the peatlands nearby would help stop thefires – and the haze – but it could also put an end to Ratni’s home andlivelihood.

And it would limit the government’s plans for expanding the country’s bio-fuelsindustry. Global demand for alternative forms of energy – such as palm oil – isputting pressure on Indonesia’s shrinking carbon sinks as plantation companiesvie for land. It is an irony that the global community will need to address ifgreen energy is going to help stop climate change, rather than accelerate it.

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