Saving peat forests

Saving peat forests

23 September 2008

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Malaysia — By nature it is waterlogged. So, when humans try to alter its traits, the system bites back. As though furious with the violation, the land combusts, sending out sporadic fires which foul the air with smoke.

And these spats have been occurring for the past decade with ad hoc solutions that only stop the symptoms but do not address the root causes. This is the seemingly never-ending plight of the highly fragmented peat swamp forests in Selangor, where rapid development comes with the pressure to venture into areas that are highly sensitive to human disturbance.

Not that there is lack of recognition of the socio-ecological value of this semi-submerged ecosystem.

More than a decade ago, the importance of peat swamp was already recognised. A four-year assessment project (1996-2000) produced the Integrated Manage­ment Plan for the North Selangor Peat Swamp Forest (NSPSF) 2001-2010, arguably the largest peat forest in the state at 72,444ha.

This large tract of forest in the north-western part of Selangor was not gazetted until 1990 following the recommendation of the World Bank-funded North-west Selangor Integrated Agricultural Development Project completed in 1983. It called for the protection of the forest which is a vital water source for the Tanjung Karang granary.

Prior to that, the Raja Musa and Sg Karang Forest Reserves forming the NSPSF were extensively logged, leaving only 1% of the area covered with high density forest. Despite its depleted condition, the four-year assessment found it to contain sufficient composition of seedlings, saplings and small trees aiding its recovery.

Ensuing oil palm plantation have contributed to further degradation and fire risk by its network of canals to drain the peat for planting.

Other smaller peat swamps scattered south of the state are in no better shape. Take the frequent fires in Kampung Johan Setia near Klang and the recent fire along a 3km stretch of the Elite Highway at Dengkil that added to the smoky plumes drifting across from Sumatra, for example. These peatlands were cleared for agricultural purposes and deliberately torched to improve soil fertility.

“Burning the cleared land is the cheapest way to enrich the acidic soil for cultivation. It also helps in clearing the land of debris from logging,” says Faizal Parish, pointing to the heaps of branches, twigs and stumps dotting the parched landscape on the 658ha land sandwiched between the Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve and the Paya Indah Wetland Sanctuary that was cleared by the Pertubuhan Peladang Negeri Selangor (PPNS) purportedly for cultivating honeydew melon and starfruit.

The director of Global Environ­ment Centre (GEC) has been highlighting the fire hazards and his organisation is the technical and operational support agency for the Asean Peatland Management Initiative, a project under the Asean Agreement on Trans­boundary Haze Pollution signed by member states in 2002.

NSPSF was picked as a pilot site to demonstrate sound management but actions on the ground are making little progress. Thus far, efforts to block the 500km abandoned canals have been hampered by the lack of political will and fund. After all the prolonged delays, the fund is expected to be disbursed end of this year.

There is a chance that the problem can be resolved if the state government pays heed to land use policies and the heightened awareness that peat forests are worth more standing than chopped down.

Over the years, the remaining stands of peatland on the west coast has been shrinking: the Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve has shrunk from its original 10,500ha to its present 1,265ha; the Kuala Langat South Forest Reserve has diminished from 11,663ha to 2,053ha.

Although degraded, the Raja Musa (23,410ha) and Sg Karang Forest Reserves (49,034ha) are the largest chunks of peat swamp that stand a good chance of rehabilitation and preservation for posterity.

In a show of commitment to protect the sensitive peat swamps, Selangor environment executive councillor Elizabeth Wong threw her support behind the Depart­ment of Environment to drag PPNS to court €“ a rare action that aims to send a strong signal to would-be offenders.

Following the discovery of the encroachment in the NSPSF, the Government has taken a strong stance in evicting illegal settlers in the south-east corner of the Raja Musa Forest Reserve. Village committees at Kampung Johan Setia were mobilised to patrol the 1,183ha degraded peatland from further illegal activities. The state is currently mapping the boundaries of the Temporary Occupancy Land to identify the title holders in a bid to hold them accountable for their respective plots.

In fact, Wong has also expressed interest to re-gazette peatlands that were excised from forest reserves during the previous administration and sort out land ownership issues to secure these fragile yet vital ecosystem.

“Environmentally sensitive areas like peat swamp need to be preserved. There is other state land that can be developed. If we manage our peat swamp properly we could increase its economic value in the near future,” she adds.

Conservationists have noted that recommendations in existing Structural and Local Plans for development on peat need to be reviewed in light of emerging knowledge of peatland ecological sensitivities and functions.

Faizal is encouraged by the state’s enthusiasm and is optimistic that restoration plan for peat swamps in Selangor will finally be implemented.

The burning of peat soil is a common practice. It is done as a cheap means to fertilise acidic soil before planting. However, such practices are illegal and harmful to the environment and public health.“For some time now, we had been looking at rehabilitating burnt and drained areas but very little was achieved. Now, the state government has asked us to extend the Asean Peatland Management Initiative project to the degraded south-east area outside the reserve which is a former tin mine.

“Rehabilitation to prevent fire and haze will benefit the state in the short term and in the long run it will gain from the growing recognition of peat swamp as a carbon sink to combat global warming,” he enthuses.

He suggests allowing the forest reserves to regenerate over the next 30 years as it doesn’t make any economic sense to develop plantation or township due to the high fire risks. In the meantime, the state could explore funding sources like selling carbon credits in the voluntary carbon trading market.

Studies have shown that disturbed peat swamp in Indonesia and Malaysia would continue to emit carbon dioxide (a global warming gas) for the next 285 years even if clearing is stopped.

Drainage of peatlands leads to aeration and decomposition of the peat material and hence to oxidation that triggers CO2 emission.

Wong discloses that GEC is assisting the state in developing a management plan that includes blocking the canals to prevent further peat loss and reforestation.

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