Indonesia — Central Kalimantan, home to the largest remaining peatland forests in the country, has three million hectares of peatlands that store more than 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide – the main contributor to global warming. The Jakarta Post’s Adianto P. Simamora visited the Sebangau National Park conservation area last week to observe peatland restoration projects that are aimed at preventing emissions from being released into the atmosphere.
Kusnawi, a resident of Sebangau, sat in a base camp at the entrance to the Sebangau National Park and watched visitors arriving at the area, which is located 55 kilometers south of the Central Kalimantan provincial capital of Palangka Raya. He reminded them not to start any fires in the highly inflammable forest. “My job is to check water levels in the canals every day,” said Kuswadi, a father of two. He spends three weeks a month in the park.
World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Indonesia has developed several conservation projects in the area and hired Kusnadi in 2005 to monitor the daily condition of the peatlands and to water seeds that were planted to restore the degraded park. The Forestry Ministry designated Sebangau, which covers more than 568,700 hectares and is more than 10 meters in some places, as a national park in 2004.
Currently, 66,000 hectares of the reserve have been classified as “degraded” and have no big trees. “As of today, we have only managed to restore 850 hectares by planting trees,” Sebangau national park management unit head Rosdy Abaza told reporters. The project was hampered by a lack of funds, he added. “We only have Rp 8 billion *US$880,000* in the annual budget, which includes salaries. It’s much lower than the estimated minimum budget of Rp 80 billion,” he said.
Sebangau National Park has 46 employees. Located between the Katingan and Sebangau rivers, Sebangau used to be a logging concession granted to 13 forest concession holders, despite its rich biodiversity. The concession holders left behind thousands of canals in the peatland forest, which drained the area. Canals were previously used as waterways which ran deep into the forest to transport illegally-logged timber.
“We have to block the canals to stabilize the water level. It’s the cheapest way to restore the peatland,” said Rosdy. More than 200 dams have been built this year to block water flow, at a cost of Rp 20 and Rp 80 million per dam, to allow the water table of drained peatlands to rise. The reserve and WWF Indonesia plan to block 400 canals this year, he added.
“Before trees can be planted to restore function of peatland, the water level must be raised,” WWF Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan chapter program manager Rosenda Kasih said. If new trees are not planted and canals are blocked, emissions will continue to be released from the peatlands, she added. The park is located near the abandoned “1 million hectares peatlands project” (PLG) developed under former president Soeharto.
There are also thousands of canals in the area. Peat is an early form of coal that develops over thousands of years. As plants in peat swamp decompose they produce a brown mass of twigs, branches and leaves, which in turn traps tons of carbon emissions. When it’s draining, the peat turns into a highly combustible material, prone to fires in the dry season. Central Kalimantan suffered massive fires due to the forest conversions and peatland exploitation in 2002, 2005 and 2006. The discussions of the role of peatlands are taking center stage in line with climate change talks that have called for a moratorium on peatlands conversions.
Experts say peatlands forests store about 50 times as much carbon dioxide as other tropical forests. A study by the National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas) says that Indonesia’s peatlands contribute 1 billion tons of emissions per year, or half of the country’s total emissions. Indonesia, which has pledged to cut carbon emissions 26 percent by 2020, has also promised to stop conversions of peatlands.
A draft presidential regulation proposed a five-year moratorium on peatland conversions and promised a review of concession permits to mitigate climate change. Currently, peatlands with a depth of less than 3 meters can be converted from residential to business purposes for oil palm or mining companies. Industrial timber concessions, forest concession holders to oil palm companies have been running business on peatland in Central Kalimantan and elsewhere in the archipelago.
Rosenda warned that although the government has designated Sebangau as national park, threat of forest fires and the expansion of oil palm plantations remained in place. “What’s worrisome is the Central Kalimantan administration’s plan to reduce the area of Sebangau national park to allow oil palm companies to expand,” she said. “The future of Sebangau National Park will depend on whether the Forestry Ministry will approve spatial planning revisions in Central Kalimantan.”
The WWF Indonesia is currently conducting a preliminary study of 50,000 hectares of Sebangau National Park as part of a pilot project for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. “We are in first stage to prepare baseline to count the carbon emissions in the peatlands. The study will determine total of emissions that could be protected if the water level rises,” she said.