Peatland Fires Biggest Contributor to Carbon Emissions: Researcher

Peatland Fires Biggest Contributor to Carbon Emissions: Researcher

05 May 2014

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Indonesia — Indonesia must take action now to prevent its peatlands from burning in what amounts to the largest single contributor to the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, a researcher said on Monday.

“The recent haze in 2013 and 2014 indicate that extreme episodes of fire and haze are becoming more frequent and more extreme,” David Gaveau, a scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), said at the Forests Asia Summit in Jakarta. “Therefore, we have to act now.”

Smoke from large fires in Riau province, Sumatra, last June swept into neighboring Malaysia and Singapore, covering the city-state in a thick haze that threatened to halt flights at Changi International Airport. Singapore residents were forced to remain indoors to avoid the heavy pollution. Fires this year also blanketed the region in smoke.

The harshest effect were felt in Indonesia, where schools were forced to close their doors and nearly 50,000 people suffered from respiratory problems.

In Sumatra last year, an estimated 163,336 hectares were burned, and of that amount peatlands accounted for 137,044 hectares, or 84 percent, Gaveau said, citing Landsat data analysis.

Peat, which is made up of layers of dead vegetation and other organic matter, contributed heavily to carbon emissions because of the substance’s density.

Individuals and companies in Sumatra have been eager to clear land to free up space for palm oil plantation, pulp and paper ventures and mining.

Dharsono Hartono, president director of Rimba Makmur Utama, a forest conservation company formed in 2007, said that peatlands covered 22.5 million hectares, or about 12 percent of Indonesia’s total land area. In 2005 alone, emissions from burning peat accounted for 44 percent of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions, he said.

In Sumatra, 57 percent of burned “non-forest” areas were so-called “forest cemeteries,” or combinations of shrub and exposed soil with stumps, downed trunks and branches, Gaveau said, citing Landsat information.

“The bulk of the burning did not occur in forests, but on the lands that were already deforested, and these lands are easy to burn,” he said. “Last year, the forests actually burned in those degraded lands [were] in preparation for plantations. You can imagine once the forest [was] being burned, it would quickly be converted to agriculture. But actually it could be a good number of years before the forest becomes converted to agriculture.”

He added that in Sumatra last year, 52 percent of the total burned land was within concession areas, but 60 percent of this burned area — or 50,248 hectares — was occupied by small landholders.

Bogor-based CIFOR organized the two-day conference, one of the biggest gatherings of its kind in recent years, bringing together government officials, business executives, civil society leaders, development experts and some of the world’s top scientists.

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