Indonesia — THE government will soon issue a moratorium on peatland farming to put a stop on all uses of peatlands and restore degraded peatlands damaged by forest fires. President Joko Widodo said he will engage indigenous people to care for the forests. In his statement during the opening of COP21 (United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties21), the President stated that Indonesia was committed to unconditionally reduce 29 percent of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and 41 percent with international assistance.
The government said peatlands are currently in critical condition and will stop issuing new licenses on peatlands. According to Minister for the Environment and Forestry Siti Nurbaya Bakar, as of late 2014, licenses had been issued to operate on 6.3 million hectares out of a total 31 million hectares of peatlands. The largest licenses, covering 4.5 million hectares, were issued to process timber products and natural forests, while other licenses were issued to cover 1.8 million hectares of industrial forests. She added that the area of peatlands needing to be restored cover no less than 2 million hectares, most of it damaged by the 2015 forest and land fires across the country.
Bambang Setiadi has been studying tropical peatlands since the early 1990s and was recently appointed to head the National Research Council. He believes that educating the public is key to fighting fires on peatlands and preventing haze. Two weeks ago, this former chairman of Indonesian Peatland Association shared his views with Nabiha Shahab from Tempo English. Excerpt:
The government is committed to restoring damaged peatlands by keeping it wet. How do you do this?
I proposed the rewetting technique concept since February 2014. It came up in a discussion under the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) framework. A Dutch colleague proposed the idea known as paludiculture as an option to utilize degraded peatlands that is, burnt peatland areas.
What is paludiculture, and how does it work?
Paludiculture is an old cultivation technique in temperate peatland areas. The main idea is to utilize peatlands without draining it. Tropical peatlands is unique and needs a different approach.
How should damaged peatlands in the tropics be managed?
First, we must be clear on the target area to be restored. This is important. You cannot just say you want to restore peat without a clear plan and you need the local community to fully support the plan.
Why is local community support so important?
Without involving local residents, the effort will be unmanageable. Take this year for instance. We needed the Army to fight the fires and dig canals. This year, there was considerable miscommunication on how to manage the fires burning on peatlands. Digging canals on peat may achieve the opposite effect from the original intention and actually drain the water out, making it more vulnerable to fires. Peatlands should be kept wet.
Why is education important?
It means involving local people in the whole process. People need to understand that in their areas, the only way to catch water is by maintaining peatlands. Damaging them is like destroying your water supplies. Peat is like a sponge: it absorbs water. There used to be no flooding in Kalimantan; now its a routine event. Banjarmasin and Pontianak are today regularly flooded. Once peat subsides, it loses its ability to hold water. Imagine taking a kilogram of mineral earth and dry it in the oven. When its rehydrated, it will return to its original state. Peatland is irreversible once its dried out, it will not hold water even when its rehydrated. This is why in areas where peatlands are degraded, floods happen.
So, peatlands should be left as they are?
Yes, undeveloped peatland forests should not be drained and cleared, and degraded peatlands should be rehabilitated. Leaving peatlands unused does not mean letting it idle and useless. Tropical peatlands have an invaluable role in securing water supply and preventing floods. A colleague of mine made a rough calculation that in the past 15 years, we may have lost around half of our peatlands nation-wide. We cannot afford to keep mismanaging peatlands. Restoring them is vital in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.