The earth is crispy around here. Crunch, crunch, crunch—my every footstep made a crackling sound like a rustling bag of potato chips.
Underneath the crunchy stuff was something almost fluffy.
“It is the dried peat,” Nizar told me. He’s been working in this area for decades, acrobatically transitioning between the local community, government and private companies. While I, visiting the Aceh Selatan Regency deep in the northern part of Sumatra for the first time in my life, was being somewhat of an acrobat stepping on the surface of dried peat, merely trying to stay on my own two feet.
Peat is partially-decayed vegetation and organic material. Dead plants, dried leaves, fallen branches, rotten timber, you name it: any organic matter that can be found decomposing on forest floor can end up being frozen in time by waterlogged conditions. Over time this build-up creates an acidic substrate where a special type of tropical forest can grow.
“This type of land is cheap!”
Nizar surprised me with his deep timbre, characteristic of North Sumatran man.
“Private companies were racing to obtain license over this area,” he added. Having finished with its logging, the companies built canals to dry the waterlogged peat and make way for plantation farming of cash crops. With the water flooding out, the peat was dried in a blink of an eye, alarming when compared to the natural pace at which all of the decayed vegetation piled up.
Singkil swamp—or Rawa Singkil in the local tongue—is actually a wildlife sanctuary. This legal status means the forest should be managed as a protected area. Nonetheless, mismanagement and unclear boundaries between lands designated for different uses have torn apart this area over the years.
Overlapping maps of national and local government have been used as a loophole by irresponsible individuals and companies, and thus many land concessions are traversing into sanctuary areas, and further complicating the mater, the local community was left uninformed on this sanctuary whereabouts. Nizar and his team were familiar with instances of villagers harvesting timber or settlements within the sanctuary area.
In 2011, KEHATI foundation—the Indonesian Biodiversity Conservation Trust Fund—was founded to support Nizar and his organization in establishing clear boundary marking for Suaka Margasatwa Rawa Singkil (Rawa Singkil Wildlife Sanctuary) through the TFCA-Sumatera project. They asked local community to be actively involved in participatory mapping of the boundaries between their villages and the sanctuary. This team also facilitated sessions with the private sector, as well as local and national governments, in order to formulate solutions over the location of published licenses.
To date, on of 233 km boundary of Rawa Singkil, Nizar and his team have marked 227 km of it with permanent boundary markings. Their team involved the local community in efforts to restore the forest.
“When the funding from TFCA-Sumatera ends, we will not be here anymore.” Nizar abruptly fell silent to the sound of chainsaw in the distance. “This community will be here forever. The fate of this forest is in their hands.”
Nizar’s voice clearly resonated in my head when I heard Dr. Ingrid Öborn in her closing remarks at the Global Landscapes Forum: Peatlands Matter, where she stated simply: “peatlands matter. We are not arguing that. But there is no one solution for peatland restoration. And the local community has to be involved, or it is nothing!”
Dr. Öborn’s words closed the talk show-style breakout session panel at the GLF entitled “People and peat: Livelihoods in context.”
At the Global Landscapes Forum, different organizations, governments, private sector actors and communities gathered in air conditioned rooms in Jakarta. They presented and shared research results, data, policies, and stories. The session that I caught through online streaming seemed to unanimously agree upon multi-stakeholder efforts towards peatland restoration in Indonesia.
While it sounds promising to me, the researchers insisting on collecting comprehensive data before moving on to the next steps struck me as a delay we cannot afford.
I remember the sun was too bright and peatlands were draining fast in Singkil. The crunchy sun-dried top layer of peat beneath my feet. I wish I could see that down below, the moisture started to return.
Tropical Forest Conservation Action for Sumatra (TFCA-Sumatera) is a debt for nature swap program between the US government and the Government of Indonesia. Living up to its name, the TFCA-Sumatera fund is aiming to conserve Indonesian tropical forest and its biodiversity in Sumatra Island. In 2014, an additional amount was added on top of existing TFCA-Sumatera fund. This additional fund is designed to support conservation of Sumatran endangered flagship species, for example the Sumatran rhino, Sumatran tiger, Sumatran elephant and Sumatran orangutan. The total amount of fund managed under the TFCA-Sumatera program is up to USD 42 million. KEHATI is the administrator of TFCA-Sumatera.