New center begins ‘corrective era’ for peatlands

Peatland forests in Indonesia's Central Kalimantan province. Nanang Sujana, CIFOR
9 November 2018

“Peatlands have been researched since the 1960s, but why is it that every time there is fire, it seems like [the government] is overwhelmed? Are research results not being implemented well?”

“The discourse goes only as far as mitigation. Prevention has not been discussed much, and only cultivation is discussed – not restoration.”

“Are there no fire prediction systems in place?”

Indonesian journalists and witnesses of the ongoing disasters from peatland burning echoed concerns about the vital ecosystems ahead of the launch of the International Tropical Peatland Center (ITPC) in Jakarta on 30 October 2018.

After being announced earlier this year, the ITPC was founded by a trio of member states home to some of the world’s most important peatland landscapes – Indonesia, the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – alongside international partners seeking to protect and manage these landscapes through research and science-based practice.

Country delegates and partner representatives visit the new ITPC in Bogor, Indonesia. Ricky Martin, CIFOR

The carbon sinks of peatlands, found in more than 80 countries, are estimated to store up to 40 percent of global carbon emissions in their soil of decayed plant matter (peat), despite covering just 3 percent of the world’s land area. South America was long believed to hold the largest volume of tropical peat in the world, until in 2017 an area of 145,500 square kilometers of peatlands was discovered in the Congo Basin’s Cuvette Centrale, having sat virtually undisturbed for more than 10,000 years.

The environmental benefits of these landscapes stretch far, from nurturing rich biodiversity to regulating water and controlling pollution. Yet, peatlands remain low on policy agendas, and their ecology is still poorly understood. Regarded as unproductive, they are often targeted for clearing and cultivation, releasing the huge amounts of carbon they store in the process.

Alongside head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Erik Solheim and representatives from partners including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN and the Center for International Forestry Research, delegates from the Congos came to Indonesia for the launch, cementing an interim secretariat while the center works to open its doors in Bogor, a city neighboring Jakarta, within a year. The visit also served to share Indonesia’s ongoing efforts to improve its peatland management.

At the launch of the ITPC in Jakarta in October 30, Indonesia’s Minister of Environment and Forestry Siti Nurbaya Bakar acknowledged that this “present era can be labeled as the corrective era.”

Beginning in the 1970s, Indonesia’s peatlands have been used extensively as grounds for timber plantations and agricultural estates, which alongside climate change have led to the drying of peatlands, resulting in flames that spread beyond control when traditional burning methods are used to clear land.

In 1982, the first of a series of disastrous fires spread through Indonesia’s West Kalimantan province, followed by more in 1997 that impacted Danau Sentarum National Park, one of the world’s most biodiverse lake systems. Disaster broke out again in 2015, with haze affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands around the region, and in July this year, disrupting the Asian Games being hosted in the capital.

On a field trip to Kalimantan’s peatland ecosystems during the center’s launch. Ricky Martin, CIFOR

The Indonesia government has made concerted efforts to correct this burning course, including putting in place strict regulations on existing concessions; restoring damaged landscapes; and working with local communities to prevent fire and encourage sustainable management through the ‘3R’ approach: rewetting, revegetation and revitalization.

“The causes of peat fire are mostly anthropogenic,” said Dr. Hesti Lestari Tata, senior researcher with the Indonesian Forestry and Environmental Research Development and Innovation Agency (FOERDIA). “Restoring peatland to its natural state needs a longer process compared to the same efforts on mineral land. In peatlands, you have to restore its hydrology first before its vegetation. You cannot just plant to restore.”

The ITPC will carry out and disseminate scientific research to support policy development, as well as provide capacity building and technical services. In 2019, the center plans to begin research on peatland management in Indonesia, the DRC, the Republic of Congo and Peru.

“In general, we realize that our research in peatlands is still limited to the biodiversity, silviculture and social aspects of peat ecosystems, while [research about] the hydrology aspect is limited to river catchment areas,” said Dr Tata.

Professor Simon Lewis from the University of Leeds, who co-led the research team that discovered the Cuvette Centrale peatlands, said that there is a lot that can be learned from Indonesia’s experience with peatlands.

“[We need] more South-South collaboration with Indonesia, which obviously knows a lot about its own peatlands in terms of science and monitoring,” he said. “Some of those monitoring technologies could be transferred to the Congo to help understand.

“The big research question for the Congo Basin is to understand how this peatland functions. We need to have the data on the carbon flows, the data on water flows and the fluxes of greenhouse gases.”

This, he said, can help scientists, policymakers, and land users understand how the region operates. Models can then be built of how to best manage and develop these landscapes, observed on computers before implemented in the field to see the impacts.

Then, “we can avoid many of the mistakes we made in the past.”

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