The aftermath of a forest fire outside the Sebangau National Park in Central Kalimantan in this December 2015 file photo. (Greenpeace Photo/Ulet Ifansasti)

Experts Call for Balanced Scientific Facts on Tropical Peatlands

AUGUST 21, 2016

Kuching, Malaysia. Environmentalists have long pointed out that tropical regions pose an increased greenhouse gas challenge, with drained peatland being a key source of carbon emissions.

So-called peat soil, comprised of partially wet plant materials that decomposed over thousands of years, is known to be highly concentrated in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Global Forest Watch researchers Nancy Harris and Sarah Sargent pointed out in their column published on the World Resource Institute (WRI) website that peatland in these two Southeast Asian countries "has become a common target for agricultural expansion, particularly for oil palm, as fertile land becomes increasingly scarce."

Global Forest Watch is an international initiative by the WRI, which studies the world's forests using the latest technology and on-the-ground partnerships.

Harris and Sargent pointed out that the practice of land clearing, which typically requires the underlying peat to be drained, results in the increased release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

This resulting emissions from such activities, common in Indonesia and Malaysia, annually equate to the combined emissions from nearly 70 coal-fired power plants, or the total annual carbon emissions of Vietnam.

Balancing Scientific Facts

The topic of peatlands was discussed during the 15th annual International Peat Congress (IPC) in Kuching, Malaysia, on Aug. 15-19.

Delegates, who were mostly researchers, academics and practitioners from various parts of the world, shared information and discussed scientific results and experiences with particular reference to peat and peatlands in the tropics.

It was the first time such conference was held at a location outside Europe and North America.

Moritz Bocking, a member of the International Peat Society, acknowledged that it is a heavily debatable topic among Western nongovernment organizations, which tend to blame Indonesia and Malaysia for peatland and forest destruction.

"In Europe, there has been traditional peat exploitation. It still continues," said Bocking, who is also managing director of Klasmann-Dellmann, a German company that manufactures substrates for commercial horticulture.

"What I asked in the presentation is that the scientific community must be balanced in its efforts to generate the information about peat, greenhouse gas emissions from peat, and agricultural uses of peat," Bocking told a press conference on the sideline of the event.

"We feel strongly now that this information has not been presented in a balanced manner and Malaysia and Indonesia are always the ones who are blamed under this category, which is really quite unfair," he said.

Suwardi, deputy dean of the School of Resources, Cooperation and Development at the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB), said the cultivation of peatland in tropical regions, such as in Indonesia, to plant oil palm and acacia trees provides a more competitive advantage as it will be more productive, compared to planting in sub-tropical area.

He said on tropical peatland, planters can harvest up to five tons of crude palm oil per hectare per year, compared to only 0.5 tons per hectare per year in subtropical regions.

"Acacias also grow fast on tropical peatland, where they can be harvested in a cycle of just four to five years. Meanwhile, it takes 20 to 30 years in subtropical regions, to produce the same volume of wood," Suwardi said. "Indonesia's two top commodities – palm oil and pulp – are the country's agricultural export mainstays in the present and in the future."

He said peatland, if managed well, can offer sustainable production in plantations. However, in a bid to maintain biodiversity, as much as 30 percent of the peatland in a concession area must be conserved.

Indonesia and Malaysia still have a long way to go to convince the world and Western buyers that the two nations can offer products from their tropical peatlands that are environmentally friendly.

Dr. Lulie Melling, director of the Tropical Peat Research Laboratory Unit (TPRL), a research unit under the auspices of the Chief Minister's Department in Malaysia, acknowledged that peat soil is still considered unproductive, especially as it is known to have marginal capability for plantations due to its high water table, high acidity and low bulk density.

The irresponsible practice of clearing land, especially peatland, has been blamed as one of the major causes of devastating forest fires last year.

However, she believes mankind's scientific and technological advancement should be able to tackle these challenges and that scientists and researchers need to find solutions to allow agricultural development in such lands.

For her, last week's conference was a small victory because it introduced to the world, from a scientific point of view, the responsible use of peatlands and how to preserve their unique natural biodiversity.

She believes scientific data on peatlands "is still very poorly investigated and documented," compared to abundant facts that scientists have about temperate and boreal peatlands.