Environmental activists display a giant banner during a demonstration in Pulang Pisau district in Central Kalimantan on Dec. 3, 2015 to demand stronger peatland protection. (Greenpeace Photo/Ulet Ifansasti)

Commentary: Five Steps to Restore Indonesia's Degraded Tropical Peatlands


MAY 29, 2016

Indonesia has approximately 15 million to 20 million hectares of tropical peatlands, which is the fourth largest in the world. Those areas store 60 trillion tons of carbon, which is six times more than the total carbon emissions released globally in 2011.

In 2015, approximately 2.6 million hectares of land in Indonesia were burnt, half of it peatland. The fires resulted in several deaths, while more than 150,000 people in six provinces suffered from acute respiratory illnesses as a result of the smoke. The World Bank estimates that economic losses due to the fires amounted to $16 billion. Daily emissions from Indonesian forest fires in October last year exceeded the total emissions from the entire United States economy, not to mention that burning on a similar scale has occurred annually for nearly 20 years.

These facts underline the importance of peatland restoration. Indonesia has submitted its intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and declared its 29 percent emission reduction targets for 2030. Restoring peatland would definitely enable this country to meet its target. The national catastrophe has encouraged the government to make a commitment that goes beyond business as usual.

Taking the moment at the Paris Conference of the Parties opening in December, President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo declared his plan to establish the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG). A month later, the BRG was established with a very specific mandate, to restore two million hectares of burnt and/or degraded peatland in five years.

Now, people must be wondering how the agency could fulfil its mandate to solve the daunting problem of peatland? Here are the five options:

Canal Blocking

Dry peat is very prone to be burnt, especially during the dry season. A lit fire is all it needs to create a massive and uncontrollable burn. Consequently, peatlands have to be wet. We have to stop the phenomenon where peatlands are converted to drainage-dependent land use, which is triggered by unsustainable market demand. Blocking drainage is fastest measure that can be undertaken to effectively minimize peatland from drying out.

Water Management

Water management is crucial after blocking the drainage. Considering that peatland is a hydrological ecosystem, the degradation in some parts of the peatland will affect the rest of the ecosystem. The BRG will soon establish water management guidelines, so the related work will be conducted in similar ways.


Degraded peatland is subject to revegetation. All the plants that are burnt need to be replanted with better planning. Revegetation is an important factor in keeping the peatland wet. The BRG provides a guideline of revegetation using local-specific species, such as sago palms, rubber trees and local timber species such as jelutung and galam, as well as some vegetable species.

As peatland is also home to many animal species, revegetation plays an important role in improving biodiversity, which aids the acceleration of peatland restoration. For instance, orangutans are important dispersal agents of fruit seeds.


Indonesia has a regulation that classifies peatland areas for protection and cultivation. But more than 70 percent of the degraded peatlands are within cultivation areas. In this case, we have to adjust the zoning based on depth and on how critical the area is. The agency has mapped the peat in terms of hydrological units, which would provide a scientific basis for rezoning. Identified restoration areas within concessions would require concession holders to restore such areas.

Restore Livelihoods

Last but not least, the agency is committed to empower local communities and indigenous people by restoring their livelihoods and strengthening their rights. This is a logical choice when we are considering that peatlands are remote and that only local communities could play an effective role in monitoring these areas. They are in the best position to see if there are potential fire hazards in the peatland and they can act more effectively. Planting peatland-friendly species is of critical importance, because of the unique characteristics of the ecosystem. Consequently, enabling community access to markets is also part of this strategy.

Peatland restoration is in line with a sustainable development agenda in which environmental aspects are highly valued. Jokowi has taken a bold move by implementing a moratorium on the issuance of permits in peatland areas, as well as the newly announced moratorium on licences for palm oil plantations.

Peatland fires occur in Indonesia with alarming regularity. Until now, only a few people cared about the peatlands, with most only seeing the extractive value of these areas. In the meantime, the whole world seems to pay attention as the peatland degradation has a global impact on climate change, which puts all of us in danger.

Peatland restoration is the responsibility of mankind today for future generations. The mandate of the BRG can never be fulfilled by us alone. We encourage more public awareness and initiatives to act on restoring and keeping the peatlands wet. Through smart planning, participatory processes, simple and doable steps and constructive collaboration by all stakeholders, we are very optimistic that two million hectares of peatland could be restored within five years.

Restored peatlands equal restored humanity. Join us, now. Would you?

Nazir Foead is the head of the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG). He will attend the World Economic Forum on Asean in Kuala Lumpur on June 1-2, and is working with the World Economic Forum's Tropical Forest Alliance.