As an Indonesian myself, I ashamedly admit to not being aware of tropical peatland issues in my own country until burnt forests in Riau 2 years ago occured. As a country with relatively high population density, only very few people are aware that Indonesia holds a very large area of tropical peatland. But in fact, Southeast Asia holds the largest amount of tropical peatland, up to 68.5 PgC or 77 percent of total carbon storage globally, where among them Indonesia is the largest shareholder of our tropical peatland (about 57.4 PgC).
Peatland swamp forest is also refuge for many endangered species, such as the orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus), other primates, Sumatran tigers, insects, birds, and many unfamiliar species for urban people. They find refuge in the peat forests; for food, for home, for reproduction.
For local communities, peat forests provide primary live source. Local people use forests for timber, medicines, foods, etc. Forests also become income source for people who live near or around peatland areas. For example, according to Rieley (2014) peat swamp forests in Central Kalimantan Province has been used for gathering, hunting, fishing, shifting agriculture and timber extraction by indigeneous people for generations and in recent times become major incomes for them as well.
But then people ask, “What is peat anyway? And why do people talk about them so intensively? Why do they matter?” And here I am, trying to explain that peat problems, particularly in Indonesia, are beyond burning issues.
When we are talking about peat, there are many definition according to many scientific journals. Generally, peat is organic matters that is slowly decomposed in anaerobic conditions for a very long period of time. And that is what makes peat valuable! As we already know in school, oxidation process only happens in a presence of oxygen. In other words, no oxygen, no oxidation. Those chemical reaction are slow because of the water-saturated environment where peat is formed, meanwhile organic materials keep accumulating. The rate of oxidation process is lower that the rate of biomass production. In a very long period of time, those conditions led into a very rich-carbon ecosystem.
But when human’s need getting higher which led into land conversion, peatland is opened and dried out. Presence of oxygen led into oxidation process that release carbon dioxide gas. As we already know, carbon dioxide gas is one of greenhouse gases, which is claimed has contributed to the rising temperature in Earth.
“What? So it is really critical then!”
But ironically, large area of tropical peatland in Indonesia had been converted into oil palm plantation. To be suitable environment for plantation, peat must be dried out. Dry peatland are susceptible to fires, when traditionally fires are often used to clear the land. Worst case of the situation is forest fires that occured 2 years ago which had been labeled as ‘crime against humanity’ and was claimed to be responsible for respiratory infection cases and smoke across Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.
But more than that, according to Indonesian Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) document in 2016, national GHGs emission in 2012 is about 1.453 GtCO2, where the main contributing factors were land-use change and forestry (LUCF) including 47.8 percent of peat fires. It’s common sense to say that there is positive correlation between GHGs emission and rising temperature in Earth.
As temperature in Earth began to rise, there are many people that would be negatively affected, such as people who live in coastal zone, people who live in small islands, people whose lives in agriculture sectors, people whose live in less developed countries, etc. In addition to that, local people in peat forests area also become the most vulnerable people if our peat forests kept degraded.
Indonesia through Peat Restoration Agency (BRG), which is non-structural agency under the auspices of and to report to the President, has been mandated to plan and implement Indonesian peat ecosystem restoration for a period of 5 years of approximately 2 million hectares of degraded peatland.
Although we face a complex challenges ahead, through sinergic collaboration and community participation, let’s hope our peatland ecosystem can be restored and any living creatures in Earth planet can live in harmony.