Catastrophe and Regeneration in Indonesia’s Peatlands

Kavickumar Muruganathan

Edited by Kosuke Mizuno, Motoko S. Fujita and Shuichi Kawai Catastrophe and Regeneration in Indonesia’s Peatlands: Ecology, Economy and Society provides an in-depth study and assessment of peatlands in the Riau province of Indonesia. The book critically examines the impacts of human activities on such ecosystems, taking into consideration the anthropological, historical and environmental context of the evolution of peatlands. 

The book concludes by providing viable recommendations for economic activities on peatlands while attempting to balance the need for conservation and the pursuit of sustainable development. The study of the complexities involved in peatland management is crucial as they carry a significant carbon budget which could make or break our efforts to fight climate change.

Highly focused on the Giam Siak Kecil-Bukit Baru Biosphere Reserve in the Bengkalis Regency of Riau province, the lands in the area of study were subject to heavy commercial logging after government led interventions. These lands were then converted to sustain wood fibre plantations and subsequently utilized by smallholders for palm oil production. The palm oil production lands were soon ravaged by fires and rendered unproductive.

Growing increasingly disillusioned by the number of fires ravaging their production areas, villagers in the study area abandoned about one third of their land plots. The authors of the book have highlighted how the cultivation of rubber within the study area and the possibility of rewetting degraded and drained peatlands can balance the notion of improving and maintaining livelihood sustenance amongst villagers while ensuring that carbon is adequately sequestered in these sinks.

While the book provides much focus and specific attention on the Giam Siak Kecil-Bukit Baru Biosphere Reserve, the findings and key issues should not be assumed to be replicated in other palm oil or wood fibre plantations as well. Readers need to acknowledge that issues in other concession areas or specified reserve areas will vary based on endemic environmental, economic and social scenarios within these landscapes. Perhaps, a diverse case study in several provinces may help to provide readers with a broader perspective of various issues faced in peatland rich landscapes.

With more than half of Indonesia’s peatland areas heavily utilized for agriculture, these swathes of lands will have to be carefully and dynamically managed to meet the twin targets of promoting sustainable economic development and ensuring the conservation and protection of peat rich areas, which are home to the largest carbon storage banks in the world. The management models of these areas can then be replicated onto other peat swamps at various provincial levels in Indonesia.

The 2015 haze episode clearly showed that the problems and issues which were besetting palm oil and wood fibre plantations, in particular the management and protection of peat rich areas. Good landscape management married together with sound policies backed with good governance, taking into consideration the environmental, economic and social context at various provincial levels in Indonesia and beyond into the region of Southeast Asia would be crucial to ensure that sustainable development is attained without compromising on the carbon storage capacities of peat rich areas and swamps.

The book succinctly captures the complexities and challenges faced in the agroforestry business and amongst industries in the sector while highlighting the need for industries to build a rapport and work closely with the community on the ground to restore degraded and drained peatlands.

The recommendations put forth in the book to develop a sustainable peatland management model include rewetting degraded peatlands and rehabilitating them by planting tree species that thrive in peat swamps. Affording management rights of tree plantations and rewetted state land to local indigenous communities will offer them a sense of ownership and promote the greater protection and conservation of rewetted peatlands.

Additionally, the agroforestry business of typical palm oil or acacia plantations should be supplemented and supported by intercropping of other species such as pineapples. More crucially, corporations which hold rights to vast areas of concession land should provide technical and infrastructural support to ensure that degraded peatlands near community settlements which are generally inaccessible should be rewetted and reforested adequately.

The study of peatlands should be an ongoing process. Social, economic and environmental dynamics will vary at various provincial levels and become more complex and intricate with generational turnover and other emerging externalities. The agribusiness involves a myriad of stakeholders; smallholder plantations, concessionaires owned by industries, provincial governments and indigenous communities. The agroforestry industry is not a perfect system and environmental, economic and social trade-offs exist between peatland restoration efforts, expectations of smallholder plot owners and the profit seeking pursuits of large agroforestry companies.

Over time, science and technological advancement may provide us with efficient and prudent ways to better conserve peatlands and sequester carbon within them. The haze episode in 2015 has brought greater international scrutiny on landscape management practices in various provinces of Indonesia and sustainable peatland management has become a key component of any large scale agroforestry business today and will continue to do so. The agroforestry business continues to be lucrative and this book provides a timely realization of the complexities involved in landscape management and ensuring that the enormous carbon budgets within peatlands are maintained and regenerated where possible.