Indonesia has approximately 15 to 20 million hectares of tropical peatlands: the fourth-largest peatland area in the world. These swaths of land store 60 trillion tonnes of carbon, six times the amount of carbon emissions released in 2011.
In 2015, approximately 2.6 million hectares of land in Indonesia were burned, half of it on peatland. The fires led to deaths, and more than 150,000 local people in six provinces suffered from acute respiratory illnesses. The World Bank estimates that the economic loss due to land and forest fires was close to $16 billion. Daily emissions from Indonesian fires during October last year exceeded the emissions from the entire US economy.
Those facts highlight the importance of peatland restoration. Indonesia has submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to the UNFCCC and declared its 29% emission reduction target by 2030. Restoring peatland would go a long way to helping the country meet this target.
This national catastrophe has encouraged the government to make a commitment to go beyond business as usual. Seizing the moment at the Paris climate talks, President Joko Widodo unveiled his plan to establish the Peatland Restoration Agency (Badan Restorasi Gambut, or BRG). A month later, on January 2016, the BRG was established with a very specific mandate: to restore 2 million hectares of burnt and/or degraded peatland within five years.
How can the agency fulfill its mandate to solve this daunting problem, and meet its targets? Here are the five solutions:
1. Canal blocking
Dry peat is very flammable, especially during the dry season. A single spark is all that is needed to create a massive and uncontrollable blaze. Consequently, peatlands have to be wet. We have to stop peatlands being converted into drainage-dependent land projects, triggered by unsustainable market demands. Blocking the drainage needs to happen in order to stop the peatland from drying out.
2. Water management
Water management is crucial once the drainage has been stopped. We must think of peatland as a hydrological ecosystem, and the degradation in some part of the peatland will affect the rest of this ecosystem. The agency will soon establish water management guidelines so that this can be carried out.
Degraded peatland should be subject to re-vegetation. All the plants that are burnt need to be replanted, in a more thought-out way. Re-vegetation is an important process, which also keeps the peatland wet. The BRG provides guidelines on re-vegetation using local species, such as sagoo, rubber, timber like jelutung and galam, and some vegetables.
As peatland is also home to a lot of animal species, re-vegetation will play a big role in the improvement of the local biodiversity, which will in turn accelerate the restoration of peatlands. For example, orangutans play an important role in dispersing fruit seeds.
Indonesia has a regulation that distinguishes peatland areas and protected zones. But, more than 70% of the degraded peatlands are within cultivation areas. In this case, we have to adjust the zoning based on the depth and how critical the area is. The agency can provide the scientific justification of this re-zoning, and concession holders would be required to restore there area of land.
5. Restore livelihoods
Last but not least, the agency is committed to empowering local communities and indigenous people by restoring their livelihood and strengthening their rights. This is a logical choice when we are consider that peatlands are remote and only local communities can carry out effective fire monitoring.
Planting peatland-friendly species, meanwhile, is of critical importance because of the unique characteristics of the ecosystem. Consequently, enabling community access to this market is also part of our strategy.
Peatland restoration is in line with the sustainable development agenda. President Joko Widodo has made a bold move holding a moratorium on the issuing of permits in peatland areas and palm oil licences.
Peatland fires are occurring in Indonesia with alarming regularity. Until recently, only a few people cared about the peatland. Now, the whole world seems to be paying attention, as their fate will have a global impact on climate change, potentially putting us all in danger.
It is our responsibility to manage the restoration of the peatlands for future generations. The mandate of the Peatland Restoration Agency will never be fulfilled only by us. We encourage more public awareness and initiatives to act on restoring and keeping the peatland wet. Through smart planning, participatory processes, simple and doable steps and constructive collaboration by all stakeholders, we are very optimistic that 2 million hectares of peatland can be restored within five years.
Restored peatlands equal restored humanity. Join us.
This article is part of our ASEAN series. You can read more here.
The World Economic Forum on ASEAN is taking place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from 1 to 2 June.