Pulang Pisau, Central Kalimantan. The residents of Jabiren faced a nervous wait in October last year as fires raged in the peatlands around their village, Jakarta Globe reported news.
“Fire stormed this area — including that land across from here,” said Muhrizal Sarwani, the head of the Agricultural Land Resources Agency (BBSLDP), pointing at an abandoned field across a nearby ditch. “All other places were affected by the fire, except for this site.”
While other tranches of land in the area — peat, mostly — were degraded by a particularly uncompromising fire in 2005 that laid waste to the forest covering, this five-hectare plot is still standing. Now, the government and environmentalists believe that the lessons learned here can be put to work at lessening the impact of one of the world’s most pressing environmental problems — Indonesia’s ticking carbon time bomb. The Sustainable Peatland Management project began in 2010 across five different pilot sites in the archipelago after it was proposed by the Ministry of Agriculture and had its funding approved by the Indonesian Climate Change trust Fund (ICCTF). Jabiren was one of the locations chosen — the Central Kalimantan arm of the project is scheduled to run until 2014.
He puts the success of this project, so far, down to three focuses that depart from the status quo— raising the level of the water table, the use of peat ameliorants and inter-cropping. Fahmuddin Agus, a soil expert with the BBSLDP, places a particular emphasis on addressing the level of water below the ground.
“We need to keep the water table at a level as shallow as possible,” Fahmuddin said. “If it’s too deep, more soil will burn when fire strikes.”
Project staff installed a water gate on an edge of the ditch encircling the site to keep the water table at a depth of between 50 and 85 centimeters, Muhrizal said. The Jabiren peat layer is around six meters deep. In addition to fertilizers commonly used as nutrients for plants, the project used peat ameliorants to reduce acidity — peat frequently registers around 3pH. A level of at least 5.5pH is required for plants to grow. While the healthy water table and use of ameliorants are largely invisible to the untrained eye, the third factor that sets this project apart is easier to spot. In contrast to the usual mono-cultural assembly lines, the rubber plantation columns here are punctuated by rows of pineapple trees. In addition to making the land more productive, intercropping makes the land less flammable.
“Planting the pineapples also means weeding the rubber plantation, which minimizes competition for water and nutrients between rubber trees and weeds,” Fahmuddin said. “But it also minimizes the ‘fire bridge’ where weed grows between rubber trees, as often happened in the conventional system.”
While the branches of Indonesia’s peat problem are now well established, the roots were planted in a previous era. The New Order regime rolled out the One Million–Hectare Peatland program in 1996 with the aim of converting peatland in Central Kalimantan into paddy fields by draining the ground. The project fell apart as the government failed to apply the correct technology to allow rice — or any other plant for that matter — to grow on the land. It succeeded only in cutting down forests and draining the soil. The result was vast tracts of wasteland. The loss of water and the growth of brush made the lands highly susceptible to fire. Large fires have, indeed, struck the degraded peatlands numerous times since the failed conversion attempt. The blazes in Jabiren in 2005 and 2012 were not without a cause.
Developing peatlands for agricultural use has the added benefit that those who steward the land tend to look after it. Fahmuddin cites an example on another side of the village, where the ICCTF project is being replicated across 100 hectares of lands run by 42 farmers, who frequently patrol the area. The replication project, beginning last year, is managed by the Central Kalimantan office of the Agricultural Technology Assessment Agency (BPTP), and is funded through Indonesia’s REDD+ scheme. Aside from the Jabiren site, ICCTF is running similar sustainable peatland management projects in four other locations in Indonesia — in Riau and Jambi (both are palm-oil projects), West Kalimantan (corn) and Papua (sago).
Fires and unproductive agriculture are important issues at a local level, but the issue of Indonesia’s peatlands also holds profound global significance. Peatlands contain twice as much carbon stock as the entire forest biomass of the world (550 gigatons of carbon). Wetlands International, a Netherlands-based NGO focusing on wetland conservation and restoration, says Indonesia has the dubious honor of being responsible for the highest CO2 emissions from peatlands due to logging and drainage — amounting to around 900 megatons per year.
The country’s Ministry of Environment says peat fires contributed 25 percent of the country’s carbon emissions between 2000 and 2005, second only to deforestation.
Reducing emissions from peat and forest destruction is the highest priority on the government’s pledge to cut the country’s emissions by 26 percent by 2020. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono signed a presidential regulation on this target in 2011. A 2011 study by the Ministry of Agriculture says Indonesia has a total of 14.9 million hectares of peatlands spread across Sumatra, Kalimantan and Papua. More than three million of these lands are degraded because of logging, fires or failed attempts to convert them into farms.
Environmentalists have called for tough sanctions against those disturbing peatlands, including farmers who try to convert them into, now-ubiquitous, palm-oil plantations. But the ICCTF and Ministry of Agriculture have agreed that the best way to protect peatlands is by engaging local farmers instead, by encouraging them to adopt more sustainable ways of managing the land.
“What can we do with the more than 3 million hectares of peat shrubs?” Fahmuddin said. “As most peat shrubs are under the influence of drainage, converting it to agriculture will almost certainly reduce carbon emissions from fires.”
A new leaf?
A 2007 joint study by the World Bank, the British Department for International Development (DFID) and Pelangi Energi Abdi Citra Enviro (PEACE) — a local NGO — placed Indonesia as the world’s third-largest carbon emitter after China and the United States, although the Indonesian government’s own figure was less than half the size.
“When I saw the [project] proposal, I saw it included data of emissions from peatlands,” chairwoman of the ICCTF secretariat, Syamsidar Thamrin. “This is very useful research because we may now learn the real situation: How much exactly are emissions released by Indonesian peatlands.”
The project monitors other key indicators — water table levels, carbon emissions, even the surrounding weather patterns.
“That is where we’ve got accurate conclusions, such as at which depth we need to maintain the water table and which treatments can reduce emissions,” Muhrizal said. “These are scientific data and facts, not just some random guesses.”
ICCTF says it expects other institutions, be they local or international, to replicate the sustainable peatland management in other areas. Lastyo K. Lukito, director for environmental and social performance at the Millenium Challenge Account – Indonesia (MCAI), a body set up jointly by the Indonesian and US governments to support the two countries’ partnership, applauded the project for having proven that there was a way to make degraded peatlands economically beneficial to local farmers while at the same time reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“This is not exactly a new thing; I’ve read about this kind of project before,” Lastyo said after visiting the site in Jabiren. “But we’d never seen the proof of its success before. And [the Jabiren project] is proof. This is something positive.”
Lastyo said MCAI would further study the project to examine the economic benefits before deciding whether to fund any replica project. Iwan Tricahyo Wibisono, forestry specialist at the Indonesian office of Wetlands International, said he welcomed the project because it “optimized” the condition of the degraded peatlands. Iwan was unsure about the merit of the project in combating the bigger issue of greenhouse gas emissions, but expressed hope that this form of land management could be used to preclude the all-too-familiar site of clouds of smoke rising up from Indonesia’s forests.
“This sounds like a positive project to me,” said Iwan. “They’re optimizing the existing conditions, allowing farmers to benefit from that while introducing sustainable farming that can prevent fires. We’re supportive to things like this.”