Explained | Why protection of peatlands is important?

Peatlands are a type of wetland which occur in almost every country and are known to cover at least 3 per cent of global land surface. Photo credit: AFP

Farmers in the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan on the island of Borneo are adapting their agricultural techniques with a more climate-friendly approach by ending the burning of land. The move is following an initiative by Indonesia’s Peat and Mangrove Restoration Agency (BRGM), with support from the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS).

Since its launch in 2019, the programme, which includes training for villagers and critical infrastructure upgrades, has dramatically reduced fire risk and equipped the residents of 121 villages in coastal West Kalimantan with new skills and resources to benefit their communities.

Progress is already being made. A school building was saved from burning down. Farmers are earning 50 per cent higher incomes. And a healthier peatland is reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

What are peatlands?

• Peatlands are a type of wetland which occur in almost every country and are known to cover at least 3 per cent of global land surface.

• However, they store nearly 550 billion tonnes of carbon, twice as much as all the world’s forests.

• The term ‘peatland’ refers to the peat soil and the wetland habitats growing on the surface.

• In peatlands, year-round water-logged conditions slow plant decomposition to such an extent that dead plants accumulate to form peat. This stores the carbon the plants absorbed from the atmosphere within peat soils, providing a net-cooling effect and helping to mitigate the climate crisis.

• Peatlands contain up to one third of the world’s soil carbon. This is twice the amount of carbon as found in the entirety of Earth’s forest biomass. Keeping this carbon locked away is absolutely critical to achieving global climate goals.

• Peatlands are one of the greatest allies and potentially one of the quickest wins in the fight against climate change.

• Peatland ecosystems are under threat by deforestation, they are drained for agriculture, mined for fuel, degraded by pollution, damaged by overgrazing, harmed by fire, destroyed for infrastructure development and exposed to a range of other threats.

• When peatlands are disturbed, drained and degraded, they contribute disproportionately to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

• This results mainly from a lack of awareness of the benefits of peatlands and includes actions such as: drainage, conversion for agriculture, burning, and mining for fuel.

• In some regions, up to 80 per cent of peatlands have been damaged.

• Peat, essentially, is an early stage of coal – and like coal – is highly flammable. The dried peatland quickly goes up in flames and then can smoulder underground for months until the rainy season starts.

• Smallholder farmers and concession-holding companies use fire to cheaply clear debris to prepare land for planting.

• Emissions from drained peatlands are estimated at 1.9 gigatonnes of CO2 annually. This is equivalent to 5 per cent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, a disproportionate amount considering damaged peatlands cover just 0.3 per cent of landmass.

• Peatlands are significant to global efforts to combat climate change and achieve other Sustainable Development Goals. Their protection and restoration are vital in the transition to a zero-carbon society.

• Draining peatlands reduces the quality of drinking water as water becomes polluted with organic carbon and pollutants historically absorbed within peat.

Impact of peat fires in Indonesia

• Indonesia is home to more than 24 million hectares of peatlands – making up approximately 36 per cent of the world’s total tropical peatlands.

• In its natural state, tropical peat occurs in flooded swamps and is one of nature’s most effective ways of removing carbon from the atmosphere, helping to mitigate global warming.

• Decades of draining peatlands to provide land for palm oil, paper and rubber plantations, as well as a failed rice cultivation project, has left vast areas of peatland dried out.

• In 2015, peat fires and its related toxic haze resulted in the hospitalisation of more than half a million people due to acute respiratory infections. Direct and indirect damages cost the Indonesian national economy an estimated $16 billion.

• Fires, which raged through 2.6 million hectares of forest and peatland areas on the islands of Kalimantan and Sumatra, released 1.6 gigatonne of CO2 – the equivalent of annual CO2 emissions of countries such as Germany and France.

• Slash-and-burn farming is a tradition in Indonesia, with fires started deliberately in order to quickly clear land for palm oil and pulpwood plantations.

• Burning bush to clear land and plant residues after harvest led to 245 fires in the district around Limbung in 2021, a staggering number given that a 2009 government decree forbade farmers from burning on peatland.

• Fires do not only devastate villages and farmers’ livelihoods, but they also release a substantial amount of carbon dioxide.

How changes were brought in Indonesia?

• Indonesia’s Peat and Mangrove Restoration Agency (BRGM), with the support of United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), the ministry of forestry, and other players, has carried out restoration projects in 852 villages in Kalimantan, Papua, and Sumatra.

• Increasing farmers’ options has had a profound impact, helping to reduce the number of fires that broke out last year to just 21.

• Due to BRGM’s interventions, much of the peatland around Limbung is moist again, enabling farmers to grow vegetables such as cucumber, tomatoes, chili, and eggplants.

• Training villagers in non-burn farming methods is crucial to making coastal villages more sustainable. Equally important is upgrading irrigation infrastructure to keep rainwater in peatlands.

• UNOPS provided design and financing for the construction of a few pilot canal blockers – concrete structures that retain water in the canals that crisscross the area, making it available year-round for firefighting and irrigation. Better irrigation prevents the land from cracking, drying out, and decaying, thereby reducing the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.

• Peatland restoration also involves re-vegetation of the area, which in turn keeps the soil moist and decreases the chances of fires and decomposition.



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