Peat drainage for pulp and oil palm ‘leads to fires, subsidence, and floods’

A new report published by the non-governmental organisation Wetlands International states that almost all of the recent fire hotspots on Sumatra’s environmentally precious Kampar Peninsula started on oil palm and pulp wood plantations.

The peninsula is a peat soil area covering about 700,000 hectares in the Pelalawan and Siak districts in the Riau province of east Sumatra.

The area is one of the world’s last remaining havens for critically endangered Sumatran tigers.

Drainage and subsidence are affecting the hydrology of areas next to the plantations, the new report states, and this is increasing the fire risk in remaining natural forest and peat areas,

The new report, commissioned by Wetlands International and produced by the Deltares research institute, says that drained pulp wood and oil palm plantations will inevitably suffer from severe land subsidence, and increasing flooding and production loss.

The researchers’ conclusion is that pulp wood and oil palm plantations on peatlands cannot be managed sustainably.

The drainage of peatland was a major cause of the forest fires that raged through vast areas of Sumatra and Kalimantan recently, causing choking pollution in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Thousands of hectares of forest were destroyed, there were fatalities, and at least half a million people suffered from respiratory illnesses.

This year’s fires were described by conservation scientist Erik Meijaard as “probably the biggest global environmental disaster of the 21st century”. They were exacerbated by the effects of the El Niño weather phenomenon, which caused a prolonged dry season in Indonesia.

Most of the fires were on peatland. Once dried out, the peat is extremely inflammable. The fires burn underground and are very hard to extinguish.

The new report states: “It is very striking to note that, to date, fires have hardly affected the forested parts of the Kampar Peninsula, but have been confined almost entirely to plantation areas and areas directly adjoining plantations.

“It is evident that fires only occur in drained peatlands, and therefore commonly inside or near plantations. This observation supports earlier studies in Borneo, which showed a similar relationship between peat drainage and fire occurrence.”

Fire hotspots

Fire hotspots are concentrated almost entirely in or near plantation areas.

Wetlands International, which is based in the Netherlands, says governments and businesses must stop the conversion of peat forests to agricultural or other use immediately, and promote peatland conservation and restoration.

By 2014, the new report states, 31 percent of the existing plantation area on the Kampar Peninsula already suffered from regular flooding and drainage problems.

It is projected that, within 25, 50, and 100 years, this will increase to 71 percent, 83 percent, and 98 percent respectively, making nearly all plantations (both pulp and oil palm) on peatland on the Kampar Peninsula economically unviable in the middle to long term.


Modelled likely flood extent (High Water Level) and drainability (Free Drainage Limit) for 2014 (above) and for fifty years after 2014 (below).


Smallholder oil palm plantations are the first affected by flooding as they are situated at lower elevations closer to the river, the report says. Acacia pulp plantations tend to be located at higher elevations where flooding problems take longer to develop. “However, the end result for all these plantations will be the same, regardless of crop or management type,” the report states.

Tropical peatlands store about a third of the world’s terrestrial carbon reserves. The soils on the Kampar Peninsula store about four billion tonnes of carbon, with an average  peat thickness of seven metres.

In Southeast Asia, peat forests are also home to several endangered species, including the orangutan.

The Kampar Peninsula was designated a regional priority tiger conservation landscape in 2006. The wild population of Sumatran tigers is estimated to have dropped to fewer than 400 animals.

Taken together, Kampar and the adjacent Kerumutan peat swamp comprise the second largest peat swamp forest in the world, covering close to one million hectares.

The Deltares researchers found that, despite most companies in the area having no-burning policies, 99 percent of the numerous fire hotspots that occurred on the Kampar Peninsula over the past 15 years were in plantation areas.

“This clearly shows that even the largest companies have not been able to prevent or control fires,” the report states.


The Sabangau peat swamp forest in Central Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, ablaze in October this year.

The new report points to claims by the pulp and paper manufacturing conglomerate APRIL that, by developing their Acacia pulp wood plantations in a ring-shaped area covering most of the outer margin of the Kampar Peninsula, they help to protect the forested inland areas.

“However, drainage and subsidence inevitably affect the hydrology of the adjacent areas, which are part of the same hydrological system, enhancing the fire risk in remaining natural forest and peat areas.”

The head of climate-smart land use at Wetlands International, Marcel Silvius, said: “I am surprised that the peatland subsidence and flooding issue is not considered in the ASEAN Haze Strategy and in national land-use policies and planning in Indonesia and Malaysia.”

Speaking at an ASEAN side event during the COP21 climate change conference in Paris, Silvius added: “The consequence of millions of hectares of peatlands becoming unproductive will likely increase fire risks in these areas during dry periods for many decades to come. By then it will be too late to restore them.”

The research by the Deltares institute, which is also based in the Netherlands, covered an area of 674,200 hectares. It found that, by 2014, 43 percent of the area was converted to plantations. A total 71.7 percent of the converted area was planted with Acacia trees for the pulp and paper industry.

“The plantations threaten biodiversity and the population of endangered Sumatran tigers, and cause the release of vast amounts of carbon emissions as a result of peat drainage,” the report states.

Rates of subsidence and carbon loss in drained peatlands are temperature dependent and are highest in the tropics, the report points out. Flood risk therefore increases much faster in tropical drained peatlands that in other parts of the world

There are regular claims from the pulp wood industry that peat loss and subsidence can be curbed by using improved water management techniques. However, the Deltares report underscores that such techniques, including the “eco-hidro” peatland management model developed by APRIL, can only reduce the rate of subsidence and by not much more than 20 percent.

Wetlands International says APRIL and Asia Pulp & Paper, which hold the largest concession areas on the Kampar Peninsula, need to phase out their drainage-based pulp wood plantations from peatlands and rewet the drained areas so as to avoid floods and large-scale loss of land productivity, and to curb fires.

Sustainable alternatives on rewetted peatlands need to be developed, Wetlands International says.

Plantation owners

The extent of Acacia and oil palm plantations on the Kampar Peninsula in 2014, and the 2010 concession boundaries.

Wetlands International points out that peatlands can be cultivated with crops that are adapted to the wet soil conditions – a practice known as paludiculture, which, the NGO says, can provide a sustainable resource for industry and deliver economic prosperity to local communities.

This and other recommendations are included in a roadmap towards sustainable peatlands management for the Indonesian pulp industry, recently developed by Wetlands International and Indonesian civil society partners.

Government strategies

Wetlands International urges Indonesia to restore and conserve unused peatland, stop further drainage, block existing drainage canals, and phase out drainage-based plantations on peat.

The Indonesian government plans to form a Peatland Restoration Task Force and develop regulations to improve peatland management and curb peatland fires, greenhouse gas emissions, and haze.

In the wake of this year’s fires, Indonesia’s president, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo,  instructed the Minister of Environment and Forestry, Siti Nurbaya, not to grant any new permits on peatland. He said there needed to be a review of concessions already granted, particularly on peat.

He also said he would establish an agency to restore peatland damaged by the recent fires.

Indonesia says it needs 50 trillion rupiah (about $3.6 billion) to restore and protect its peatlands.

It is seeking up to $1 billion from Norway as well as funding from the United States, the United Kingdom, and the World Bank.

Environmentalists are watching and waiting to see if Jokowi will sign a presidential regulation on peatlands and fires that would be legally binding.

Wetlands International says the government should develop a National Peatland Conservation and Restoration Strategy. The NGO suggests that a National Advisory Board for Peatland Management should be set up to draw up that strategy.

The government should review current and new policies in light of new scientific evidence about peatland subsidence and flooding, Wetlands International says.

“Although Indonesia has various peatland regulations, an overarching strategy is lacking. It is vital for the necessary coordination between ministries and local and regional governments.”

The Rajang river delta

In a report issued in July this year, Wetlands International warned that vast areas of Southeast Asia would be frequently and irreversibly flooded before the end of the century if action was not taken to stop the destruction of tropical peatlands.

The resultant loss of agricultural production would have severe socio-economic consequences, the NGO said. Radical changes to land-use policies on peatlands in the region were needed in order to avoid this.

The research for the report published in July was also carried out by Deltares and focused on the Rajang river delta in Sarawak – a Malaysian state on Borneo.

The study suggested that extensive drainage of peatlands for oil palm cultivation in the delta results in such massive land subsidence that this will lead to devastating flooding in the coming decades.


Deltares analysed 850,000 hectares of coastal peatland in Sarawak. The model it produced demonstrates that, in 25 years’ time, 42 percent of the area will experience flooding problems.

In 50 years’ time, the percentage affected will increase to 56 percent and the flooding will become more serious and permanent.

In 100 years’ time, about 82 percent of the Rajang delta will be irreversibly flooded, the report states.


“The results of the model clearly show the need for a radical change in peatland land use, not only in Sarawak, but in all peat landscapes in the region”, said Lee Shin Shin, a senior technical officer with Wetlands International Malaysia.

Indonesia becomes fourth largest CO2 emitter

Global Forest Watch Fires detected more than 127,000 fires across Indonesia this year. This is more than in any year since 1997.

A total of 1.7 million hectares of forests and plantations were razed by fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan, according to government data.

Emissions from this year’s fires in Indonesia reached 1.62 billion tonnes of CO2 – moving Indonesia from being the sixth largest emitter in the world up to the fourth largest in just six weeks.

Researchers estimate that, on many days in September and October, the CO2 emissions from the fires exceeded the average daily emissions from all economic activity in the United States.