Drainage of peatlands for plantations ‘cannot be sustainable’, report states

Harvesting of Acacia on a drained peatland © Marcel SilviusA new policy brief published today (Thursday) by Wetlands International and Tropenbos International rejects claims that the drainage of peatlands for plantations can be sustainable.

In the new report, the two organisations call for a thorough, science-based approach to peatland management instead of policies and management models that do not give sufficient consideration to the issue of peatland subsidence.

The drainage of peatland was a major cause of the forest fires that raged through vast areas of Sumatra and Kalimantan last year, 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.

Last 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.

12166819_182709265396386_718531337_nThe Sabangau forest in Central Kalimantan.

In response to last year’s disaster, the Indonesian government launched a national Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) with an ambitious target of restoring more than two million hectares of peatland by 2020.

“Success will depend on a proper understanding of the functioning of peatlands,” Wetlands International¹ and Tropenbos International² state in their new report.

The organisations state that, while the Indonesian government is taking bold steps towards large- scale peatland restoration to prevent major fires, including the rewetting of priority peatland areas, some key players in the pulp-for-paper and other plantation industries claim that peatlands can be drained sustainably and thus contribute to the government’s goals.

The new policy brief contradicts these industry claims. It calls for the phasing out of drainage-based land use on peat in Indonesia, and the development of alternative land uses, involving peatland rewetting.

Peat consists of 90 percent water and 10 percent organic material that is mostly carbon.

Continuously high water tables have prevented the breakdown of organic material and allowed thick layers of peat to build up over centuries in many areas in Indonesia, the new report points out.

Millions of hectares of peatland in Sumatra and in Kalimantan on the island of Borneo have been drained to allow for the development of oil palm and other industrial tree plantations.

Large scape Acacia pulp wood plantations are developed on drained peatland of Sumatra © Reza Lubis

Extensive acacia pulpwood plantations are developed on drained peatland in Sumatra © Reza Lubis.

Peatland drainage has at least three important consequences with major social and economic effects.

Firstly, when drained, the peat oxidizes and carbon is continuously released into the atmosphere as CO2, contributing to climate change.

Secondly, drained peatlands are extremely fire prone, and fires have repeatedly destroyed millions of hectares of land.

Thirdly, the loss of peat as a result of oxidation results in subsidence of the peatland, which brings the land surface down to sea or river level and eventually leads to frequent or even permanent flooding.

Tropical peatlands not only store about a third of the world’s terrestrial carbon reserves. In Southeast Asia, peat forests are also home to endangered species like the orangutan.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has issued a new assessment and says Bornean orangutans are now “critically endangered”.

Last year’s fires came very close to orangutan sanctuaries in Kalimantan and at least 14 orangutans had to be rescued.




Orangutan rescues by the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation and International Animal Rescue during last year’s fires.


Most of the lowland peatlands of Sumatra and Kalimantan have been affected by drainage.

According to Wetlands International and Tropenbos International, continuation of such drainage-based land use – including pulp-for-paper and oil palm plantations – in these areas will, in the long term, lead to frequent and prolonged floods during the wet season over many millions of hectares. This, the new report states, will result in the loss of vast areas of productive land.

In such areas, there would be a high risk of fire during each major dry season.

“While much of the policy and land-use planning discussions in Indonesia have focused on greenhouse gas emissions, loss of biodiversity, and fires and haze, the issue of the long-term effects of land subsidence has never been taken into account,” said Edi Purwanto from Tropenbos International.

Peatland policies in Indonesia have been strongly influenced by the so-called “eko-hidro” approach, a peatland management model developed by Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL), a large pulp-for-paper company with major assets on Indonesian peatlands.

The model is claimed to provide a sustainable form of drainage-based peatland management. It is applied in the Kampar Peninsula, where APRIL has large-scale plantations.

Wetlands International and Tropenbos International say the “eko-hidro” approach is not successful in mitigating the adverse effects of drainage.

Their conclusion is based on a review of studies in peatland areas in Indonesia and other parts of the world.

It concurs with the findings, published a decade ago, by the Kampar Peninsula Science Based Management Support Project. These reports point to the inevitable negative long-term impacts of peatland drainage.

The studies indicate that there are no significant difference in subsidence rates when one compares the “business as usual” approach and “eko-hidro”.

More recent scientific research, including a study  about the impacts of plantations on the Kampar Peninsula peatland, commissioned by Wetlands International in 2015, shows that, even with a moderate subsidence rate of 3.5 centimetres per year, the Kampar Peninsula will experience extensive flooding within decades.

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

The director of Wetlands International Indonesia, Nyoman Suryadiputra, said: “Peatland restoration and sustainable use must be based on sound science, not on company claims that tend to persist with business as usual in disregard of all the scientific evidence on the major negative consequences.”

Wetlands International and Tropenbos International are calling on the Indonesian government and industry to recognise the threat of peatland subsidence, and plan timely action to phase out drainage-based land use from peatland areas and to consider alternative economic land-use options involving the rewetting of peatland areas and the planting of species adapted to wetlands.

“This alternative development, called paludiculture, is also increasingly promoted by the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation,” Wetlands International says.

Edi Purwanto says the Indonesian government needs to conduct a substantial review of peatland management policies and land-use practices.

Only doing this, he says, will they be able to build a sound foundation for the task of restoring two million hectares of peatland in Indonesia by 2020 and preventing a recurrence of the fire and haze disaster of 2015.

One of the recommendations in the new report is that the focus of peatland restoration should be expanded beyond previously burnt land to include natural forest areas.

“The focus on peatland restoration and water management options risks shifting attention from the management of peatland areas with natural forest cover,” the report states.

“As the 2015 fires have shown, these areas are also at high risk of burning and a priority should be placed on managing existing natural forest on peatlands. This includes forest areas experiencing illegal logging and plantation expansion, where forest protection and enforcement operations will need to be increased, as well as forest areas that have canal networks associated with past logging operations.

“Remaining forest areas need cascaded blocking of illegal logging canals and development of rewetting and revegetation of buffer zones. Peatland restoration should therefore be targeted beyond the two million hectares of peatland burnt in the 2015 fires to peatland with natural forest cover and priority unmanaged and plantation peatland areas.”

The policy brief says there needs to be a new approach to land-use zoning for Indonesia’s peatlands,  based on current drainage condition, land cover, biodiversity, and economic considerations.

Peatland landscapes that are in a relatively good condition in terms of conservation, hydrological function, and future fire risk must be effectively protected and restored, the report says. Peatlands that are heavily degraded, have only limited peat remaining because of subsidence caused by burning and drainage, and have no realistic potential for restoration, would not need to be protected.

In May, the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry admitted that nearly half of the millions of hectares of peatland that should be protected under a 2011 moratorium has been burned or converted for plantations, other types of agriculture, mines, fish farms, or resettlement areas.

The government has now announced a new ban on peatland conversion and a moratorium on new palm oil and mining licences, but implementation will be a challenge. The licence moratorium’s authority is based on a presidential decree, which carries less weight than a law.

In an additional measure, 3.8 million hectares of peatland that has been damaged or converted will be rezoned. Areas that local people have converted into small-scale plantations and agricultural land will be rezoned as social forestry, and there will be investigations into the conversion of other areas by large companies.

The BRG is focusing on four districts in Sumatra and Kalimantan. It has already hit obstacles, however, with the company Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) providing incomplete information about the depth of peatland on its concessions.

The agency has asked seven companies to share maps of their concessions, and all have complied except APP.

The head of the agency, Nazir Foead, says mapping of concession areas on peatland will allow the BRG to identify priority restoration areas and land that should be set aside for conservation or be used for cultivation.

Indonesia still lacks one definitive map of its peatland areas. Three maps have been produced so far, but they all have shortcomings. Some peatland areas do not appear on any of the maps, so even amalgamating the three maps provides an incomplete picture.

pic fire Drainage makes peatlands susceptible to fire © Pieter van Eijk A blaze in Kalimantan last year. © Pieter van Eijk.

1) Wetlands International is the only global not-for-profit organisation dedicated to the conservation and restoration of wetlands.

2) Tropenbos International is a non –governmental, non-profit organisation. It was created in 1986 as a Dutch response to increasing concerns about the disappearance and degradation of tropical rainforests worldwide.

Focusing on research, capacity building and institutional development, Tropenbos International runs programmes in DR Congo, Colombia, Ghana, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Suriname.


Headline photo: Harvesting of acacia  on drained peatland. © Marcel Silvius.