Indonesia: Book Sheds Light on Dire Consequences of Burning Peatland -- Johannes Nugroho

Johannes Nugroho Jakarta Globe 1 May 16;

In light of Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo’s recent announcement of the moratorium on new oil palm plantations, the publication of "Catastrophe and Regeneration in Indonesia’s Peatlands: Ecology, Economy and Society" by NUS Press and Kyoto University Press seems timely. The new book’s timeliness is further borne out by a similar pledge last year by president on peatland development. Even more encouraging is the newly formed partnership between the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) and Kyoto University in the ambitious task to help restore 2.26 million hectares of damaged peatland in the next five years.

Representing the university at its MOU signing ceremony with BRG was its Center for Southeast Asian Studies director Kosuke Mizuno. Professor Mizuno was also one of the main editors and indeed contributors to Catastrophe and Regeneration. The book details multi-disciplinary discourses on the state of Southeast Asian peatland past and present, with fieldwork research carried out in Giam Siak Kecil-Bukit Batu Biosphere Reserve in Riau from 2010 to 2012.

Boasting a lineup of fourteen respective experts on various disciplines (Kosuke Mizuno, Motoko S. Fujita, Shuici Kawai, Retno Kusumaningtyas, Kazuo Watanabe, Tetsuya Shimamura, Kazuya Masuda, Kaoru Sugihara, Shigeo Kobayashi, Haruka Suzuki, Osamu Kozan, Ahmad Muhammad, Haris Gunawan and Hiromitsu Samejima), the book is rare in its thoroughness and clarity on the history, current state as well as future of peatland use in Southeast Asia.

Through analyses of historical data and fieldwork findings gathered by the team, the authors attempt to identify the environmental problems facing peat forests resulted from human and industrial exploitation in the past century. A thoughtful line from the book best summarizes the underlying reason for the current crisis: “The logic of industrialization is not the logic of symbiosis with the biosphere.”

Last year’s terrible haze across the region as a result of forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan was enough testimony to the gravity of the problem. The book ably explores how forest fires only became a major threat after Southeast Asia underwent extensive deforestation in the late 1980s, made worse by the subsequent “development” in the peatland areas, hitherto considered unsuitable for human habitation or use.

In Indonesia specifically, the books recounts President Suharto’s “developmentalist” drive, which eventually saw vast tracts of peatland drained in the effort to make them arable for cash crops such as oil palm or forestry products like acacia trees, a major source of paper pulp. In its natural state submerged under water, peat posed no fire risk. But once drained and baked dry by the sun, it becomes easily combustible, which explains why forest fires became more common as more peatland was “reclaimed” for industrial activities.

Kyoto University’s research team also discovered an important fact which led them to conclude that behavioral changes in our treatment and approach to peat forests are necessary in order to avert future crises. They argue that we have been growing the wrong trees there and in doing so we have exacerbated the problem. Take oil palm for example. Palm trees grown in former peatlands, even after extensive soil treatment and fertilization, yield less oil than those planted in non-peatlands. With the growing frequency of forest fires, the yields promise to be even less as a significant number of palm trees are destroyed or rendered unproductive by fire damage before reaching maturity.

Yet as the commodity boom in the last decade continued its march, the conversion of natural peatlands into oil palm plantations became relentless. Far from dissuading people from using peat areas for oil palm culture, the 2002 forest fires which spread to rubber plantations and fruit orchards only ended up seeing the decimated areas replanted with oil palm saplings. The environmental powder keg even became more menacing as in Riau “between 2002 and 2006 the area of oil palm plantations more than tripled from 7,514 ha to 22,681.”

The authors of the book have also endeavored to offer possible solutions which would satisfy both environmental and economic needs of the region. An idea prominently discussed is “people’s forestry” which focuses on economically viable trees which are more suited to peatland conditions, such as rubber, bintagur, jelutong and ramin. It is believed that with local knowledge as its guide, people’s forestry may provide the region with a more sustainable way of making use of the biomass resources while conserving the environment.

However, its success depends on the restoration of peatlands through rewetting, something which the authors believe the local inhabitants can accomplish. They also suggest diversifying the current economic activities, again with reference to local traditions. For instance, their research reveals that many of the locals used to rely on fishing in the sea for a living but later turned to oil palm culture.

Catastrophe and Regeneration in Indonesia’s Peatlands: Ecology, Economy and Society provides us with new insights and considered data on the problem of peatland use and its effects. As the Southeast Asian haze threatens to become an annual occurrence with dire repercussions, the issue of peatland restoration has taken on renewed urgency. It is in this respect that the new book is a welcome new voice in the search for solutions to the region’s most pressing environmental hazard.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya.

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