Indonesia: Politics slows fight against peatland fires

Yuyun Indradi Jakarta Post 15 Aug 16;

Understanding the nature of peatlands is crucial to resolving Indonesia’s forest fires crisis. Indonesia’s coastal peatlands have formed over the past several thousand years in tidal mangrove swamps, building up new, low-lying land comprising peat up to 15 meters deep.

There are also shallower inland peat areas, formed as part of swamp forest ecosystems. Draining, clearing and planting on both kinds of peatland dries it out and makes it prone to fire. It also causes it to collapse (subside), making it prone to flooding.

In coastal areas, where peatlands have built up on a base that is at or below sea level, hundreds of thousands of hectares of pulp and oil palm plantations planted on peat will become economically useless as these areas sink below sea level in the coming decades.

This has huge economic and social implications for provinces such as Riau.

This month last year, forest fires were leading Indonesia into an economic, health and environmental disaster. The hardest to extinguish fires took hold in peatlands, where they smoldered on, causing the most toxic smoke.

Since last year, the President has taken some steps to stop peatland damage and to address fires by establishing the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) and by stating there will be a halt to oil palm expansion into forest areas, including peat forests. However, a year on there are worrying signs that the disaster will recur if the actions taken by companies, the government and the BRG don’t fully address the current conditions in peat landscapes.

In this fight, winning means that we stop tomorrow’s fires, as well as ensure that yesterday’s fires don’t return. To achieve that, joined up thinking is needed across government. The peat agency’s restoration agenda must be married with a clear set of priority areas — those where extensive forest areas remain. In these areas, any expansion into peatlands by industry must be stopped, and the damage done by existing plantation development immediately addressed.

Unfortunately resources for restoration risk being wasted if they are spread across numerous areas that are already heavily degraded, or have only limited peat remaining due to subsidence through drainage and resulting fires.

The reality is that such areas have little potential for restoration and instead need to be the focus of other interventions.

The BRG’s restoration maps, focused on previously burned areas, suggest that that the wrong areas may receive the lion’s share of attention. The BRG recently conducted a consultation via Facebook, but it needs to send out a more serious call for deeper public, and especially scientific, reviews of its maps and plans, and revise them accordingly.

Priority peat landscapes should be rezoned for protection, regardless of tenure status. No peatland development is sustainable and preventing future fires means stopping all expansion and conserving the remaining forests in these areas. Plantations should be retired, forests restored and no-drainage buffer zones introduced.

In some locations no-drainage peatland production could permit continued economic use — particularly by local communities. However this requires a massive and urgent investment in alternative species, which unlike those used in pulp and oil palm plantations do not require drainage.

For existing plantations in peatlands outside priority areas, water levels must be maintained as high as possible to slow subsidence and to try and decrease the fire risk. It is important to note that the future is bleak for such areas. Subsidence and eventual flooding remain inevitable as long as drainage continues.

The reality today is that peatlands are being torn asunder by overlapping regulations and competing agendas within government. Incredibly, the regulatory regime appears to be based on the pretence that it is possible to develop some peatlands into plantations, as long as some parts are protected.

This needs to be called out for the nonsense that it is. Harmonized action is urgently needed, including revisiting stalled reforms to the Peat Ecosystem Protection and Management Regulation (PP 71/2014), which defies good science by permitting continued drainage in peat landscapes.

Fires and poor peatland management are not simply a health and environmental issue, they are also very much about economics. The World Bank estimated that US$16 billion was wiped off Indonesia’s gross domestic product (GDP) last year due to the fires. How much more will be wiped off permanently when, after years of fuelling fires due to poor management, hundreds of thousands of hectares of plantations in the coastal peatlands of Sumatra and Kalimantan inevitably flood due to a failure to listen to science and to reform industry practice?

The writer is political forest campaigner, Greenpeace Southeast Asia-Indonesia.

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