Malaysia: ‘Let us better manage peatlands’

THO XIN YI The Star 28 Oct 16;

PETALING JAYA: International researchers and environmental NGOs are calling for better management of tropical peatland.

Following the 15th Inter-national Peat Congress in Kuching in August, 139 representatives of various institutions from 20 countries have come together to raise their concerns over the environmental impact of agricultural conversion of tropical peat.

In a letter to be published in an environmental science journal Global Change Biology, they claim that contemporary agricultural techniques on peatland – for land clearance, drainage and fertilisation – have significantly impacted the ecosystem.

In Sarawak, peatland is drained and converted into oil palm plantations. It was reported that 400,000ha out of 1.4 million hectares of oil palm plantations are on peatland.

Citing scientific studies, the letter says the carbon stored in drained peatland is lost through oxidation, dissolution and fire. The drained coastal peatland, it adds, also risks getting untenable with the intrusion of saltwater.

“The search for more responsible tropical peatland agriculture techniques includes promising recent initiatives to develop methods to cultivate crops on peat under wet conditions.

“While a truly sustainable peatland agriculture method does not yet exist, the scientific community and industry are collaborating in the search for solutions, and for interim measures to mitigate ongoing rates of peat loss under existing plantations,” it reads.

In a written reply to The Star, Malaysian Peat Society president Frederick Haili Teck disagreed with the claims in the letter, which he said “portray the oil palm plantations as the woes of tropical peatland”.

Malaysia, he says, has a long history of oil palm research and development and has been improving soil management since the 1920s.

“It is a key reason for Malaysia’s success in competing with other vegetable oil crops today.

“In fact, strong scientific and commercial evidences were provided at the congress that better peatland management has raised oil palm yields to similar or above those on suitable mineral soils, particularly after the first-generation planting,” he said.

He also stressed that only 27.5% of peatland in Malaysia was allowed to be used for oil palm cultivation.

“Malaysia has reached the target for this soil type and does not give out further concessions for oil palm,” he said.

Frederick dismissed the claim that oil palm on peatland is unsustainable as being “generalised, one-sided and inconclusive”.

“The implication of such a statement could be far-reaching as to disqualify the industry and deplete the livelihood of the communities concerned,” he added.

Debate rages over impact of tropical peat conversion
The Star 28 Oct 16;

PETALING JAYA: The environmental impact of agricultural conversion of tropical peat is a matter of intense debate.

Dr Reuben Clements, co-founder of Rimba, a non-profit research group registered in Malaysia, said the drainage and conversion of peatland to agriculture was largely responsible for forest fires that caused the annual haze.

“Research has shown that drained peatland will eventually sink below sea level and become flood-prone, so why establish plantations there anyway?” he said.

Rimba researcher Lahiru Wijedasa attended the recent peat congress in Kuching and is one of the authors of a joint letter calling for better management of tropical peatland.

Indonesia and Malaysia are among the world’s biggest palm oil producers and exporters, with Malaysia contributing to 39% of world palm oil production and 44% of world exports.

Consultant geologist Dr Paramananthan Selliah agreed that coastal peatland risked becoming unsustainable when drained and subsided below sea level.

However, he challenged the view that rapid loss of carbon is the primary concern of agriculture on peatland, adding that peat swamp emitted methane when it was under water.

“Methane is 18 times more detrimental than carbon dioxide for global warming, and if someone carelessly throws a cigarette butt during a prolonged dry period, it can cause a peat fire. So why blame it on oil palm?” he said.

On holding the conversion of peatland to agriculture responsible for forest fires, Dr Paramananthan said the annual haze resulted from all burning and not only peat fires.

A no-burn policy was practised by plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia, he added, not discounting the possibility of unscrupulous planters who burned to clear their land to save costs.

He felt Malaysia needed to have a think-tank of qualified experts who could quickly respond to allegations.

He added that people should also not simply accept “half-truths” by NGOs that were largely funded by producers of other vegetable oil crops such as soyabean and rapeseed – the competitor to oil palm.

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