Indonesia: New trees a second chance for peatland farmers

Syafrizaldi THE JAKARTA POST 13 Feb 18;

One afternoon, local farmer Sri Poniyem, 43, was gathering cow dung mixed with urine in her backyard’s concrete tub measuring two by four meters, which would be turned into liquid manure. Using a hose, she connected the tub to a jerrycan and patiently waited for it to fill with liquid manure.

Despite its bad odor, the mixture of urine, manure and water is a farmer’s best friend that gives valuable nutrition to the soil, which is more environmentally friendly than chemical fertilizer.

Poniyem, the head of the Women’s Farmer Group of Pandan Sejahtera village, Geragai district, Tanjung Jabung Timur regency, Jambi, said later in the afternoon the group members would collect the jerrycans to be used in their respective fields.

The villagers in the area have for the last two years realized the need to maintain a natural balance.

“Illegal logging used to prevail here. My husband was also involved,” Poniyem said.

Poniyem’s spouse, Tasyono, was arrested by the police in 2006 for his illegal activity and has since made no such violation, but his past actions have harmed the environment as seen in the damaged peatland in the regency. Today, the greater part of the peatland has been converted into oil palm plantations.

Several peat fires have also affected the lives of the locals. The worst blaze, noted Poniyem, was in 2015 when residents were forced to flee their homes as they couldn’t bear the thick smoke, which also brought economic losses and reduced biological diversity.

The disaster changed the course of their lives.

“Since the big fire, we’ve been thinking of maintaining a natural equilibrium,” she said.

Poniyem and her family own some hectares of oil palm plantations. She plans to grow more productive crops instead.

“Almost one hectare of my oil palm trees were decimated. I want to grow plants that are more compatible with peat soil,” she said.

Her motivation to experiment with new crops on peatland is thanks to the Mitra Aksi (Action Partner) field school, which has helped change the farmers’ mindset.

Poniyem and her group are now trying to plant dragon fruit trees, the seedlings of which have been obtained, while also growing kapok trees to provide supporting columns for the fruits. She is also developing perennial crop agriculture, such as cacao and areca palm trees.

“If fertilizer is needed, the group has prepared compost from the cow excrement,” she said.

Mitra Aksi has received a grant from the Millennium Challenge Account Indonesia, which is restoring peatland in eastern Sumatra. This region is adjacent to Berbak National Park, Orang Kayo Hitam Forest Park (Tahura OKH) and Berbak Protected Peat Forest.

The environmentally friendly pattern of farming, said Poniyem, should rely on farmers’ ability to utilize the natural resources available around them. As well as promoting the family economy, this farming method causes no damage to the soil.

Two kilometers from Poniyem’s home, another local, Rusmilan, 43, was building what he called a canal partition, which raises the depth of the water.

“The principle is that peat soil will be wet, which will prevent fire,” Rusmilan said.

He and his group were constructing partitions by filling sacks with sand and gravel. The sacks were then piled up to form canal dams, which were covered with thick black plastic sheets before being shielded with wooden planks.

The partitions looked like bridges connecting both sides of the canal. There was a hole on each partition to regulate the release of water.

“When it rains, water can be released. But in the dry season, water is retained to ensure the peat remains wet,” he said.

Fish are put into the partitions so as to draw the group’s attention to the water level.

“We’re developing the principle of the 3Rs: re-wetting, re-vegetating and revitalizing the economy. Re-wetting is carried out through the canal partitions. In some places they build hydrant wells to wet the soil,” he said, adding that Mitra Aksi assisted them in building 15 canal partitions and 30 drilled wells.

Southeast of Poniyem’s village, Ahmad Baihaki was planting jackfruit trees in the Tahura OKH restoration area. From Saponjen village, Kumpeh district, Muaro Jambi regency, Ahmad sailed aboard a small boat for almost two hours to reach the peat restoration site.

“Besides, we’ve grown jelutung [Dyera costulala], duku [lanson], durian and mango trees,” he said.

No less than 30,000 trees have filled the 250-hectare restoration area. “But only 24,876 of them are growing well,” Ahmad said.

He hopes that these plants could be productive and benefit at least three villages involved in the restoration effort, namely Saponjen, Gedong Karya and Sungai Aur.

Controlling water: A man inspects a canal partition in Pandan Sejahtera village, which is used to regulate the release of water onto the peatland.
Controlling water: A man inspects a canal partition in Pandan Sejahtera village, which is used to regulate the release of water onto the peatland. (JP/Syafrizaldi)

The villagers are assisted by Gita Buana (natural resources management organization) in the peatland revitalization program. Gita Buana program coordinator Lambok Panjaitan described community involvement as the key to peat restoration.

“The government and local people have been restoring peatland since 2016 under the coordination of the Peat Restoration Agency, with a target to cover 2.5 million hectares in 2020 in seven priority provinces, namely Jambi, Riau, South Sumatra, Central Kalimantan, West Kalimantan, South Kalimantan and Papua,” he said.

As a part of the peatland restoration, locals also monitor hot spots. Villagers can access peat areas for planting and harvesting, at the same time monitoring environmental conditions including hot spots and canal partitions.

“We don’t want the 2015 peat fire to happen again. Growing trees helps speed up peat restoration, which motivates us to continue this activity,” Ahmad said.

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