With the relentless global pressure over environmental destruction and degradation the Indonesian government has moved to protect its sprawling peatland area but may have inadvertently put a spoke in the wheel of the country’s fastest growing earner, the palm oil industry.
Peatland, formed by eons of vegetal deposits, covers some 15 million hectares, or nearly 11 percent of the country’s total land area (UNDP). It is very efficient at absorbing and storing carbon dioxide and water and mostly provide a fertile soil for plants.
But years of mismanagement, draining and burning to make way for agriculture, including for palm oil and pulp wood, as well as natural calamities, has damaged an increasingly wider area of peatland and resulted in the emission of huge volumes of carbon into the atmosphere.
The government has tried to curb the damage, issuing a regulation in 2016 that expanded an existing moratorium on new forest concessions to cover peatlands. The initial moratorium, issued in 2011 covered new conversion of primary forest and peat below three meter deep. The 2016 regulation expanded the coverage to all peatland. It also forces companies to restore peatland areas that they had degraded.
However, many, including in the palm oil industry, said that the moratorium on peatland needed to be more specific, arguing that some peatland can be sustainably be used for agriculture, including palm oil plantations, if carefully managed. They cited examples where palm oil plantations have for generations existed in peatland without resulting in their degradation.
Edison Parulian Sihombing who heads the agriculture department of private agribusiness firm PT Socfin Indonesia said that the company have had palm oil plantations in peatland for four generations and not only were the peatland well maintained and retained their natural function but the crops also had good productivity.
“The important thing is ethics. A commitment to safeguard the functions of peat through consistent water management, so that these functions are not impaired. This is shown by the productivity capability of the land that does not weaken but instead strengthen,” Sihombing said at the second Indonesian Palm Oil Stakeholders (IPOS) Forum in Medan on September 28, 2017.
Sihombing said that the moratorium on the use of peatland had indiscriminately put all types of peatland in one basket, closing the opportunity for the sustainable use of peatland for agriculture, palm oil included.
“It (the moratorium) should have covered the peat domes only, marginal peatlands should not have been included,” Sihombing said.
Azwar Maas, who heads the expert group in the Indonesian Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) said that peat domes, thick dome-like layer of peat formed over an initial flat layer of peat, were unlike the flat peat layers, poor in minerals and not fertile soil . But they were real effectively carbon dioxide and water storage.
“It is the duty of the companies to inventorize the characteristics of the peatland ecosystem in their territories,” Maas said.
He said that one of the characteristic of peat was that it absorbed and stored water, sometime up to 13 times its own mass, but once it was drained, the peat would lose its ability to store water.
“The fundamental principle is that peatland should always be in a humid condition throughout the year. (Peat) Domes are water reserves,” Maas said.
Sihombing said Socfin is currently managing palm oil plantation in peatland that has existed for about 100 years. The plantation in a 2,165 hectare concession in Negeri Lama in the Labuhanbatu district of North Sumatra has been planted in 1919-1921 and has already been replanted three times. The plantation yields 27 to 29 tons of fresh fruit bunches per hectare per year.
“The plantation has been there since Dutch times and its productivity remains high,” Sihombing said.
He said that by providing water channels up to 70 cm deep, the water content of the peatland can be maintained.
Sihombing said that it was important to maintain the subsidence rate of the peatland and to prevent the irreversible characteristic from drying, by maintaining the water level in the area. The application of fertilizers, applied three times a year, must also be done at the righ time and must be completed before the rainy season when much of the area is flooded.
“With a good planning and management, peatland can accommodate a sustainable palm oil cultivation,” he said.
Maas said that the water management should also assure that there is adequate water level in planted peatland areas during the dry season when there are no rains. In those seasons water outflow remained but there would be no inflow.
“The fundamental principle is that the water balance should not be deficit. What is important is maintaining a good water balance,” Maas said.
“Palm oil plantation in peatland can have a positive impact and has already been going on for some 100 years,” said Achmad Manggabarani, the chairman of the Forum for the Development of Strategic and Sustainable Plantation and former director general of plantation at the agriculture ministry.
Examples, he said abounded, citing the Negeri Lama plantation but also palm oil plantation of state plantation company PTPN IV in Ajamu and Meranti, smallholder plantations in Teluk Panji, in Labuhan Batu district and also in Malaysia’s Sarawak.
“Malaysia has 1.6 million hectares of peatland and 1.1 million hectares has already been put to use but this has never been made into a problem,” Manggabarani said.
Palm oil plantation in peatland in Sarawak can produce up to 30 million tons of fresh fruit bunches per hectare in a year, he said, adding that “Palm Oil is actually the best plant that can be planted in peatland.”
He echoed the statement of Maas and Sembiring, saying that “the key is the water management. That is the most fundamental matter.”
He said that the government was calling for all to unite and make palm oil a strategic commodity, but its behavior and views appear not be supporting this call.
“Peatland poses not problem for growing plants, as long as the planting is done well,” Manggabarani said.