Out of an estimated 14.9 million hectares of peatland in Indonesia, only around  6.7 million hectares remain undeveloped and in forests, and a peat expert is calling on the government to maintain these at their current state at all costs.

 

Peatland in Indonesia

Supiandi Sabiham

 

Supiandi Sabiham, the chairman of the Indonesian Peat Association, citing figures from the ministry of agriculture, said that another 2.2 million hectares peatland in Indonesia had already been converted for agricultural purposes, including plantations, and another 1,6 million hectares were developed as timber estates. The rest were degraded peatland.

“I propose that the 6.7 million hectares, even though they include areas that can be converted be maintained as forests,” Sabiham who is also a professor in land resource management at the Bogor Institute of Agriculture, told The Palm Scribe. He said that for the 2.2 million hectares of agricultural peatland and the other 1.6 million hectares in timber estates, the damage had been done and it would be unfair to take them after the companies had already invested in them.

Only where concessions had not been developed and those which have high conservation value or high carbon value, could the peatland in Indonesia be exchanged with plots elsewhere or compensated by other means. “Because investment has been made there. We should instead try to monitor their management. If the management is bad, then we may issue warnings and so on, but if they are good then why not, even though part of them are in protected areas. Because they had been given a permit,” Sabiham said.

What was needed in those areas was rather the restoration of good peatland management including through good water management which said was key in maintaining the health of peat soil. He said the same should also apply for the 6,7 hectares. Even though it may include land classified by the government as “area for other uses/APL), land that is outside of forest areas and could legally be converted for other uses, they should be kept at their current state.

“That would be the compromise,” Sabiham said. For the degraded peatland, covering an estimated 4.4 million hectares, a reassessment should be made whether they could legally be used for other purposes or should be part of protected areas. Under the current laws and regulations, peat domes and peat layers with depths of more than three meters should remain protected.

Sabiham also said that peatland in Indonesia was far from homogenous, that they differed based on their geographical location such as coastal or inland, based on the type of vegetation cover in the area, their depths, their nutrient content and many other factors. He also said that one still debatable aspect of the law on peat soil was the requirements regarding minimum the soil water level, at 0.4 meters deep, so as to keep the peat humid and reduce its glass house emission.

In reality, the water level, measured from the surface of the peat soil, he said, fluctuated depending on many factors. They included whether it was, the rainy or dry seasons. He added that in nature, it was difficult to find peat with the water level at around 0.4 meters.“Rather, the measure should be the humidity level of the peat layer above the water level,“ he said.

Because most peat soil in the tropics was formed by decomposing tree trunks and branches, they tended to have a high level of porosity that meant a poor water retention capability. Sabiham said that one way to remediate to this low water retention capability was to enrich the soil with minerals.
He said that peat soil is poor in nutrient and to grow crops, it needed not only the addition of minerals to ameliorate the soil stability but also fertilizers. Sabiham said that planting peat soil that was not under a protected status with crops, including with oil palm would not degrade the peatland as long as a good water management is applied as well as fertilizers and mineral regularly provided.

 

“There are plantations in North Sumatra that are on peat soil and continue to be productive after more than a hundred years That is evidence enough that palm oil can be planted in peatland,” he said.  He added that in Riau, in the Tembilahan and Pulau Panjang areas, there were also sustainable palm oil plantations there.

 

He added that planting peat land also brought the benefit of providing revenues compared to when the land remains unused.
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