Widespread damage to Southeast Asia’s peatlands confirmed in satellite study

BANGKOK: A new breakthrough study powered by satellite technology has enabled researchers to measure the widespread damage to Southeast Asia’s peatlands, which are vitally important in capturing and reducing carbon emissions. 

For the first time, inSAR satellites have been used to remotely scan vast vegetated areas – 2.7 million hectares of peatland, mostly in Indonesia and Malaysia. Typically, researchers would have to physically traverse difficult terrain to make these measurements. 

Peat is the accumulation of generations of organic matter in naturally occurring wetland areas. They store huge amounts of carbon, which is released into the atmosphere once the land becomes degraded. In fact, about 6 per cent of annual global CO2 emissions is the result of damaged peatlands.

The mapping by a research team at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology shows this happening at an alarming rate. 

Ninety per cent of the peatlands examined are sinking – on average by 2.24cm a year and up to 5cm in some areas. It means these carbon-rich areas are drying fast, increasing the risk of dangerous fires sweeping through them. 

Satellite peatland mapping
Satellite data helps show damage caused to peatlands across Southeast Asia. (Image: Alison Hoyt)

The outcomes are worrying, particularly for Indonesia, home to about 70 per cent of the region’s peatlands. Dangerous fires plague the country on an annual basis, bringing severe health risks to the population and the destruction of protected wilderness, especially in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

The country, as a result of the carbon being released from damaged peat, as well as expansive fires in those areas, was the fourth biggest CO2 emitter in the world in 2015.

“Regional carbon dioxide emissions from peat loss during a typical year are much greater than total fossil fuel emission from Singapore, and an important component of emissions from Indonesia and Malaysia,” said Charles Harvey, the principal investigator at SMART, and a professor at MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

“Emissions from peatlands can surpass regional fossil fuel emissions during particularly dry years when there are widespread peat fires,” he told CNA.

Oki smoke
Peatland is highly prone to fires, which typically over a large scale in Indonesia every year. (Photo: Jack Board)

This was land that just a few decades ago was covered in pristine forest. Since then, the conversion of forest and peatland to oil palm plantations has been rapid. 

The SMART study found, however, that it was not only large concessions causing subsidence, but also other small-scale agriculture, the construction of canals and the preparation of land for “failed large scale rice-farming experiments”.

The latter is significant at this juncture. Negotiations are underway to create a vast new rice bowl to help feed Indonesians during the COVID-19 pandemic and address national food security issues.

DIFFICULTIES IN CLEARING LAND FOR RICE FARMING

The Joko Widodo administration has proposed opening up a 164,000ha area – potentially peatland – in Central Kalimantan, to be converted into agriculture. It follows a similar scheme in the mid 1990s, which resulted in the mass clearing of land for rice farming and huge internal worker migration, but little food.

Rice is not a native species in peatlands, and can only grow once the land is drained of its water and cleared. Even then, there are considerable complications and expenses.

Oki burning
Massive amounts of carbon are released into the atmosphere when peatlands are burnt. (Photo: Jack Board)

A “living document” to that failed experiment, Nyoman Suryadiputra, now the head of non-governmental organisation Wetlands International, experienced firsthand the difficulties of attempting to convert wet peatlands during extensive field work at the time.

He saw forests being destroyed and farmers turn to illegal logging, as they went hungry in the wetlands of Borneo.

He does not want history to be repeated but doubts the Indonesian government will make the same mistake.

“Even though I heard the area will be opened up, I don’t think it will be in the peat area. It will be a swamp area. But I also have to be very critical of it,” he said.

“We have to look at this type of ecosystem and see comprehensively if this area is connected to the peat area. They (the government) are aware how complicated it is and they already failed in 1995.”

Oki fire
Canals for agriculture built through peatlands contribute to land subsidence. (Photo: Jack Board)

The attempted conversion of peat-rich land in Papua into the “future breadbasket of Indonesia” in a project launched in 2011 is also testament to the troubles associated with such schemes. 

“It’s not only economic loss from making the same mistake but it’s to do with the ecosystems. The condition now is already bad. So if we open up again, it will get worse. The implication will be a long period of disasters,” Suryadiputra told CNA. 

ARE PEATLAND RESTORATION EFFORTS EFFECTIVE?

In 2016, President Jokowi announced the establishment of the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) to try and bring the about 2.5 million hectares of the country’s peatlands back to health within five years, a majority of it located in economic concession areas.

“I have tasked this agency with creating and implementing an action plan so that we can convince the world that we are very serious about overcoming the damage caused to forests and peatlands,” he said to reporters at the time.

By the end of 2018, the BRG said it has restored just less than 700,000 hectares. 

“The restoration and recovery of peatlands can be a long process. While we have not yet seen evidence that subsidence is slowing in the region, efforts of the BRG … are all steps in the right direction,” said Harvey, the principal investigator.

Earlier this week, President Jokowi reminded the agencies to maintain groundwater levels, so as to keep the peatlands wet.

Oki haze
Indonesia suffered vast fires and air pollution during fires in 2016. (Photo: Jack Board)

Deforestation rates have also reduced significantly in Indonesia, dropping to their lowest rates last year since 2003. 

Despite that, 324,000 hectares of primary forest were still lost, making the country the third biggest forest clearer in the world in 2019, according to data from the World Resources Institute.

In addition, the new satellite data shows that overall, peat resources continue to be degraded at worrying levels. Meantime, the instigators or fires that have continued to burn over the past five years have not been punished.

A 2019 investigation by Greenpeace found that no serious civil or administrative sanctions had been given to the ten palm oil companies responsible for large areas of burned land from fires in 2015 to 2018. Mega blazes over that period burnt some 3.4 million hectares, resulting in huge emissions and irreversible changes to carbon capture.

“Fires on peatland happening every year are a testament to the government’s continued failure to fulfil its commitment to end forest and peatland destruction,” said Rusmadya Maharuddin, a forest campaigner for Greenpeace Indonesia.

“Two decades of forest and peatland destruction by the plantation sector have made parts of Indonesia a giant carbon bomb,” he added.

“Keeping Indonesia’s remaining peatland areas intact is a priority, which together with the restoration of degraded peatland by rewetting, revegetation and revitalisation should significantly reduce the chance of fires.”