Under normal circumstances, tropical peatswamp forests perform a range of environmental and social functions. They host thousands of plant and animal species and play a crucial role in global climate change mitigation. For local communities they provide vital resources and ensure a continuous supply of clean water.
Unfortunately a series of events resulted in large-scale destruction of peatswamp areas and their life supporting functions.
Drainage and logging - the onset of peatswamp forest destruction
Problems started in the early 1980s. Loggers discovered the enormous economic values of peatswamp forests and started to target this ecosystem. Uncontrolled activities led to significant habitat degradation, including large-scale hydrological disturbance.
Canal systems, constructed to float timber out of the inaccessible peatswamps, caused extensive drainage. These alterations led to extreme fire susceptibility, as disturbed forests and desiccated peat soils are highly inflammable.
Large-scale land reclamation projects from the nineties onwards, further raised to scope of the problem. Conversion into agricultural lands and oil palm and pulp plantations led to drainage of complete catchments and disappearance of millions of hectares of pristine peatswamp forest. Many initiatives failed, as most species cannot grow under the extreme peatswamp- conditions. Currently huge areas remain as wastelands, severely degraded and of low environmental or economic value.
Start of an Inferno
Initially fire incidence remained comparatively low. However, large fires already started during an El Niño event (causing significant drought) in 1982/83 when over 3.5 million ha of peat swamp burned in Sumatra and Kalimantan. In 1997/98, the El Niño event again induced severe droughts throughout Indonesia.
Following a several month period without substantial rains, huge fires raged throughout the peatlands of Kalimantan and Sumatra, causing a haze of smoke that extended to mainland Malaysia. Within weeks, the fires burnt over 13 million hectares of land of which 1.55-2.2 million ha of peatswamp forest.
Combustion of the peat soil caused emission of an estimated 3,000-9,400 million tons of CO2, equivalent to 15-40 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emission. Tens of thousands of people were treated for respiratory malfunctioning, over 1,100 flights were cancelled and economic losses from loss of timber and tourism exceeded nine billion dollar.
Negative spiral of events
The peat swamps have been burning ever since. Each year small fires – often lit by local communities as part of their slash and burn practices – turn into large-scale wildfires. They cause further peatswamp disturbance, severe health problems and emission of staggering quantities of carbon dioxide. Every year peatland degradation leads to emission of an average of 1480 million tons of greenhouse gases. This is over two times the amount targeted to be reduced annually within the Kyoto protocol.
Degraded peatswamp areas have a very low rate of recovery. As a result of harsh abiotic conditions and competition with excessively growing strangling ferns, it might take centuries or more for a forest to recover. Due to loss of their capacities to retain water, degraded peatlands face large-scale floods in the wet season, alternating with repetitive fires during droughts.
Loss of resources leads to extreme poverty. Local communities are forced to unsustainably exploit remaining natural resources. This leads to a further worsening of the situation. Efforts at various levels are required to solve this hopeless situation. Policies should be changed, communities need support and active restoration measures have to be implemented, to ensure future survival of this ecosystem.
Palm oil plantations on peatlands
South East Asian peatlands are currently being logged in high speed. Peatlands are being drained extensively to make palm oil production possible. The wet peat soils are however not suitable for the crop. For this reason drainage is applied to a depth of on average one meter, leading to emissions of carbon dioxides that were stored in the peat in the past ages; roughly 100 tonnes CO2 per hectare. From the degraded peatland in Indonesia, 1.5 million hectares is under palm oil concession (25% of their palm oil plantations); hence roughly causing 150 million tonnes carbon dioxide a year. Malaysia has at least 8% of their 4,24 million hectares of palm oil plantations on peat; leading to emissions of 33 million tonnes CO2 a year.
Palm oil production is increasingly driven by the global demand for biofuels. Indonesia currently produces over 80% of the world’s palm oil with one-quarter of oil palm plantations located on peat soils. Indonesia is planning to expand their palm oil plantations with another 6 million hectares in the coming 20 years of which 50% are currently planned on tropical peatlands and set aside 40% of their production for biofuel.
In a year of good yield approximately 3 up to 6 tonnes of palm oil is being produced per hectare, preventing between 9 to 18 tonnes of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels. However, drained peatland decomposes extremely rapidly, causing emissions of 70 up to100 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year per hectare (10-30 tonnes of carbon dioxide per tonne palm oil). The use of palm oil from peatlands hence leads to emissions 3 to 10 times higher than from fossil fuels. The palm oil plantations also contribute to the dehydration of the surrounding landscape leading to long-lasting fires that cover hundred thousands or even millions of hectares of peatland and result in further raise of carbon dioxide emissions, even up to three times higher.
Thus ironically, the substitution of fossil fuels by these "biofuels" in the EU is increasing green house gas emissions.