Peatland: Turn It Into Oil Palm Plantations or Just Let It Be Shrubs?

“The use of peatland for oil palm plantations, ecological and economic-wise is much more beneficial than leaving it abandoned into bushes”

After forest and land fires in the past few weeks, peatlands have become a concern of the government. Although forest fires occurred broader than peatland fires, the government sees the need to revamp the management of peatland utilization in the future.

In Indonesia, the peatland area is about 18 million hectares. According to Wet International (2008), almost 90 percent of Indonesia’s peatland is classified as degraded peatland which have higher emissions than the untouched forest peat. So far, many of the peatlands are left to be shrubs, so they do not provide optimal benefits both in terms of ecological and economic aspects.

According to the Agricultural Research and Development Agency (2008), the area of shallow peat (depth of less than 3 meters) suitable for agricultural cultivation is ​​about 6 million hectares. The area of ​​peat that has been used for agriculture including new plantations is estimated about 4 million hectares or about 22 percent of Indonesia’s peatlands. This is still far below the world average where nearly 80 percent of the 380 million hectares of peat are already being used for agriculture and other uses.

The utilization of peatlands for oil palm plantations is nothing new. The first generation palm plantations in Indonesia built about 100 years ago on the eastern coast of North Sumatra and Aceh, are partly oil palm plantations cultivated on peatlands. In Malaysia, the Serawak region also has about 1.3 million hectares of oil palm plantations on the peatlands. Although both experienced the El Nino season, a well-maintained palm plantation on peatland on the east coast of North Sumatra and Aceh and those in Sarawak did not suffer from land fires. In fact, peatlands in Riau, South Sumatera, Jambi and Kalimantan, are not all burnt.

Peatlands utilization, especially secondary peat forest, for oil palm plantations with a sustainable management, is better than leaving them unutilized. In terms of preserving the environment, the use of secondary peatlands for oil palm plantations is better than letting it to become shrubs. If they are abandoned into shrubs, their biomass drops dramatically, but if they are turned into oil palm plantations, its biomass content will only drop relatively low (Rehman, 2015). In addition, oil palm plantations also reduce peatland emissions. From various studies (Melling, 2005,2007) peatland emissions are damaged if it is being allowed to reach about 127 tons of CO2 per hectare. But, if it is used for oil palm plantations, the emission will be reduced to 31-57 tons CO2 per hectare.

Not only being ecologically profitable, the economic benefit is clearly way more profitable. Although not as good as the palm oil plantation on mineral land, oil palms on the peatlands with sustainable management are still capable of producing at least 3 tons of oil per hectare, opening up employment opportunities, business opportunities and income generation. Such apparent economic benefit will not be obtained if the peatlands are abandoned into shrubs. Therefore, the government should not take the wrong policies of peatland management. Restoring the peat by letting it become bushes is not a good solution. Considering that the peatlands are so widely damaged in Indonesia, peat restoration should be done in two ways; for deep peatlands, they should be reforested (which certainly costs a lot), and as for shallow peatlands, they should be used as cultivation of agriculture, including oil palm plantations as what has been done nowadays. The government does not need phobias of fires in formulating policies on peat governance. The largest land fire didn’t happen in peatlands, nor did it in the oil palm plantations. Most of the oil palm plantations in Indonesia are not burnt. Of course, we need to improve the governance of peat utilization including forests as a whole so that forest fires can be mitigated in the future.

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