Sustainable Peat Restoration

Restoring secondary peat, building infrastructure and institutions for peat water management in one hydrological unity and developing peat-friendly technology on cultivation area of peatland is an important part of sustainable peat restoration.

The Indonesian government has formed a new institution called the Peat Restoration Agency (BRG) through Presidential Regulation No. 1 of 2016. This new institution is directed under the president himself and it is assigned to restore peatlands in 7 provinces, namely Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan, South Kalimantan and Papua. Of course we hope that the presence of the BRG can provide a solution for managing 21 million hectares of Indonesia’s peatland in sustainable ways either economically, socially and ecologically.

As a history, the process of natural formation and the existence of peat should guide us on how to manage peat sustainably. Soil experts (Balitbang Tanah, 2008) have long known that peat is formed from airtight (anaerobic) plant deposition of organic matter (biomass) in shallow lakes and swamps that have been formed evolutionary for thousands of years. The growth of the peat layer is only around 0-3 millimeters per year depending on the condition of the vegetation on it. Peat absorbs water about 13 times its own volume and peat is a hydrological unity in a stretch of watershed.

The process of forming and how natural the peat itself is are two important things to manage peat sustainably, which are the addition of plant biomass (Montarella, et al, 2006) and water management in a hydrological unity (Balitbang Tanah, 2008). Addition of biomass is only possible if vegetations/plants grow on the peatland. To maintain a sustainable water system, it must be managed in an indivisibility unity and would be ineffectively if it is carried out partially.

Peatlands in Indonesia are currently used for agriculture / plantations and protected areas. Out of the 21 million hectares of peat, only about 6 million hectares is suitable for agriculture (shallow peat) and only around 4 million hectares have been utilized including 1.7 million hectares of which have been planted with oil palm trees. The remaining 15 million hectares are protected forest areas. From peatland on the protected forest, around 12 million hectares (Joosten, 2008) is in the form of secondary peat (degraded peat land). Therefore the challenge for BRG is how to restore (reforest) 12 million hectares of secondary peat in the future.

The presence of agriculture, including oil palm plantations on peatlands, needs to be seen as part of peat restoration. In addition to providing economic benefits, it can also contribute in providing the continuous addition of peat biomass. Various studies (Subiham, 2013) revealed that oil palm plantations on peatlands actually increase peat biomass. The problem is that the cultivation technology on peatlands is not entirely peat-friendly. In addition, the peatland water management has not been fully carried out in one hydrological unity. Both of these problems have not made cultivated peatlands yet managed sustainably. But these two things can be better improved in the future.

These three things are the urgent needs that should be addressed by the presence of BRG in the future, namely: First, restoring/reforesting secondary peat with an area of ​​around 12 million hectares. Second, building infrastructure and institutions for peat water management for both cultivation area and protected area on peatland in one hydrological unity. Third, introducing peat-friendly cultivation technology (eco-hydro farming) for cultivated peatlands to utilize 6 million hectares of peat that is suitable for agriculture.
If these three things are successfully carried out in the future, BRG has succeeded in providing a solution that is to realize the national peat restoration in sustainable ways, either socially, economically, ecologically and politically. All parties, including farmers, district governments and ministries/agencies must support BRG without creating any conflict of interest. The understanding of some NGOs that view cultivation area on peatland will be restored into protected area, needs to be kept away from the BRG, because it will create new complicated problems in national development.

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