In Search of Peat-Friendly Land Use

In May 2023, the Gambut Kita team visited a range of project field sites in Pulang Pisau regency in Central Kalimantan, before going on to visit other research sites in South Sumatra. The team included researchers from CSIRO, BRIN, BSI, a number of Australian and Indonesian universities, the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) and Yayasan Tambuhak Sinta (YTS).


First Stop: Forest Rehabilitation Area

The first stop was made at the KHDTK office in Tumbang Nusa village, where an extensive Research Forest Area (Kawasan Hutan Dengan Tujuan Khusus) has been established, as well as a large seedling nursery which belongs to the BP DAS Kahayan office. The nursery cultivates various types of trees, such as Sengon, Jelutung, Meranti, Ketapang, and Durian. The BP DAS office provides many local women with paid work in the nursery. The KHDTK office also provides equipment and training to the local Fire Care Communities (MPA).

The GK researchers were happy to gather together in the field once again

Although one half of the research forest area was destroyed by fire in 2015, the remaining half of the regenerated forest has been successfully protected from fire for the last 20 years. Here, GK researchers have found that two centimetres of peat has built up on top of the layer of charcoal from 20 years ago. This finding shows that it is both feasible and realistic for peat to build up if a forested landscape is managed so that it doesn’t keep burning each fire season.

Professor Acep Akbar explains how the forest has slowly regenerated in the absence of fire

However, one of the key project findings to date is that peatland forest restoration is not occurring in any substantial way in Indonesia, in part due to a disconnect between the national and international priority for restoration and the local community and farmer level need for profitable livelihood options. Solving this conundrum requires support for local community livelihoods that foster a permanent and productive vegetation cover across the landscape.

Second Stop: Field Trial Demonstration Plot

Forest and peatland fires often result from the actions of small scale farmers and companies, who use fire both as a cheap means of clearing land, as well as to lay claim to land. Small fires can also easily burn out of control, as drained peatlands are highly flammable during the dry season. For these reasons, there is an urgent need for solutions that maintain peatlands wet.

Research shows that wet and healthy peatlands are the only sustainable pathway to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, fires and peatland degradation, and prevent the loss of livelihoods. Revegetation with native species adapted to wetland conditions also helps to avoid issues with the natural low fertility of peat soil and invasive species. To this end, Gambut Kita’s field trials used a range of native species at the GK demonstration plot in Central Kalimantan.

Only Shorea Balangeran survived the periodic inundation by floodwaters

Here, the only species that survived was Shorea Balangeran – all of the other species eventually died from being submerged by seasonal flooding. This clear result highlights the central nature of the problem faced by communities living on peatlands, namely that all such agricultural and silvicultural species must be able to survive periodic inundation, as the peatland should always be maintained in a wet state.

Third Stop: Smallholder Plantations

Many different types of smallholders exist in Indonesia, and different groups have different preferences as to how to make a living. In South Sumatra, GK finds that smallholders remain strongly attracted to oil palm, despite the negative implications for peatland preservation due to the requirements for drainage. In Kalimantan, GK finds that the native Dayak communities prefer to pursue a diversified range of livelihood strategies, generally based around small scale rice production, hunting, fishing, forest harvesting, and rubber production.

The team visits a traditional rubber garden in the peatlands

In Central Kalimantan, rubber tapping is a traditional livelihood activity that has survived the test of time. Families living in peatlands generally own rubber gardens that are passed down from generation to generation. Rubber gardens are productive and biodiverse assets that can be tapped regularly to derive a dependable income. Our research shows that latex quality can both be improved through training programs leading to higher farm-gate prices. Actively managed rubber plots can help to prevent fires and serve as buffer zones for forest areas.

The team then went on to visit a smallholder oil palm plantation. Oil palm is currently the most economically-desirable livelihood option for communities living on peatlands in Sumatra and Kalimantan. However, oil palm plantations are not compatible with sustainable peatland restoration because they require the peat to be drained, thereby making the landscape more susceptible to anthropogenic fire in the dry season, as well as oxidation and release of CO2 year-round.  Whereas natural peatland systems are wet and resistant to fires, the drainage of peat in support of activities such as palm oil production cause peat soils to dry, exposing peatland environments to the risk of wildfires that burn the peat itself. 

The team visits a smallholder oil palm plantation in the peatlands

While the Gambut Kita project team have been focused on understanding key land-based livelihood options to date, it has become apparent that over-reliance upon land-based options in wetlands may potentially increase community vulnerability, especially under climate change and the associated higher risk of fires and floods. And while peatland communities remain exposed to the twin hazards of fire and flooding it is likely that they will remain focused upon their day-to-day existence rather than the longer-term priority of peatland restoration.