Indonesia is the custodian of a globally significant store of carbon dioxide (CO2) comprising about 46% of the world’s tropical peatland, principally in Sumatra, Borneo and New Guinea (206,950 km2). When drained, peatland is a major contributor of global greenhouse gas emissions through both oxidation processes and burning.
Indonesia is a signatory to the 2015 Paris Agreement under the 1994 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UN FCCC). In its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC), Indonesia has made an unconditional commitment to reduce greenhouse gases by 29% by 2030 compared to the business-as-usual scenario. Of this 29% reduction, it is anticipated that 17% (i.e. 59% of the target) will to be derived through reducing the incidence and severity of forest fires, and through peatland restoration.
Smoke haze arises mostly from surface and peat fires in degraded peatlands. People ignite surface fires, including for land clearing in preparation for swidden agriculture, extortion, carelessness and fishing. These anthropogenic fires often escape into unmanaged land if environmental conditions are suitable, typically the hot days with dry winds that are characteristic of the dry season in many parts of Indonesia. If these surface fires transition into the peat itself, the peat fire can become virtually impossible to extinguish until the water tables rise again during the next wet season. It is not feasible to extinguish peat fires by conventional fire suppression.
In addition to dramatic adverse impacts on local communities, transnational haze has created tensions with several South East Asian nations, especially in response to tangible and costly public health and economic consequences. In response to the smoke haze crisis, the Government of Indonesia established a new organization in 2016, the Peatland Restoration Agency (Badan Restorasi Gambut, BRG), which was mandated to restore approximately 2 million hectares of peatland by 2020. At the end of 2020, Indonesian President Joko Widodo extended the mandate of the agency through to 2024. Now known as the Peatland and Mangrove Restoration Agency (BRGM) it has the job of restoring an estimated 2 million hectares of degraded peatland and mangrove ecosystems across 13 provinces.
Peatland systems in their natural state do not burn. An intact ‘peat swamp forest’ has high water tables, usually above the surface for many months of the year, which keeps the peat continuously wet. Substantial areas of Indonesia’s peatlands have been drained associated with logging and land clearing, and are susceptible to fire in the dry season. Machine dug canals that dissect the landscape are often up to 20 meters wide and 4 meters deep. The first step in restoring peatland is rewetting, which principally involves raising the water table through canal blocking, but this has not yet been attempted in tropical regions on a large scale.
Even after canal blocking, peatland will continue to drain and dry out in the dry season, and be susceptible to fire at some times of the year. In addition to the establishment of BRGM, the Government of Indonesia has imposed a permanent moratorium on peatland exploitation and put in place steps to improve degraded peatland through promoting natural succession, rehabilitation, restoration and/or other restoration technology (Government Regulation No. 71/2014, revised by the GR No. 57/2016 on Protection and Management of the Peat Ecosystem). The regulation also prohibits the burning of peatland.
Cleared and drained peatland is an economically important contributor to the local and national economies of Indonesia, with many male and female smallholders, communities and industries utilizing the land for agriculture, palm oil production, and/or forest plantations.
Until recently, it has been central government policy to clear and drain shallow peatland for agricultural and industrial development. Over the last 20 years, many communities have migrated to previously uninhabited peatland areas as part of Indonesia’s transmigration program. Transmigrant communities on peatland are typically settled there because the better-quality mineral soils were already occupied by the indigenous inhabitants. Although the livelihoods of these communities currently depend on the drained peatland, the system itself is not sustainable. Over a period of 20-30 years, organic matter oxidation, together with peat compaction and subsidence, continues until drainage is no longer effective, and the peat becomes unsuitable for any form of aerobic or dryland agriculture.
Communities dependent on peatland-based agriculture have already experienced significant hardship further to the 2016 presidential decree banning burning. Farmers who have traditionally relied upon burning for land preparation have reported high crop failures and much lower yields (e.g. Tanjung Beringen, a peat-dependent village in South Sumatra). The process of restoring peatlands will further impact on these communities. Peatland-dependent communities will need to change their production systems to crops that are tolerant to inundation and waterlogging. Restoration through rewetting will create challenges for which there are as yet no simple answers.