Too Many Livelihood Progams in Tumbang Nusa

When it comes to peat restoration efforts in Central Kalimantan, one place in particular has been a focus of both international and national attention. This is the village of Tumbang Nusa, located 40 km southeast of Palangka Raya. It lies within the ex-Mega Rice Project area, where 1 million hectares of peatland was degraded due to logging and draining. That failed project has caused an array of environmental problems. Floods recur more frequently year by year, and devastating forest fires occurred in 1997/98, and almost every year during 2015-2019. Last year, in 2023, there was unbearable air pollution in the form of toxic haze. When peat burns, it emits a significant amount of CO2, which contributes to the greenhouse effect. For these reasons, Indonesia’s Peat and Mangrove Restoration Agency (BRGM) and others have prioritized Tumbang Nusa in their efforts to restore peatlands. One of their strategies is revitalisation of the community’s livelihoods to be sustainable, equitable and one that facilitates peatland restoration. The revitalisation efforts to date were the focus of a study by Dr Daniel Mendham, and colleagues, published in 2024, to identify what actions have been taken towards this goal, and what impacts they have had on the community.

‘Kelotok’ boats stand by to ferry people in Tumbang Nusa where flooding has cut off the main access road of the village.

Since 2003, a range of actors have initiated a total of 15 livelihood programs in Tumbang Nusa, and an additional  18 plots have been established to demonstrate peat-friendly livelihood options. Most of these initiatives did not result in substantial practice change on the ground, with only three of the programs considered to be effective. An effective program is one whereby at least some of the elements had been adopted by community members who were not directly involved in the demonstration plots. The key option that had been adopted more widely was the cultivation of stingless bees in the Meliponini family, known locally as kelulut. The capital cost is low and it requires little maintenance. A hive can be harvested every two weeks, producing around 500 ml of honey, which earns the beekeepers Rp1-2 million annually. Besides being profitable, raising kelulut bees supports peatland restoration, as the bees benefit from the native peat swamp forest trees and their flowers in their honey production.

Beekeepers harvest kelulut honey using suction tubes.

Reasons for Failure

As for the other initiatives, they had either been partly maintained, or completely abandoned, both with no further adoption by community members. The study identified several options to increase the effectiveness of the programs in future. A major reason for failure was that the people of Tumbang Nusa had no say at all in the planning of the programs. They were conceived without any participation from the villagers, so they felt that they had no ownership or control. For example, the plant species selected in many programs were based on market needs, not those of the community. In addition, the Dayaks aren’t used to cultivating on peatland. They rely on mineral soil in riparian areas to grow upland rice, rubber, rattan and vegetables and traditionally practice shifting agriculture. Thus, to transition to peatland cultivation would require considerable time, effort and capacity building  for them if they were to successfully adopt the methods of intensive agriculture used in the programs.


Initially the people settled close to the Kahayan River to sustain their traditional livelihoods. However, after 2013, with the construction of a 10 km bridge that connected Central and South Kalimantan, some people took that opportunity to try the trading business and moved close to the road, which is surrounded by peatland. They also tried their hand at farming on peatland, with their limited knowledge, and gave it up after the first failure. It is evident that the Dayaks in Tumbang Nusa take advantage of any opportunity that comes their way, equipped with the resources they have. In general, they did not adopt most of the livelihood programs because it required too much of a change in their habits. If any new livelihood initiatives are to be more successful in future, they must also work with farmer mental models of how they can utilise and benefit from peatland, and not impose new or foreign ideas that are not going to work for them.


Lessons Learned

There has also been a substantial focus on land-based livelihoods (for example, different crops or livestock that farmers can cultivate), but it is becoming clear that the risks of land based livelihoods are very high, especially with climate change resulting in increasing frequency of drought, fire and flooding. Thus, the team suggests that land-based initiatives are likely to increase community vulnerability, and so future livelihood programs on peatland should focus on options that decrease vulnerability, such as relying on naturally occurring peat swamp forest species, and/or payments for ecosystem services that don’t require cultivation of the peat.

While this study has demonstrated that Tumbang Nusa has had an oversaturation of less-than-effective livelihood programs, this is also the experience at many villages in the region, and likely across Indonesia. Communities have tended to treat the continuous flow of projects as the source of their livelihood, rather than picking up on the actual initiatives being demonstrated /developed.  The reasons for lack of success  don’t  completely lie with any one party. It is clear that a program needs to have an integrated approach, where the donor, implementer and recipients have the same awareness of a need to transition to peat-friendly livelihoods and how it will happen. The community needs to see tangible proof that a certain livelihood program can succeed, and it needs to fit with their own mental model of livelihood generation on peat. The authors of the article assert that for this to happen, there needs to be a champion that successfully adopt a livelihood program, which will consequently be replicated by other community members. Once they see the economic and environmental benefits, they will more actively participate and become the drivers of change towards peatland restoration.

Journal article referenced:

Mendham, D., Sakuntaladewi, N., Ramawati, Yuwati, T. W., Budiningsih, K., Prasetyo, B. D. & Handoyo (2024). Facilitating new livelihoods to promote peatland restoration in Indonesia -what are the challenges for ensuring sustainable and equitable livelihood transitions?. Mires and Peat. 30 (2024). 14. 10.19189/MaP.2023.OMB.Sc.2105613.