Unraveling the Dilemma of Tropical Peatland Restoration in Indonesia

Official government figures estimate that the total coverage of peatlands throughout Indonesia is approximately 13.43 million hectares, surpassing the land area of England.

Official government figures estimate that the total coverage of peatlands throughout Indonesia is approximately 13.43 million hectares, surpassing the land area of England. The distribution of peatlands is concentrated primarily on the islands of Sumatra, Kalimantan, and Papua. Over the past three decades, Indonesia has witnessed extensive degradation of its peatland ecosystem. This degradation has been attributed to uncontrolled deforestation, drainage projects, and prolonged agricultural expansion, collectively causing significant harm to over 83.4% of the country’s remaining peatland landscape.

The rate of degradation and deforestation in peat swamp forests in Indonesia has significantly increased since the opening of peat forest areas for the production of forest plantations and agricultural purposes. Between 2011 and 2019, an annual loss of approximately 175,000 hectares of peatland was documented, constituting an average annual deforestation rate of around 1.3%. This extensive deforestation has resulted in the release of substantial amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, primarily due to the significant carbon reserves present in the peatlands. On average, Indonesian peat swamp forests store 220 ± 28 t C/ha in phytomass, encompassing both living and dead vegetation. Additionally, these forests retain approximately 668 ± 20 t C/ha per meter of peat depth.

Widespread peat drainage renders the landscape increasingly susceptible to fire. Peatlands accumulate organic material over millennia in waterlogged conditions. However, drainage desiccates peat soil, establishing an environment prone to combustion. During the 2015 El Niño disaster, these inflammable conditions ignited uncontrolled fires across 2.6 million hectares of drained peatlands in Indonesia. Regional carbon dioxide emissions from fires peaked at 11.3 million tons per day in September and October 2015. On certain days, emissions surpassed those of the entire US economy. Its impact on public health is estimated to have caused more than 100,000 premature deaths in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. The World Bank estimates the fire-induced losses of USD 16.1 billion. In 2019, Indonesia once again confronted extensive peatland fires, resulting in estimated economic losses of USD 5.2 billion. The provinces most affected by this fire were Central and West Kalimantan, with the estimated burned land area reaching 620,201 hectares, of which 44% comprised peatland. However, with half a million recorded cases of acute respiratory infections, disruptions to economic activity, school closures, and habitat destruction having long-term impacts on ecosystem services, the true value of losses is substantially higher.

Cause of Destruction: Extractive Land Use Regime

The peatland crisis in Indonesia is underpinned by an intricate network of socio-economic forces that propel unsustainable land use regimes, focusing on resource extraction and agricultural development. This predicament is frequently attributed to deficient governance and conflicting policy incentives.

Human activities have directly harmed the peatland environment through uncontrolled deforestation, drainage projects, and agricultural expansion. Canal digging reduces the water table below the peat surface, leading to soil desiccation and a decrease in the rate of carbon accumulation. Loggers deplete valuable wood stocks, while plantation companies replace diverse pristine forest ecosystems with fast-growing monoculture crops such as oil palm and pulpwood. An assessment of industrial plantations reveals that 0.4 million hectares of peatland were converted into oil palm plantations across Indonesia between 2007 and 2015—constituting more than 3% of the country’s total peat area. Currently, only 7% of pristine peat swamp forests remain in Sumatra and Kalimantan, with Papua being the sole region possessing significant amounts of pristine peatlands.

Land use shifts are significantly influenced by market demand and socio-economic incentives that prioritize private interests, sometimes conflicting with long-term public priorities. The commodities driving peatland conversion, namely palm oil and pulpwood, present lucrative revenue opportunities both domestically and in global export markets, which have a high demand for affordable vegetable oil, paper, and tissue products. An examination of the economic benefits associated with different commodities cultivated on peatlands in Indonesia revealed that small-scale rubber and palm oil production yielded net profits of USD 5,500 per hectare per year—significantly surpassing the returns from horticultural crops such as chilies (USD 2,500 per hectare per year) or pineapples (USD 900 per hectare per year). This financial advantage creates strong incentives for farmers to persist in exploiting peatlands, despite existing regulations designed to curtail unsustainable practices.

Meanwhile, driving factors, including unclear land ownership, transmigration programs, and lax funding policies, enable developers to effortlessly secure permits for additional peatland conversion projects, often without due consideration for the environmental impact. Political contestations at the local level, particularly regent elections, are characterized by campaigns that pledge oil palm concessions and new logging ventures in electoral areas to attract investors. The introduction of climate change as a threat multiplier, coupled with elevated temperatures and intensifying El Niño droughts that worsen fire conditions, portends a confluence of interacting forces propelling Indonesia towards unbridled extraction of its remaining peatland habitat.

Peatland Restoration Initiative

Following the 2015 devastating fires, the Indonesian government acknowledged the imperative need for immediate action to rectify the catastrophic mismanagement of peatlands. In conjunction with imposing a moratorium on new peatland concessions, authorities instituted the Peat Restoration Agency (BRG). This agency was tasked with orchestrating restoration interventions encompassing activities such as rewetting, revegetation, and economic revitalization. These initiatives were implemented across 2.4 million hectares of priority landscapes situated in Sumatra, Kalimantan, and Papua.

However, the current evidence underscores a substantial disparity between aspirations and outcomes. Independent monitoring indicates that numerous government-led peatland restoration initiatives are encountering persistent challenges in rehydrating permanently drained peatlands, wherein canals are frequently reactivated or alternative channels excavated. Concurrently, the incineration practices by companies remain unabated, eliciting grievances about the failure to compensate for harvest losses and fostering resentment. The findings from Greenpeace’s research conducted between 2019 and 2020 illuminate a disconcerting reality. It was disclosed that nearly one-third of the Peat Hydrological Units (KHG) within seven prioritized provinces for peatland restoration still maintained a critical status. Within these KHGs, there were also substantial burned areas spanning from 2016 to 2019, encompassing a total of 350,000 hectares. This expanse is perilously poised to reach a highly critical status unless earnest endeavors are undertaken promptly to restore and safeguard it.

Addressing such a complex socio-ecological crisis requires more than technical measures alone. The economic incentives and power dynamics that underlie land use competition emerge as crucial but often overlooked factors in numerous restoration initiatives. A case study conducted in Central Kalimantan Province in 2020 delved into community perceptions of the peat restoration program, specifically canal blocking and backfilling. This investigation exposed a notable deficiency in public awareness regarding the status of canal blocking and rewetting. This lack of awareness stems from a perceived lack of ownership and the absence of benefits derived from the canal block, indicating a critical gap in the program’s communication strategy. Concurrently, an examination in Jambi Province in 2018 revealed a prevalent reluctance among respondents to embrace canal blocking. This resistance was driven by apprehensions regarding potential disruptions to access to agricultural land and a subsequent decrease in crop yields. Remarkably, this resistance persists even when respondents are presented with the option of canal blocking that does not compromise access and harvesting. These findings underscore the robustness of the concerns raised by the local communities. Both case studies highlight a consistent pattern: despite overarching policies aimed at preserving degraded peat, the economic imperatives of local communities compel small farmers to prioritize their livelihood activities. It becomes apparent that the absence of genuine support from the community, rooted in tangible local incentives, renders technical measures only a temporary solution. Thus, to effectively address the multifaceted challenges posed by the socio-ecological crisis, a comprehensive approach that integrates economic considerations and aligns with local livelihood needs must be adopted.

Local Community Empowerment

To address these tensions, a comprehensive transformation of Indonesia’s peatland landscape is imperative, considering its current dominance by an extractive and drainage-dependent development system. Achieving sustainable conservation necessitates more than stringent restrictions or technical interventions alone. Lasting change is contingent upon the realignment of economic incentives and power dynamics to empower rural communities as the principal managers and beneficiaries of peatland restoration. This approach seeks to shift the focus from viewing these communities as passive recipients of externally imposed bans to actively engaging them in the restoration process.

Encouraging initiatives underscore the efficacy of participatory approaches grounded in a nuanced comprehension of local contexts. A noteworthy illustration of such initiatives is discernible in private restoration endeavors, exemplified by the Katingan Mentaya Project (KMP) situated in the Katingan Regency and East Kotawaringin Regency within Central Kalimantan Province, encompassing an expansive area of 149 thousand hectares. This undertaking unites the private ecosystem restoration entity, PT Rimba Makmur Utama (RMU), with local communities in a sustainable alliance that seamlessly integrates conservation, development, and community empowerment. PT. RMU collaborates with 34 villages directly abutting the ecosystem restoration region. The collaborative program not only fosters augmented community capacity but also promotes self-sufficiency, empowering communities to actively engage in decision-making processes spanning initiation, program planning, and implementation. This inclusive approach extends to encompass diverse facets such as fire prevention, canal blocking, vegetation restoration, institutional strengthening, and the promotion of gender equality.

APRIL Group, the largest paper producer in Indonesia, operates an industrial center in Pelalawan Regency, Riau Province. The company is currently engaged in a comprehensive ecosystem restoration program known as Restorasi Ekosistem Riau (RER). This initiative focuses on restoring an ecologically significant peat forest spanning 150 thousand hectares in the Kampar Peninsula and Padang Island, both situated in Riau Province. The RER project encompasses a population of over 40,000 individuals residing in and around the designated areas—17,000 on the Kampar Peninsula and 24,000 on Padang Island. The project team has dedicated considerable time and resources to collaborating with local communities. Their primary objective is to safeguard traditional activities such as fishing and honey gathering, provide support to small businesses, and disseminate information to the public regarding the critical importance of preserving the environment and biodiversity.

Certainly, effecting change poses significant challenges. Indonesia faces the formidable task of reconciling the intricate trade-offs between developmental pursuits and environmental preservation, underpinned by intricate power dynamics. Investigations reveal that, when local preferences diverge from official land-use policy objectives, farmers frequently navigate these constraints successfully through social or political negotiations. The sustained advancement hinges upon rectifying these disparities. In tandem with addressing the obstruction of drainage channels, restorative interventions should impede policies and incentives perpetuating the conversion of peatlands. Rather than relying solely on narrowly focused technocratic planning, leaders in Indonesia must broaden the scope to include participatory decision-making. Elevating the voices of marginalized communities is imperative to collaboratively devise sustainable solutions.

Unveiling these intricate dilemmas poses a formidable challenge. However, enhancing community rights and benefits related to conservation presents substantial untapped potential for aligning both public and private interests, thereby unlocking a shared and sustainable future for Indonesia’s vital peatlands. The journey ahead is extensive, yet it holds the promise of a radical reversal of fortunes for endangered ecosystems teetering on the verge of collapse.

Mohammad Yunus
Mohammad Yunus
Mohammad Yunus is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Biological Sciences at Khon Kaen University, Thailand. He received the ITTO Fellowship in 2023. His research focuses on ecology, environmental economics, peatlands, and sustainability.