Mongabay Series: Indonesian Palm Oil, Jokowi Commitments

Indonesia appoints conservationist to save country’s declining peatlands

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Indonesia appoints conservationist to save country’s declining peatlands
  • Indonesian President Joko Widodo has appointed conservationist Nazir Foead to head up a newly-created peatland restoration agency.
  • The establishment of the agency, announced Wednesday, is seen as a critical test of Indonesia's commitment to addressing the underlying causes of the country's peat and forest fires.
  • Foead is a well-connected conservation biologist who was the Conservation Director of WWF Indonesia before heading up the Indonesia office for the Climate and Land Use Alliance, a coalition of philanthropic foundations.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has appointed conservationist Nazir Foead to head up a newly-created peatland restoration agency, which aims to resurrect peatlands devastated by recent fires.

The establishment of the agency, announced Wednesday, is seen as a critical test of Indonesia’s commitment to addressing the underlying causes of the country’s peat and forest fires, which trigger widespread air pollution and regional health problems, especially in times of drought. During this year’s dry season — exacerbated by a strong el Niño — up to 2 million hectares of land burned in Sumatra, Indonesian Borneo, and Indonesian New Guinea. Much of that area was degraded peatlands that had been damaged due to draining for plantation industries.

In the aftermath of the haze crisis, which provoked international outrage and was a source of embarrassment and economic turmoil in Indonesia, President Jokowi announced a suite of sweeping reforms intended not only to protect peatlands and punish perpetrators, but to restore areas that had been burned. The hope is that restoring peatlands will reduce the vulnerability of vast areas to fire while also buffering against other problems like flooding and subsidence.

Peat forest during the dry season. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Peat forest during the dry season. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Peat forest under wet conditions. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Peat forest under wet conditions. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

The commitment goes well beyond anything Indonesia has ever achieved in terms of restoring natural vegetation. The country’s reforestation programs have largely failed to achieve objectives, while historically serving as a huge pot for stealing public money, especially under former strongman Suharto, who ruled Indonesia from 1967 until 1998. Suharto’s son, Tommy, famously used the national reforestation fund as a source of capital to start a car company.

Thus there has been considerable skepticism in conservation circles that Jokowi’s plan may come to fruition. By appointing Foead, a well-connected conservation biologist who was the Conservation Director of WWF Indonesia before heading up the Indonesia office for the Climate and Land Use Alliance, a coalition of philanthropic foundations, Jokowi may have assuaged some of those fears.

“I view Nazir Foead as possessing the competency and experience to carry out the restoration of forests and peatlands and, most of all, the capability to coordinate with ministries, agencies and international agency networks,” Jokowi was quoted as saying by Kompas, the state media service.

Wood fiber concession on recently cleared peatland in Riau Province, Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Wood fiber concession on recently cleared peatland in Riau Province, Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Illustration showing degradation of tropical peatlands
Illustration showing degradation of tropical peatlands. By Prabha Mallya

Nevertheless the restoration commitment is a tall order. Traditionally the plantation sector has sought to expand into peatland areas, which are less contested and therefore less costly to acquire than dryland areas. Vast areas of oil palm, rubber, and wood fiber plantations now occupy drained peatlands that could be potentially affected by new regulations. Some companies may ultimately have to abandon or adapt plantation in the face of these regulations, in addition to threats from rising sea levels, which could swamp low-lying peat areas already sinking due to drainage.

But the sector is at a crossroads. In response to public pressure arising partly from haze and threats to charismatic wildlife like tigers and orangutans, companies with international exposure are increasingly committing to eliminating peatlands destruction from their supply chains. Some of those commitments go beyond eliminating deforestation to include restoration. For example, Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), a forestry giant with extensive holdings across Sumatra and Kalimantan, has commissioned airborne research to create a map of 4.5 million hectares of peatlands in areas where it operates. APP has already announced it would take 7,000 hectares of active plantations out of production for ecosystem restoration purposes. It is also teaming up with local communities to explore other livelihood options on peatlands.

Given those developments, the new agency may have some potential unlikely allies in the battle to protect peatlands. Still no company is likely to agree to regulation that undermines large swathes of its concessions, meaning that Foead won’t have an easy go of it and will have to court a wide variety of ministries and organizations to make peat restoration a reality.

Drainage canal dug through a peat forest in Riau, Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Drainage canal dug through a peat forest in Riau, Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Disclosure: Mongabay receives funding from the Climate and Land Use Alliance.

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