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139 scientists shoot down ‘misleading’ reports from Malaysia peat congress

Drainage canals bisect a peatland planted with acacia trees in Indonesia's Riau province. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

  • The researchers issued an open letter in response to certain newspaper articles about the 15th International Peat Congress, held recently in Malaysia, a top palm oil producer.
  • One article erroneously portrays an IPC executive as endorsing new studies finding drainage-based peatland agriculture to be not necessarily unsustainable, when the executive made no such comments.
  • More broadly, the articles in question portray as fringely held the view that drainage-based peatland development is unsustainable, when in fact it is backed by an extensive body of research and held by a large number of scientists, not just by “militant environmentalists” and “green NGOs” as implied by the articles.
  • The articles were published in The Jakarta Post and The Borneo Post.

Concerned by “misleading newspaper headlines and statements” published during the 15th International Peat Congress (IPC) recently held in Malaysia, 139 scientists have signed an open letter clarifying their position on the development of tropical peatlands: all current methods of drainage-based agriculture on peat soil result in high rates of carbon loss and subsidence, and are thus environmentally unsustainable.

The scientists object to several articles which portray a consensus among congress attendees that the widespread drainage of Indonesia and Malaysia’s vast peat swamp zones is not necessarily detrimental to the environment. The scientists respond that propagating “the scientifically unfounded belief that drained peatland agriculture can be made ‘sustainable’, and peat loss can be halted, via unproven methods such as peat compaction” — physically compressing the soil — “debilitates the effort to find sustainable possibilities” for peatland development.

The articles in question were published by The Jakarta Post (Indonesia) and The Borneo Post (Malaysia). Their reports suggest the International Peatland Society, which organized the congress, agrees that Malaysia’s oil palm plantations on drained peat are sustainable, and quote Malaysian government officials who dismiss contrary evidence as propaganda by environmental NGOs.

The view that large-scale peatland drainage can be environmentally sound “is not shared by many scientists,” the open letter states, “or supported by the weight of evidence that business-as-usual management is not sustainable for tropical peatland agriculture.”

The authors urge governments and policymakers to adopt the “more accurate view of drained peatland agriculture [as] that of an extractive industry.” Although there may be strong socioeconomic arguments for exploiting peat, the scientists write, the organic substance must be considered a finite resource, whose loss is inevitable under current agricultural practices in Indonesia and Malaysia, the two top palm oil producers.

Art by Prabha Mallya
A peatland burns in Indonesia’s Riau province during the 2015 haze crisis. The smoke polluted the air above Malaysia, Singapore and other countries. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

As land has grown scarcer in Malaysia and Indonesia, the palm oil and paper industries have increasingly turned to peat swamps, draining the carbon-rich, waterlogged soil so that oil palm and pulpwood trees may grow there. But the dried peat is highly flammable, and the drainage is a prime underlying cause of Indonesia’s annual wildfires which last year sickened half a millon people and precipitated a disastrous spike in greenhouse gas emissions.

Beyond the issue of fires, 19 years of peer-reviewed research has shown that dried peat oxidizes, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and subsides, which can cause uncontrollable flooding. Some of the media reports from the congress in Malaysia, however, ignored these findings, instead highlighting unproven methods of peatland management to support claims that plantations on drained peat can be sustainable.

The Jakarta Post writes that the Tropical Peat Research Laboratory (TPRL), a thinktank backed by the Malaysian government, lobbied to hold the congress in Kuching, Malaysia, “as a showcase for the results of TPRL’s research, particularly for its finding on mechanical soil compaction.” These findings, the Post writes, have long been “unheard as they were inundated by the mainstream opinion of the environmentalists.”

The article further states that “militant environmentalists have long believed that any peatland exploitation would cause serious problems,” and criticizes the Indonesian government whom it says does not support the nation’s oil palm industry, but “prefers to follow the mainstream views of the environmentalists” by freezing all peatland development. That policy was put in place after last year’s devastating fires.

The TPRL has claimed that mechanical compaction reduces carbon loss, allowing for sustainable development of peat. Its research into the method has not been published in any major journal, and some researchers have expressed concerns about the methodologies and analyses presented by the thinktank in public forums. But even if its findings are correct, the TPRL has said compaction only reduces carbon emissions by 50 percent. Therefore, according to the scientists’ letter, continuing to promote compaction as “sustainable” is misleading, and distracts from the urgent need to find true solutions to peat loss.

Instead, the 139 scientists encourage industry and governments to focus efforts on alternative forms of peatland utilization. They cite recent successes with raising water-tolerant crops, such as sago, on saturated peat as one possible avenue to combat carbon loss.

A large male orangutan is rescued and relocated after his home forest was destroyed for oil palm expansion in Indonesia’s Tripa peat swamp. Photo by Paul Hilton

Elsewhere, The Jakarta Post writes that the International Peat Society, which organized the congress, said new research presented at the meeting “may change the perception of environmentalists about the negative impact of cultivation on peatland areas.”

The statement is attributed to an executive board member of the IPS whom the Post paraphrases as saying, “much of the new research showed that the agricultural development of peatland areas, such as by oil palm plantations, did not necessarily have a negative impact on the environment.”

The IPS strongly objected to the article, and in a letter to the editor to The Jakarta Post, wrote that the statement was wrongly attributed to the IPS executive.

The Jakarta Post did not publish the letter, nor correct the original article, nor did the paper respond to Mongabay’s request for comment.

A dried-up peat lake in Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

An article in The Borneo Post opens with the line, “the government handles oil palm plantations on peat soil responsibly through all means,” and later states, “in spite of numerous scientific documents and statistics on socioeconomic benefits of the palm oil industry, there were still those who choose to continue to denigrate it.”

The article quotes a deputy chief minister of Malaysia’s Sarawak state as saying, “I am confident that after this congress, you will understand that all those anti-oil palm voices are mere propaganda, baseless and largely a reflection of their ignorance of the actual situations in Malaysia, especially Sarawak.”

Lahiru Wijedasa, a lead author of the scientists’ letter, told Mongabay that such comments are “clearly ignoring published scientific fact.” He and his co-authors are concerned that, “by presenting a view that everyone agrees there is no problem it takes away the need to search for a solution.”

The Borneo Post articles are no longer available online, and the paper has not responded to Mongabay’s request for comment.

Drainage canal dug through peat swamp in Riau Province. Photo by Rhett A Butler

The IPS was formed in 1968 to encourage open dialogue between scientists, industry and policymakers. This was the first time the quadrennial International Peat Congress was held in the tropics, and focused on issues unique to the area.

“The International Peatland Society is shocked by what happened in Kuching,” IPS executive board member Jack Rieley told Mongabay. “The IPS does not take sides and tries to provide platforms for reasoned debate of current and emerging peatland and peat issues.”

“In essence these reports made out that the development of tropical peatland for agriculture and plantations was not detrimental to the environment and could even be regarded as beneficial,” Rieley said. “They went further to state that this was the opinion of the Congress and therefore its participants. This is completely untrue and no statements were issued by either the congress organizers or the International Peatland Society to support such a contention.”

And while the IPS does not take positions, the 139 scientists from 115 international institutions who signed the open letter want to make sure that there is no confusion about what the research and data has repeatedly shown.

In short, these scientists write, “failing to recognize the devastating consequences of the current land-use practices on peat soils and failing to work together to address them could mean that the next generation will have to deal with an irreversibly altered, dysfunctional landscape where neither environment nor society, globally or locally, will be winners.”