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‘Dangerous’ new regulation puts Indonesia’s carbon-rich peatlands at risk

Road running through drained and burned peatlands. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Road running through drained and burned peatlands. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

  • The Indonesian government has effectively rescinded protection for much of its carbon-rich peatlands by issuing a new regulation that limits protection to the area of a peatland ecosystem where the peat is the thickest.
  • Concession holders will now be allowed to exploit areas outside these “peat domes,” as long as they maintain the water table, in a mechanism seemingly borrowed straight out of the pulpwood industry playbook.
  • Under previous regulations, areas with a layer of peat 3 meters (10 feet) or deeper were off-limits for exploitation, and any companies with such areas in their concessions were obliged to restore and protect them. These areas are now open to exploitation, as long as they’re not considered part of the peat dome.
  • Activists warn the new regulation will encourage greater exploitation of Indonesia’s fast-diminishing peatlands, increasing the risks of fire, carbon emissions, and failure to meet the government’s own emissions reduction and peat restoration goals.

JAKARTA — A new Indonesian government regulation that restricts the types of carbon-rich peat landscapes that must be protected has raised concerns among environmentalists about a backslide in forest protection policies.

Existing regulations, issued in the wake of devastating fires in 2015, require that plantation companies and other concession holders whose land includes areas with peat layers 3 meters (10 feet) or deeper must restore and conserve those areas.

Subsequent policies and restrictions have tended to support this prohibition on clearing deep peat. However, a new regulation issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry redefines the area that must be protected, essentially opening up large areas of peatlands to exploitation.

Under the regulation, concession holders are now only required to only protect peat domes, landscapes where the peat layer is so thick that the center is topographically higher than the edges. Areas beyond these domes will once again be open for exploitation, even if they meet the 3-meter peat layer requirement that would have qualified them for protection under the previous regulations.

Drained, cleared, and burned peat forest in Indonesian Borneo. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

‘It’s going to be dangerous’

“If the new regulation is used by concession owners to keep operating, then it’s going to be dangerous,” Irwansyah Reza Lubis, the program coordinator for community, biodiversity and climate change at Wetlands International Indonesia, told Mongabay. “Local governments can also use this as a weapon to legitimize [continued peat clearing].”

To ensure peatlands are protected and the carbon dioxide they hold isn’t released into the atmosphere, entire peat landscapes must be conserved and not drained, Reza said, especially if they’re bounded by rivers.

“The general understanding in the scientific world is that peat [protection] has to have a scope of an entire landscape,” he added.

Peat landscapes, or peat hydrological areas, are abundant in Indonesia. They constitute permanently waterlogged forests, where leaf litter and other dead vegetation can’t fully decompose, instead forming a layer of soil organic matter that serves a major CO2 sink. They also play a crucial role in maintaining the water table across the entire landscape, and draining them, as concession holders typically do in preparation for planting, can result in widespread subsidence and massive carbon emissions, as well as leave behind a tinder-dry and highly flammable peat layer.

Protecting only the domes of these landscapes isn’t enough to prevent the entire peat hydrological areas from being drained, Reza said. He called this new policy a recipe for disaster.

Peatland in Indonesia drained to prepare the land for agriculture. Peatlands accumulate their rich carbon stores over thousands of years, but begin to decompose once they lose their moisture. Carbon release is further accelerated due to fire, when “carbon goes out much faster than it went in. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Unproven approach

It’s also a recipe that appears to have been cooked up in part by the very plantation and pulpwood companies that hold concessions in peat areas.

The government’s rationale for protecting only the tops of the peat domes is that they will act as natural “water towers” to help keep water levels in lower-lying plantations from falling too low during the dry season. An identical approach known as “eko-hidro” is already in use by companies such as Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL), Indonesia’s second-largest pulp and paper firm.

The idea behind eko-hidro is that companies can still drain peatlands as long as they protect the top of the peat dome in their concession and manage the water level using a controlled drainage system to minimize peat loss and reduce carbon emissions and land subsidence.

“It looks like [the new regulation] is drawn from the eko-hidro approach, which says that as long as there’s [sustainable] water management, then [draining peatlands] can still be tolerated,” Reza said.

The expert view, however, is that an approach like eko-hidro can’t prevent the long-term impacts of peatland drainage. Wetlands International has likened the policy to “allowing smoking in the left side of a plane and forbidding it on the right side.”

A 2016 report by Wetlands International and Tropenbos International assessing the effectiveness of the approach finds that draining peatlands will always lead to land subsidence, even if the water table is managed at a level deemed “sustainable.” At best, it only slows down the process of subsidence and partially reduces emissions from peat oxidation and the risk of fires, according to the report.

“Subsidence is an inevitability of peatland drainage regardless of whether the water table is managed at 40cm” — about 16 inches, the Indonesian government’s definition of a sustainable level — “or 50-80cm,” the report says. “The only truly sustainable peatland water management and production system is one that is based on undrained or rewetted peat where water levels will be close to the surface and subsidence will be close to zero.”

The report says the eko-hidro approach is flawed from the outset because it’s based on the assumption that protecting the top of the peat dome will be enough to ensure the whole peatland hydrological area remains wet and less prone to fires.

In reality, the groundwater flow from the top of peat dome yields less than 5 percent of the water volume required to significantly mitigate the fall in dry season water levels in surrounding plantations.

A much larger area than the government-mandated 30 percent of the peat hydrological area centered around the dome “must be protected in order to meet the goal of this approach,” the report says.

Carbon-rich and biodiversity-rich peat forest in Sumatra, cleared for a pulp and paper plantation. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

‘Sponsored’ compromise

The new regulation marks a regression from even the eko-hidro approach, by allowing companies to continue to exploit the peat dome in their concessions if there’s more than one “top” or peak.

This will be offset through the conservation of any other peaks or tops within the same peat hydrological area to ensure the entire domes remains moist, according to an environment ministry official.

For Reza, though, this looks “really bad because it looks like it’s requested or sponsored.” It comes off, he said, like “a compromise with plantation and pulpwood industries so that they still have extra room to keep exploiting concessions within protected areas.”

He questioned the science behind the ministry’s rationale that the hydrological function of a peat dome top could be replaced with that of another. “What’s the technical consideration? We don’t have access to the academic paper” stating as much, Reza said.

Azwar Maas, a soil scientist and swampland specialist at Gadjah Mada University, said there was no science to back the government’s reasoning.

“A top or a peat dome is independent and thus can’t be replaced by another. The water table has to be based on each peat dome or its top if a peat dome has more than one top,” he said.

The government, though, is sticking to its guns. Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said the new peat regulation didn’t weaken peat protection in the country.

“There’s no such thing as weaker [peat protection],” she told Mongabay, adding that this was likely a misperception. “The core [of peat protection] still exists. There won’t be loosening peat protection and the monitoring will continue.”

Bambang Hendroyono, the ministry’s secretary-general, said that even if peat areas with protected status were opened for exploitation, the entire peat landscape could still be protected and restored as long as the water table was properly managed.

Among measures the government will require companies to take to ensure this are the construction of spillways to control the release of groundwater flows from peat domes, and the monitoring and reporting of groundwater and rainfall levels.

“The spillways will be closed [during rainy season] to store rainwater,” Bambang told reporters in Jakarta. “That’s an instrument to restore [degraded peatlands]. So during dry season, [rainwater] will be distributed [to wet the entire landscape].”

Yet that mechanism goes against existing government policy on draining peatlands, said Anggalia Putri, a researcher at the environmental NGO Yayasan Madani Berkelanjutan. She pointed to a 2016 presidential regulation that states that if there are drainage canals in protected peat areas, then the peat there is considered to be damaged. That makes it impossible for companies to drain protected peat areas to make way for plantations without rendering them degraded, by the government’s own definition, Anggalia said.

Twenty-four companies have reportedly revised their concession maps as part of the process to start exploiting areas of protected deep peat on their land. But the administrative process has been far from transparent, with NGOs and even the presidentially appointed Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) unable to access the documents despite multiple requests.

That leaves activists without a way to independently verify whether the companies are meeting their obligations. For its part, the government is preparing guidelines for the BRG and NGOs to monitor the companies’ activities.

A scorched peat forest in Riau province, Indonesia. Image by Suryadi/Mongabay Indonesia.

Fuzzy framework

The government has framed the new peat regulation as an improvement over previous regulations. It says that carbon-rich peatlands, including those on peat domes, were actually left unprotected following a 2017 court ruling that overturned a ban on forestry companies from cultivating protected peat areas.

Following that ruling, according to Karliansyah, the environment ministry’s director-general for environmental degradation mitigation and control, the remaining regulations technically allowed the exploitation of peat areas, depending on the kind of industry — whether timber (pulpwood) or oil palm.

But Reza of Wetlands International disputed this interpretation of the prevailing legal framework, saying the new regulation constituted a blatant violation of the existing peat regulations. He said those regulations defined protected peat areas under several categories — such as deep peat, those that contain high biodiversity, and peat domes — but make no distinctions with regard to the kinds of concessions granted.

“The previous presidential regulations and ministerial regulations say there are certain criteria for protected peat areas,” he said. “There’s no mention of timber and palm oil plantations.”

Fire set for peatland clearing in Riau Province, Indonesia in July 2015. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Increased risk of fire

Activists say any weakening of peat protection efforts could encourage concession holders to drain even more peatland, raising the risk of intensifying peat fires across Indonesia. During the disastrous 2015 season, fires raged across 26,100 square kilometers (10,100 square miles) of land, much of it peat forest that had been drained for agriculture and rendered highly combustible.

The resultant haze sickened hundreds of thousands of people, shut down airports, and spread to neighboring countries, inflaming long-running diplomatic spats.

At the height of the disaster, the daily emissions of carbon dioxide as a result of the burning exceeded those from all U.S. economic activity. According to a study by Indonesia’s planning ministry, peat fires accounted for 23 percent of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2010, releasing up to 1.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent, or double the emissions from the energy sector that same year.

Giving concession holders the leeway to exploit peatlands, as the new regulation does, makes it increasingly likely that Indonesia will see further degradation of peatlands and severe fire episodes ahead, according to Muhammad Teguh Surya, the executive director of Yayasan Madani Berkelanjutan. This will make it even more difficult for Indonesia to meet its emissions reduction target, he said.

Environmentalists are also concerned the new regulation will hamper the Peatland Restoration Agency’s goal of restoring 24,000 square kilometers (9,300 square miles) of peat forest, an area the size of 4.5 million football fields, across the country by the end of 2020.

The idea is that restoring degraded peatland — by blocking drainage canals and rewetting the dried-out peat soil — will make these areas less prone to burning. And even if they do catch fire, it should be easier to contain the fires and extinguish them.

Under the peat-restoration initiative, companies whose concessions include peatlands are responsible for restoring those areas, which amount to 14,000 square kilometers (5,400 square miles) of the total 24,000 square kilometers. That means the success of the initiative depends heavily on whether companies hold up their end of the bargain — a vanishingly unlikely prospect, activists say, in the wake of the new regulation.

Another challenge posed by the new regulation will be how to ensure that a peat hydrological area is fully protected and restored, given that it might straddle multiple concessions and/or community areas.

This will call for restoration work outside concessions carried out by the BRG and NGOs to be complemented by and linked to the work done by concession holders, according to Reza. But this will be difficult to achieve under the government’s current approach, he said, which requires companies to map only their own concessions and limits the BRG’s work to areas outside those concessions.

“If each company makes its own map, then it won’t be connected,” Reza said. “Can you imagine if company A and B each make their own maps and they’re not connected? It’s very possible, especially if there’s an error in the survey.”

 

Banner image: Road running through drained and burned peatlands. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

 

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