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Indonesia renews peat restoration bid to include mangroves, but hurdles abound

Fires in peat land in Cengal of South Sumatra's Ogan Komering Ilir district. Image by Nopri Isim/Mongabay-Indonesia.

  • Indonesia’s peatland restoration agency has had its mandate renewed for four more years, with the added task of restoring mangroves.
  • Known as the BRGM, the agency now has the job of restoring an estimated 2 million hectares (5 million acres) of degraded peatland and mangrove ecosystems across 13 provinces.
  • Experts have lauded the mandate extension and expanded scope of work, but point out a number of challenges ahead, such as government policies and legislation that undermine environmental protection in favor of economic growth.

JAKARTA — An Indonesian government initiative that fell short of its goal to rehabilitate degraded peat forests will get another chance to do so — plus the added task of rehabilitating mangrove habitats.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo extended the mandate of the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) through to 2024, after it expired at the end of 2020. He had established the agency in 2016 in the wake of widespread peatland fires the previous year, and tasked it with restoring more than 2.6 million hectares (6.4 million acres) of degraded peatlands — an area nearly three times the size of Puerto Rico — to prevent future fires.

The 2.6 million hectares target consists of 900,000 hectares (2.2 million acres) of peat outside concessions and 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres) inside concessions.

By the end of 2020, however, the BRG had managed to restore 835,288 hectares (2.06 million acres) of peatland outside concession areas, or 94% of its target.

With the four-year extension, the agency now has a chance to hit that target. But it will also have to rehabilitate 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of degraded mangrove; it’s now called the Peatland and Mangrove Restoration Agency, or BRGM.

Its working area has also been expanded in light of its new mission. While the BRG previously focused on seven provinces with extensive swaths of peat forest, the BRGM must now work in 13 provinces. The six additional ones are the mangrove-rich provinces of North Sumatra, Riau Islands, Bangka-Belitung, East Kalimantan, North Kalimantan and West Papua.

The agency’s new chairman is Hartono Prawiraatmadja, the former BRG secretary, who takes over from former head Nazir Foead. Hartono said restoring mangroves is the logical next step for the agency, as both mangrove and peat ecosystems are deeply connected.

“In some small islands with peat in Riau province, for instance, the existence of mangroves is important to protect the islands from abrasion,” he said in a press release. “The degradation of mangroves also poses a threat to the existing peat ecosystem because both ecosystems are connected.”

Hartono said he plans to establish closer working relationships with other government institutions, including the Ministry of Environment and Forestry and the Ministry of Public Works and Housing.

Nyoman Suryadiputra, executive director of Wetlands International Indonesia, said giving a new mandate to the agency is a step in the right direction.

“I wholeheartedly agree with combining mangrove and peatland [restoration]. Their management shouldn’t be separated because these two ecosystems are sometimes unified,” he told Mongabay. “It means that we’re integrating two ecosystems that are not that different. They support each other.”

Fire burning through forest and oil palm on peatlands in Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Bigger target to hit climate goals

Alue Dohong, the deputy environment minister and former deputy chair of the BRG, said the task for the newly expanded agency would be a difficult one.

“The challenge will come from the target. There’s still a leftover target of restoring peat from the previous period, which is around 1.2 million hectares [3 million acres], in addition to the new task where the president said we have to restore at least 600,000 hectares of mangrove,” he said. “It means there’s a [combined] target to restore peat and mangrove of maybe around 2 million hectares.”

The BRG has carried out its peat restoration efforts in parallel with a similar rehabilitation program by plantation and pulpwood companies whose concessions overlap onto peat landscapes. That private-sector effort, monitored by the environment ministry, has managed to restore 3.64 million hectares (9 million acres) as of the end of 2020.

BRGM deputy chair Myrna A. Safitri said there was no decision yet on whether to continue pursuing the earlier peat restoration target of 2.6 million hectares or to revise that figure. But there needs to be clarity on that point because of a requirement under the government’s 2020-2024 national development plan, according to Teguh Surya, director of Madani, an environmental NGO.

The plan, known as the RPJMN, calls for urgently restoring up to 2 million hectares of peatland across Indonesia, Teguh told Mongabay.

“The RPJMN document stated that the achievement of peat restoration is small, that’s why there’s an urgency to increase the target by 2 million hectares,” he said. “That’s because [restoring] peatland is vital for climate security and ground-level economy.”

Indonesia’s peatlands store an estimated 57 gigatons of carbon dioxide, while its mangroves hold 3.14 million tons, according to data from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). That makes it critically important to protect both types of ecosystems in the effort to slow emissions-driven global climate change.

Nazir Foead (left), the former chief of the Indonesian Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG), sprays water to peat soils. Image courtesy of BRG.

Legislative obstacles

Having failed to achieve its original goal, and now tasked with an even bigger target, the BRGM faces a tough challenge, Teguh said. Compounding this is a recently passed slate of deregulation, known as the omnibus law on job creation, which strips away layers of environmental protection measures established to date.

“The agency will face tremendous challenges in the next four years because of the omnibus law and its follow-up regulations, which will dismantle all [environmental protection] commitments,” Teguh said. “This includes not only commitment to restore peatland, but also commitment to protect forests.”

He added the law clearly facilitates timber extraction and forest exploitation in the name of national economic recovery, citing a provision that scraps the requirement for all regions to maintain a minimum 30% of their watershed and/or island area as forest area. Environmentalists have criticized this stipulation, arguing that it will encourage even greater deforestation.

Another provision that could hinder the BRGM’s work is one that requires plantation companies to develop 30% of their land concessions within two years, instead of the previous three years, Teguh added. Compelling companies to rush to clear land and start cultivating makes it more likely that peat areas will be exploited, he said.

“This stipulation ignores the fact that some of these areas are not clean and clear, and some have peatlands as well,” he said.

The omnibus law also introduces a policy under which businesses operating illegally in forest areas can continue their activities as long as they get the necessary permits within three years of the law coming into force.

Besides the omnibus law, another government policy that poses a threat to peat restoration is the “food estate” program, which calls for establishing millions of hectares of new farmland, mostly for rice and other staple crops, according to Teguh.

The environment ministry recently issued a new regulation allowing protected forest areas to be cleared for the program.

“When there’s a sweeping deregulation law [like the omnibus law], the position of peatland must be marginalized,” Teguh said. “If protected forests can be converted to food estates, then so can peatland restoration.”

Suryadiputra of Wetlands International said the challenge is for the government to synchronize conflicting regulations, especially now that the efforts to restore peatland and mangrove are being combined. He cited a 2020 decree issued by the country’s planning ministry, known by its Indonesian acronym Bappenas, which mandates the establishment of a coordination team to manage wetlands, including peatland and mangrove, in an effort to cut emissions.

“Both peatland and mangrove are fragile coastal ecosystems, so there needs to be a synchronization of policies, both old and new,” Suryadiputra said.


Banner image: Fires in peatland in Cengal of South Sumatra’s Ogan Komering Ilir district. Image by Nopri Isim/Mongabay-Indonesia.


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