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Indonesia’s peatland restoration claims in question as fires flare up

A peatland burns during Indonesia's 2015 fire and haze crisis. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

  • The Indonesian government says companies have restored 3.7 million hectares (9.1 million acres) of peatland — an area larger than Belgium — in an effort to prevent the annual peat fires.
  • But this claim has come into question following an increase in the number of hotspots in peatlands, including inside oil palm concessions that had burned in past years and went up in flames again this year.
  • An investigation by The Gecko Project found the government appeared to have inflated the figure of 3.7 million hectares, with the actual figure derived from the government’s own methodology closer to 2.7 million hectares (6.7 million acres).
  • Fires on carbon-rich peatlands are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions from Indonesia, which in turn is one of the world’s biggest emitters.

JAKARTA — Swaths of tropical peatland that were supposed to have been restored and protected from burning are among the fire-hit areas in Indonesia’s ongoing dry season, raising questions about the government’s claims of success in peat restoration.

The Ministry of Environment and Forestry said more than 300 companies had restored some 3.7 million hectares (9.1 million acres) of peatland in their concessions — an area larger than Belgium — to date. Some of these companies also replanted 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) of their concessions with native vegetation, said Muhammad Askary, the ministry’s director of peat ecosystem damage control.

Yet fire monitoring carried out by peat watchdog Pantau Gambut found 14,437 hotspots in peatlands in August alone. This marked a fourfold increase from the number of hotspots in peat areas the previous month.

Some of the hotspots were detected within concessions that had burned in the past, said Pantau Gambut researcher Abil Salsabila. Three of the top five concessions with the highest number of hotspots in August have a history of burning, data from Pantau Gambut show.

The largest number of hotspots, 675 in August, were detected in the oil palm concession of PT Mekar Karya Kahuripan (MKK) in West Kalimantan province. Some 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres) of the concession burned in 2015, 2018 and 2019.

Another concession with repeated burning is owned by PT Waringin Agro Jaya (WAJ), also a palm oil company, in South Sumatra province. In 2015, fires there burned 1,626 hectares (4,018 acres) of WAJ’s concession. In 2019, Indonesia’s highest court found WAJ liable for the 2015 fires, ordering the company to pay 466 billion rupiah ($30 million) in fines.

This year, the company’s concession is burning again, with 627 hotspots detected inside the plantation in the first week of September, according to data from forest monitoring platform Nusantara Atlas, run by technology consultancy TheTreeMap.

This makes WAJ the concession with the most detected fire alerts in early September.

This repeated burning means there’s still lack of commitment from companies to restore peatland in their concessions, particularly those that had previously burned, Abil said. And if restoration was done, she said, it wasn’t carried out properly.

Abil pointed to a 2021 study by Pantau Gambut that looked at 335 peat-containing concessions in seven provinces that had burned in the past, to see whether they’d been restored by the concession holders as required by the government.

It found that nearly all, 92%, lacked peat restoration infrastructure such as canal blocks. Plantation companies typically carve canals through the moist peat soil to drain it ahead of planting, rendering it tinder-dry and prone to burning.

Army officers and and firefighters try to extinguish fires in peatland areas, Borneo.
Army officers and and firefighters try to extinguish fires in peatland areas, Borneo. Image by Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

How much restored area?

Another investigation, by The Gecko Project, found the government appeared to have inflated the figure of 3.7 million hectares it claimed has been restored by plantation owners.

To determine whether restoration has been carried out, the government appears to have looked at levels of groundwater. When the water table rises to 40 centimeters (16 inches) below the surface, the area is deemed to have been restored. Using government data, The Gecko Project found the area of peatland that met the 40-cm threshold has hovered around 2.7 million hectares (6.7 million acres) since 2018, and not 3.7 million hectares as claimed by the environment ministry.

The area recorded as rewetted has also fluctuated wildly as water levels rise and fall. In the middle of the 2022 dry season, the area rewetted was down to around just 500,000 hectares (1.24 million acres).

The environment ministry’s Askary declined to respond to The Gecko Project’s findings, saying he needed to first check the methodology used in the investigation. He also said the figure of 3.7 million hectares of restored concessions had been verified by the environment ministry using satellite imagery.

“These areas [that have been restored] are indeed wetter,” he said. “We can’t lie anymore.”

Askary said the rewetting efforts alone had led to a reduction carbon dioxide emissions of more than 270 million metric tons — more than the annual emissions of Spain.

Smoke billows from a peatland planted with oil palms in Indonesia’s Riau province in 2015. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Preventing fires — to some degree

The peat restoration efforts by the private sector are a part of the government’s program to restore large swaths of degraded peatland across the country.

Tropical peatland stores massive volumes of carbon in the thick layer of partially decomposed vegetation that makes up this landscape. The idea behind the government program is that by restoring peatland through means like rewetting and revegetation, these ecosystems will be less likely to catch fire or to burn at a large scale.

The government actually only required concession holders to restore 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres) of peatlands from 2016 to 2019, but the environment ministry said companies had exceeded this target by restoring 3.7 million hectares.

According to the government, 70 forestry companies and 243 palm oil companies have successfully restored the peat areas of their concessions.

Muhammad Yusuf, from the government’s Peatland and Mangrove Restoration Agency (BRGM), said the restoration program had achieved its aim of fire prevention and mitigation to some degree.

“Ever since the peat restoration activities [started], when there are fires, they can still be managed,” he said.

Askary agreed, saying, “These efforts significantly reduced land and forest fires in the last eight years, in comparison to the 2015 catastrophic land and forest fires.”


Banner image: A peatland burns during Indonesia’s 2015 fire and haze crisis. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: To understand what is being done to restore Indonesian peatlands and protect them from fires, we interviewed the Deputy Head of the National Peatland Restoration Agency, Budi Wardhana, and Dyah Puspitaloka, a researcher on the value chain, finance and investment team at CIFOR, listen here:

See related coverage by this reporter:

El Niño leads to more fires and toxic air pollution in Indonesia

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