IN previous years, the International Peat Congress has been held in North American or European countries, but this year for the 15th conference it came to Kuching from Aug 15-19.
From past temperate to a first Asian and tropical venue was no mean coup for both the Malaysian Peatland Society and the International Peatland Society. Entitled ‘Peatlands in Harmony with Agriculture, Industry and Nature’, full credit should go to Dr Lulie Melling and her team from the Tropical Peat Research Laboratory, based in Kuching, for assembling such a wide range of speakers and hosting this distinguished meeting.
Most of us associate peat with boggy, swamp-like conditions found in lowland areas often near coastlines. Peat is simply composed of decaying vegetation and often nutrient filled by the flow of water from higher land. Valuable trace elements thus accumulate in the peat swamp.
Vast areas of our planet are covered in peat in both temperate and tropical climes. As climate change takes its course, so further areas of tundra peat are being revealed, as the permafrost there melts and now emits large quantities of once trapped methane gas.
There are, however, distinct differences in the composition of temperate and tropical peat.
Upland temperate peat
My interest in upland peat stems from fieldwork in two United Kingdom national parks on Dartmoor and the Lake District. In both places impermeable igneous and metamorphic rocks inhibit the downward drainage of soils allowing water to pond up in hollows. Both areas were covered with extensive temperate boreal forests but with the advance of continental glaciers the trees died off to be embedded in these hollows. As the Ice Ages came to an end, sphagnum moss colonised these shallow ponds. This moss produces a bactericide to preserve the vegetation already deposited.
The famous Crimean War nurse, Florence Nightingale, successfully used sphagnum moss, because of its antiseptic qualities, to plug soldiers’ wounds.
Today in these sphagnum filled swamps you can find remnants of the former forests in fossilised wood forms called bog oaks. Such upland peat, because of the very nature of the acidic base rocks, has a less than 7 pH value and is thus useless for gardening purposes unless one is growing calcifuges (acidic tolerant plants) such as heathers and rhododendrons or subalpine species.
The slow decomposition of the vegetation in such exposed highland areas is coupled with lower temperatures and high rainfall.
Lowland temperate peat
Undoubtedly some of Europe’s most fertile soils exist in former swampy lowland peat where the bedrock is impermeable clay. Such regions in the UK are the Somerset Levels, the Fenlands of East Anglia, and the soils of the Southport/Ormskirk area of south Lancashire, near Liverpool.
Near my home, the Somerset Levels have always proved to be superb summer grazing pastures for dairy and beef cattle because of the nutrient-rich grass growing on the organic soils. Indeed, the milk from these dairy cattle was taken to nearby Cheddar to be converted into the famous Cheddar Cheese.
Cheddar is a small village in the Mendip Hills, a limestone range riddled with caves. It was in these cooler caves that the cheese was stored in the constant 10 degrees Celsius temperatures to mature.
In the Fenlands of East Anglia, Dutch water engineers were brought over in the 17th century to drain these rich organic soils by creating long drainage canals and local rhymes (surface water drains) allowing the blackish-brown soils to be farmed for arable crops. The drained water entered the North Sea through a complex system of sluice gates. In the 20th century, intensive farming methods gradually saw the lowering of the water table thus allowing the soils to dry out and become oxidised. In times of very dry but windy weather, the surface soil would blow in black clouds across the landscape. Such storms are known as fen blows. The same loss of dried surface peat is experienced in south Lancashire where I can well remember an early morning drive across those peat soils to see the sky blackened with swirls of fine peat dust.
Such lowland peat areas need careful management. Large swathes of the Somerset Levels were set aside as Nature Reserves for bird wildlife and thus allowed to flood. In 2011, I well remember when driving along a high level road, after a prolonged period of heavy rainfall, to see thousands of hectares of land flooded almost like an incursion of the sea. This amounted to vast insurance payouts to property owners and farmers as a result of income losses and Dutch drainage machinery was hired to pump the floodwaters into the Bristol Channel.
The drainage ditches had not been regularly dredged by the farmers over many years and had silted up thus allowing flood waters to overtop the drains. Now, with government subsidies to farmers for the maintenance of the drains, this hopefully will be past history. These environmental hazards just highlight the difficulty of farming peat soils, where a delicate balance needs to be achieved between water levels and actual land-use.
As in temperate latitudes there are highland and lowland peatland in Borneo. I have seen the former in Sabah in accumulated acidic peat hollows on Mount Kinabalu, and lost a rubber boot, when I sank up to knees when trying to photograph an owl, in the swamp alongside the Kinabatangan River. In Sarawak, I have witnessed the sterling efforts of the firefighters in containing peat fires outside of Miri.
Tropical peat, because of the nature of the rainforest vegetation and the climate, is faster in its decomposition and very much deeper than in the areas of temperate peat. Because of the higher rainfall and faster chemical reactions, decaying vegetation is rapidly decomposed.
Tropical rainforest areas of Brazil and Southeast Asia hold the potentially richest soils in the world. It is no wonder that Sarawak, as a state, wishes to exploit its inherited wealth with the advice of its Tropical Peat Research Institute.
Tropical peat helped many northern hemisphere countries develop their industrial revolutions in exploiting their coal measures. After all, these coal measures were laid down in tropical swamp conditions when those continents were closer to the Equator and compressed and folded upwards through further plate tectonic movements. Peat, upon compression, turns to a further combustible fuel in lignite and ultimately to coal. Why did the Japanese war machine invade Borneo in World War 2? It was simply for the strategic purpose of securing the coalfields in Labuan and Kalimantan
Temperate peat deposits have been cut in brick (briquette) form in both Scotland and Ireland for centuries providing fossil fuel for villagers’ fires and even for the generation of electricity in Eire much in the same way that lignite deposits in Europe once created electricity through power stations. With all nations determined to reduce their carbon input into the atmosphere, I trust the exploitation of Malaysia’s tropical peat as a fuel will never occur for it would simply add literally fuel to fire. Methane gas could however be extracted.
I applaud Sarawak’s initiative to reclaim swampland for smallholder oil palm production providing that such agricultural production provides a direct spinoff to the farmers and their local communities. This will no doubt be very delicately managed by the Tropical Research Laboratory personnel in conjunction with local farmers, who after all have the most detailed knowledge on the properties of their land. Land management schemes will, I am sure, prevent peat loss even in periods of prolonged drought.
I only pray that that outsiders will not see this as an environmental threat to wildlife and pontificate from afar on this future development to increase Malaysia’s holding in the world’s palm oil market. I also hope that all nation members attending the 15th International Peatland Conference offered considered and wise advice to their Malaysian counterparts and to conservationists.
Well done Sarawak for your initiative in hosting this conference and putting your plans firmly on the table for public scrutiny.