PETALING JAYA: International researchers and environmental NGOs are calling for better management of tropical peatland.
Following the 15th Inter-national Peat Congress in Kuching in August, 139 representatives of various institutions from 20 countries have come together to raise their concerns over the environmental impact of agricultural conversion of tropical peat.
In a letter to be published in an environmental science journal Global Change Biology, they claim that contemporary agricultural techniques on peatland – for land clearance, drainage and fertilisation – have significantly impacted the ecosystem.
In Sarawak, peatland is drained and converted into oil palm plantations. It was reported that 400,000ha out of 1.4 million hectares of oil palm plantations are on peatland.
Citing scientific studies, the letter says the carbon stored in drained peatland is lost through oxidation, dissolution and fire. The drained coastal peatland, it adds, also risks getting untenable with the intrusion of saltwater.
“The search for more responsible tropical peatland agriculture techniques includes promising recent initiatives to develop methods to cultivate crops on peat under wet conditions.
“While a truly sustainable peatland agriculture method does not yet exist, the scientific community and industry are collaborating in the search for solutions, and for interim measures to mitigate ongoing rates of peat loss under existing plantations,” it reads.
In a written reply to The Star, Malaysian Peat Society president Frederick Haili Teck disagreed with the claims in the letter, which he said “portray the oil palm plantations as the woes of tropical peatland”.
Malaysia, he says, has a long history of oil palm research and development and has been improving soil management since the 1920s.
“It is a key reason for Malaysia’s success in competing with other vegetable oil crops today.
“In fact, strong scientific and commercial evidences were provided at the congress that better peatland management has raised oil palm yields to similar or above those on suitable mineral soils, particularly after the first-generation planting,” he said.
He also stressed that only 27.5% of peatland in Malaysia was allowed to be used for oil palm cultivation.
“Malaysia has reached the target for this soil type and does not give out further concessions for oil palm,” he said.
Frederick dismissed the claim that oil palm on peatland is unsustainable as being “generalised, one-sided and inconclusive”.
“The implication of such a statement could be far-reaching as to disqualify the industry and deplete the livelihood of the communities concerned,” he added.