By Francine Pickup
Ramadhani Lutfi Aerli, a nine-year-old boy from Pekanbaru, suffered a high fever and seizure on 20 October 2015. When he went unconscious in the middle of the night, his parents rushed him to the hospital but he died before the morning call to prayer.
His father said Lutfi grew up with toxic haze that blanketed the city nearly every year since he was born. The haze comes from peatland that has been burned to clear land for agriculture. An x-ray result showed the effect—cloudy spots on his lungs.
The Indonesian government counted at least 19 people dead from the 2015 haze, and the World Bank estimated the economic cost to be around $16 billion.
But there is another reason why peatland is worth protecting. Covering nearly 11% of Indonesia’s total land area, peatland is very efficient at absorbing and storing carbon dioxide. Protecting peatland against fires is key to achieving Indonesia’s emissions cut commitments in the Paris climate agreement. On top of this, peatland is home to a wide variety of animals—most famously in Indonesia, the endangered orangutan.
When peatland is drained and burnt to make way for agriculture, oftentimes palm oil and pulp wood plantations, it emits huge volumes of carbon – approximately 40 percent of Indonesia’s total carbon emissions – into the atmosphere, destroys lives and livelihoods and threatens biodiversity.
The Government under President Joko Widodo has taken bold steps to preserve peatland. The latest was the issuance of government regulation No. 57/2016, which expanded and clarified that the existing moratorium protects all peatlands and that companies must restore areas that they degraded.
In January last year, the President established the Indonesian Peatland Restoration Agency (Badan Restorasi Gambut, or BRG). It is mandated to restore 2 million hectares of degraded peatlands in seven provinces over a five-year period.
The now one-year-old agency has hit the ground running and begun restoring peatland, with UNDP and Norway support. This work has involved digging 350 deep wells in Sumatra and Central Kalimantan to rewet peatland and put out fires, as well as blocking 40 canals to prevent draining and burning in the first place.
Affected communities are involved and urged to take responsibility for protecting peatland, and preventing and putting out fires. Canals in Central Kalimantan serve as transport routes in the absence of roads. The blocks are designed to allow a small klotok boat to pass through while maintaining the minimum water level to conserve the peat. In this way, the agency has aligned the villagers transport needs with peat protection.
In Pulau Pisang district in Central Kalimantan, 12 community-based fire brigades are now operational, made up of 120 fishermen and farmer volunteers. Work is underway to scale up the fire brigades to 40 villages. The BRG has also supported farmers to sustainably use the peatland, thereby incentivizing them to protect it. A pilot initiative to breed cattle, using peatland grasses as feed, is expected to generate income for the farmers and contribute to the upkeep of the fire brigades. Other sustainable agriculture options on peatland include dragon fruit, sago, as well as duck and chicken-rearing.
The agency has, however, faced criticisms – that its existence is too little too late, that its capacity is weak, and that it doesn’t have the teeth to challenge the private companies that burn the peatland.
This year will be a critical test for the agency as weather patterns make it likely to be drier than 2016, bringing with it the risk of further fires that destroy more peatland. The agency needs to urgently learn from the pilots implemented and scale up what works, to map the peatland dedicated for protection and for utilization, and to coordinate with all the stakeholders involved.
New funds to support BRG from the state budget will help make this happen.
Law enforcement will be a further challenge. The Ministry of Environment and Forestry has had mixed results in civil lawsuits against palm oil and pulp wood companies that caused the fires. And of the 15 companies suspected of causing the 2015 forest fires, none have been criminally prosecuted. UNDP’s partnership with the government to strengthen law enforcement for forest-related crimes aims to prevent more violations, ensure corporate accountability, recover state losses, and restore the environment.
Strong policies, reliable law enforcement, and community involvement are key to saving Indonesia’s peatland, and mitigating global climate change. Indonesia holds the largest tropical peatland in the world, and millions of hectares of it have been damaged. What happens to the rest could help determine whether the global goal to limit emissions that contribute to climate change can be achieved.
The writer is deputy country director for UNDP Indonesia.
As published on The Jakarta Post, 5 January 2017