Peatlands are in danger of human encroachment and degradation worldwide.
By Joseph Masilamany
PETALING JAYA: A key low hanging fruit for climate change mitigation? That was how Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations (UN) Environment Programme described the positive outcome of restoring peatlands globally. Steiner’s gem of folksy wisdom was issued during the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali in December 2007.
Six years later, peatlands are still in danger of human encroachment and degradation worldwide.
Peatlands are wetland ecosystems that accumulate plant material over time to form layers of peat soil up to 20m thick. They are present in 180 countries, cover 3% of the world’s surface, and store an average of 10 times more carbon per hectare than other ecosystem.
Peatlands are also home to a large share of the world’s freshwater resources and are critical in biodiversity conservation, including for species such as the orangutan and certain species of cranes.
But peatlands are in danger. Each year, clearing, draining, and setting fire to peatlands emits more than three billion tonnes of carbon dioxide – equivalent to 10% of global emissions from fossil fuels. And two-thirds of these emissions come from Southeast Asia, largely Indonesia.
Human activities and climate change pose a particular threat to mountain and coastal peatlands as well as to permafrost, the melting of which may increase emissions of methane, another powerful greenhouse gas, in some areas, according to Steiner.
Peat versus palm
The plantation industry, especially oil palm in Malaysia, is on the march, rising to new heights of profits and dividends for its stakeholders. Global surface temperature is also on the march, edging towards the critical level of 4°C. When this happens, scientists warn there will be no gains and profits for anyone, except a major deficit for the generation that will live after us at the end of this century.
The wanton destruction of natural peatlands worldwide continues to be a major area of concern to environmentalists and in Malaysia, an unscheduled debate is ensuing between the Sarawak government and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) over the cultivation of oil palm on peatlands in the state.
According to recent reports, large-scale export crop cultivation is rapidly leading to the destruction of the state’s peat swamp forests. The Netherlands-based Wetlands International and the Dutch monitoring agency, Sarvision, have released studies supported by satellite imagery that a precipitous rate of peatland has been destroyed since 2005 in Sarawak.
The reports claim that 65% of peat bogs in the state are now under oil palm cultivation. The studies made use of satellite images from 2005 to 2010 as well as official records of “registered boundary lines” for oil palm plantations in the region to calculate deforestation within the boundaries.
Sarvision says technological advancements have been crucial to projects such as these. The organisation says it is now able to gather actual images of palm trees planted in prohibited areas.
According to Niels Wielaard, who directed the Sarvision report: “The process that we are seeing is that in the beachfront areas, there is a lot of forest conversion to oil palm and on mineral soils further inland, we find much deforestation from logging that precedes oil palm.”
Wielaard said that combined with land surveys for validation and verification of subtle changes, the data collected through remote sensing showed that 44% of all oil palm plantations in Sarawak occupy cleared peatland.
Wetlands International pointed out that the increased demand for palm oil is the major reason for the voracious drive to use peatland in Sarawak for agro-based industries. Says the pro-green agency, palm oil is now the top traded vegetable oil in the world and is the largest growing feedstock for biofuels.
However, other environmental groups say Europe’s Renewable Energy Directive, which places a target of 10% of renewable energy use to be met by biofuels, is the major cause for the rapid increase in demand for palm oil. This market is being capitalised by Malaysia, which provides some 45% of all palm oil traded cross-border, and has been a boon to its economy.
According to Alex Katt of Wetlands International: “This economic incentive results in an overall reluctance on behalf of officials to contrive a national strategy that could deter further peat swamp destruction. So far there is a complete denial of the facts.”
Katt added that “Malaysia creates its own truths and comes up with its own research that is completely the opposite of what the other sciences have provided”.
Impact on biodiversity
The drainage of lowland peatland in Malaysia is estimated by Wetlands International to account for some 20 million tonnes of CO2 emissions annually. In addition to CO2 emissions, oil palm cultivation on the island of Borneo threatens one of the most biodiverse habitats of the world.
Malaysian peat swamps host an exotic assemblage of flora, fauna and aquatic species that are at immediate risk of extinction, says Wetlands International.
Some of these wetlands animals include the Borneo pygmy elephant, Sumatran rhino, Bornean clouded leopard and the painted terrapin.
While new demands for Malaysia are being made by international consumers calling for forest-certified and green products, Wetlands International says sustainability certifications are deceiving because of the continued failure to protect peatlands. It is calling on Malaysia to place a complete ban on palm oil production on peatlands and a halt to further conversion of natural areas for the crop – a proposition that Malaysia’s opposition coalition has taken up for its sloganeering.
During a recent media interview in Kuching, State Land Development Minister James Masing rubbished the moratorium called by the opposition coalition and international green groups as “foreign interference with an agenda”.
He told journalists that calling for a moratorium on cultivating oil palm on peatlands is economically and socially untenable, especially to the state’s rural community. So far 400,000ha of peatlands in the state had been planted with the export crop and these small holdings and plantations provide employment for 40,000 people, Masing argued.
He said it is impossible to stop people from planting on peatlands to generate income in response to a recent call by Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim for a caveat on planting oil palm on peatlands.
Masing said Anwar has been dancing to the tune of western NGOs without fully understanding the issue and realising it was an attempt by the international green agencies to turn an economic rivalry into an environmental issue.
He said: “Basically it is an economic rivalry. Rapeseeds and soya beans cannot compete against palm oil in yield and costs, so they turn it into an environmental issue. Anwar called for the moratorium because he assumes that we produce carbon dioxide when we drain peat swamps.”
Masing said scientific studies have proven that oil palm cultivation is more friendly to the environment and a higher quantity of oil can be derived from it than any other crop, referring to studies by the Sarawak-based Tropical Peat Research Laboratory Unit director Dr Lulie Melling, who was also present at the interview.
He believes that Sarawak as a state is fighting a lonely battle against the threat of foreign NGOs as the Malaysian Palm Oil Association does not support the state’s initiative to cultivate oil palm on peatlands. He also pointed out that the combined total peat soil area of Sarawak and Indonesia is only 10% of the world total and asked how the rest of the world are utilising their peatlands as that would have a greater impact on the environment.
Unproductive peatlands have been turned into a valuable land resource by the Tropical Peat Research Laboratory Unit, says Lulie. She told journalists that tropical peatlands are the last frontier of an important land source for the development of agro-industry activities, especially oil palm cultivation.
“Being the last exploited land resource, it is also the least researched and understood soil type among tropical soil,” she said.
According to Lulie, Sarawak is being lambasted by international groups which claim peatlands in Southeast Asia are “going down the drain and up in smoke” causing huge carbon emissions that contribute significantly to global climate change and some locals have accepted their argument.
“A lot of their accusations are based on assumption. There are no measured figures to substantiate their argument. Through their assumptions, they try to decide the future of Sarawak. Is that scientifically and ethically correct?”
Lulie pointed out that her laboratory has been able to recreate the state’s virgin peat into non-virgin peat to be used for oil palm cultivation. “We are able to domesticate oil palm in peatland. Now with new advances in science, we can grow oil palm in peat without causing a deficit to the health of the environment.”
She also pointed out that yield from oil palm grown in peatlands is 25 tonnes per acre. “If we develop 750,000ha, we will get about 18 million metric tonnes and that means RM11.3 billion worth of potential revenue from fresh fruit bunches. She said at the cost of RM600 per tonne, a profit of RM15,000 per year per hectare can be gained, adding that the state could profit an estimated revenue of RM500 to RM600 million annually.
Lulie challenged the detractors to pay the same amount to the state in return for their call to stop the development of peatlands for cash crop cultivation. She also pointed out that the UK has degraded 80% of its forests and in the Netherlands 175,000ha of peat soil have been reduced to only 5,000ha, and therefore it is hypocritical of these international green agencies to criticise Sarawak’s use of peatlands for cultivation.
She said Sarawak should not be vilified for trying to make good of the once useless peatlands by turning them into arable land to generate income, especially for the rural community.
Finger-tip facts on peatlands
- Approximately 60% of the world’s wetlands are peat.
- Other names for wetlands include: muskeg, moor, fen, carr, dambo, mangal, vlei, bayou, slough, pocosin, prairie pothole and vernal pools. Each type of wetland has characteristics specific to their part of the world.
- More than one-third of the federally listed species on the US Endangered Species Act rely directly, or indirectly, on wetlands for their survival.
- Wetlands act like sponges by holding flood waters and keeping rivers at normal levels. Wetlands filter and purify water as it flows through the wetland system.