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To Save Indonesia’s Carbon-Rich Peatlands, Start by Mapping Them

On World Wetlands Day on February 2nd, Indonesia’s Geospatial Information Agency (BIG) will announce the winner of a competition to come up with the best method for mapping the nation’s peatlands. The winning team will be awarded a $1 million prize. For the rest of us, the competition could help save the wetlands that are critically important for Indonesian citizens as well as for the global battle against climate change.

Peatland Destruction: When Draining the Swamp Is a Bad Idea

Peat swamps are unique and underappreciated ecosystems, rich in both carbon and biological diversity. Peatlands form when dead plants partially decay in soils soaked with tannin-rich water, and organic matter gradually accumulates, layer upon layer, over hundreds or even thousands of years. Indonesia harbors some 36 percent of the world’s tropical peatlands, which store up to 20 times more carbon than non-peat mineral soils.

Peat “domes” are complex hydrological formations that can range in thickness from half a meter to more than 20 meters deep. Peatland forests hold many times more carbon than a typical tropical forest, most of it below ground. Indonesia’s peatlands are also home to wildlife species including orangutans, Sumatran tigers, leopards and species of fish found nowhere else in the world.

But peatland ecosystems are also fragile. Disturbing just the edge of a peat dome can affect the hydrology of the whole landscape. Once the above-ground natural vegetation is cleared and the dome is drained—oftentimes to make way for industrial agriculture—peat soils rapidly dry out and become highly flammable. The catastrophic land fires that periodically engulf large swaths of Sumatra, Kalimantan, and most recently, Papua, are concentrated in peatlands that have been converted to industrial oil palm and timber plantations. 

About half of Indonesia’s peatlands are now degraded. In addition to the annual burning – which in late 2015 cost the Indonesian economy $16 billion in losses, generated more daily greenhouse gas emissions than the entire U.S. economy, and led to 100,000 premature deaths -- analysis also suggests that cultivated peatlands are experiencing rapid subsidence. This makes the country vulnerable to widespread flooding and loss of areas suitable for agricultural production in a matter of decades.

Recognizing these risks, the Government of Indonesia has introduced a suite of initiatives designed to stop further peatland conversion and restore some of the drained and denuded area. The Peatland Restoration Agency established in 2016 aims to restore 2 million hectares (4.9 million acres) of peatlands within five years, and President Joko Widodo issued a decree establishing a moratorium on further commercial development of peatlands pending better mapping and zoning. The Ministry of Environment and Forests followed up with a series of implementing regulations.

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