The power of peatlands

Sustainable bioenergy from tropical peat forests
A pineapple ripens among the bioenergy test crops in Kalimantan, Indonesia. The idea is to plant both food and fuels simultaneously as a way to restore degraded peat lands and forests. Catriona Croft-Cusworth/CIFOR

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Peatlands cover only 3-5 per cent of the Earth’s surface, but they store over 30 percent of all soil carbon. However, peat fires and increased draining of these lands for agricultural purposes like palm oil have led to massive amounts of carbon being released as carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere.

One of the worst global environmental disasters occurred in Indonesia in 2015 when the daily CO2 emissions from Indonesia’s fires exceeded the daily emissions from the entire U.S. economy in the span of only 26 days.

Following this incident, everyone from experts and environmentalists to government officials agreed that the remaining peat forests needed to be protected.

But what about the peat lands that have already been degraded?

Scientists from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and partner institutions are now examining how peatlands can be managed sustainably to produce bioenergy from woody crops that reduces, and even prevents, the emission of large amounts of carbon.

“Growing palm oil requires drier soil, so people drain peat lands, but this has a huge impact on the degradation of peat lands because they rely on water to survive,” says Dr. Nils Borchard, a researcher from Ruhr-University in Bochum, Germany.

“It is not easy to restore peat lands that have taken hundreds or thousands of years to evolve and it is not easy to manage ground water levels on such large landscapes because you need to know how the landscape interacts with local water systems,” he says. “But it is possible with good landscape and forestry management practices.”


The researchers highlight the need to consider alternative ways to use the land, for example, by providing farmers with new methods to stop the destruction and preserve remaining carbon stocks where they belong – in the ground.

Paludiculture – which incorporates the productive use of wet peat lands in a way that the peat body is preserved – is the new environmental buzzword. Rewetting degraded peat land and then applying paludiculture techniques can help mitigate climate change impacts, and in some cases, even restore peat.

This, in turn, helps prevent fires, protect species residing in these ecosystems, and provide new employment opportunities and raw materials for bioenergy use.

Sustainable forest management on peat land requires the water table to be constantly close to the soil surface, so there is a need to develop and adapt technologies to successfully manage and harvest crops on wetlands.

“We need to look at what bioenergy species can be grown successfully and sustainably under these conditions, and to identify the ones that can help protect remaining carbon stocks on peat lands,” says Borchard.

“In many tropical countries like Indonesia, there is a need for more information in this field, especially when it comes to renewable energy.”

The new research looks at what species can be cultivated successfully on certain types of degraded peat lands to restore them into sustainable forest and produce biomass and bio-oil. These products can then be converted into biodiesel via a simple processing method, or into bioethanol via a more sophisticated approach.

“We are developing a database of key species,” he says. “We need to know how many trees can be planted on each hectare, how much fuel they can produce and the best time to harvest to maximize the amount of energy we can extract.”


But what should be done to shift local farmers away from growing lucrative oil palm, which produces huge amounts of oil and biofuel per hectare?

“To convert them, we need to identify species that can grow relatively quickly,” says Borchard. “Some species that produce biomass can take years to mature, but we can also grow food species on the same land to provide farmers with year-round income.”

Through a sustainable agroforestry approach, a mixed cropping system can be developed to produce biomass and bio-oil over the long term, and fast-growing food crops over the short term. These food crops can then be produced and sold while the bioenergy crops are being established, and also between the harvests of biomass crops.

“We need to look at how farmers who grow rice and other staple foods have been supported and apply these lessons in the forest,” says Borchard.

“There are several ways we can approach this, but we need an all-encompassing strategy with governments providing subsidies for farmers producing food. Forest farmers also need practical and technical support that includes good agroforestry management.”

Borchard suggests creating a value chain that links farmers with the biofuel market to ensure success. He points to Brazil, the world’s second largest producer of bioethanol fuel, as a good model.

“Brazil has developed very efficient agricultural technology that uses sugar cane and its wastes to produce power. This produces energy at a competitive price and provides farmers with a new market.”


The need to develop and implement sustainable forest management strategies for bioenergy production is urgent, says Borchard.

To achieve this, he recommends studying local energy demands and how to effectively create a consistent supply of biofuels. Another priority is examining the socio-economic and environmental conditions required to ensure the successful adoption and implementation of these practices.

“In order to succeed, we must collaborate with a wide range of stakeholders and share and use appropriate technology. We need to look at the scientific research that’s already out there and define what data is missing,” says Borchard.

“We don’t need to start at square one and reinvent the wheel. We just need to work together to make it happen.”


Delegates from nearly a dozen countries in Asia are currently gathered in the South Sumatran city of Palembang, Indonesia, for the Bonn Challenge Regional Roundtable Conference (May 9-10).

Led by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry of the Republic of Indonesia and the Government of South Sumatra, in cooperation with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the two-day meeting aims to further regional momentum on the Bonn Challenge.

This commitment, which was launched by world leaders at a ministerial roundtable in Bonn, Germany, in September 2011, aims to restore 150 million hectares of degraded and deforested land by 2020. This global target was subsequently extended to 350 million hectares by 2030 by the New York Declaration on Forests, issued at the UN Climate Summit in 2014.

Underlying the Bonn Challenge is the Forest Landscape Restoration (FLR) approach, which aims to restore ecological integrity at the same time as improving human wellbeing through multi-functional landscapes. FLR manifests through different restoration strategies such as: new tree plantings, managed natural regeneration, agroforestry, or improved land management to accommodate a mosaic of land uses.

Critically, it is a multi-stakeholder process that brings together government agencies, scientific and academic institutions, civil society and local communities in a participatory process.

Indonesia holds a great opportunity to become a global leader in FLR. One of the government’s greatest achievements in the field of forestry and environment in 2016 is the establishment of the Peat Restoration Agency (BRG) mandated to restore the functions of 2 million hectares of peat land degraded by massive fires that occurred in the past few years.

The findings from CIFOR’s upcoming study on bioenergy from peat forests- to be concluded this fall- could include critical information to help countries reach their restoration targets by considering the enormous potential of bioenergy when it comes to rehabilitating degraded land.

For more information on this topic, please contact Nils Borchard at or Susanne Abel at or Himlal Baral at
This research was supported by National Institute of Forest Sciences (NIFOS), Korea
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Topic(s) :   Blue carbon, mangroves and peatlands Peatlands Landscapes Rights Restoration