It may seem counter-intuitive to put human interests first when tackling an environmental issue as complex and technical as peatlands. The Global Landscapes Forum: Peatlands Matter event, however, sought to prove that local experiences are a crucial component to paving the best way forward for these landscapes that cover less than 3-5 percent of the Earth’s surface, but contain more than 30 percent of soil-stored carbon worldwide.
“I think it’s time to calibrate this discussion, starting with local voices,” said Peter Holmgren, Director General of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). “When we put people first, then we can make progress on climate as well.”
The one-day forum, which was held at Jakarta’s JS Luwansa Hotel on May 18, comes less than two years after the devastating 2015 peatland fires in Indonesia that turned global attention towards the massive importance and dangerous fragility of peatlands.
Following a relatively fire-free span due to increased awareness and mitigation efforts coupled with the cooling effects of 2016’s La Niña, the challenge now is keeping these carbon sinks in the global zeitgeist and continuing to protect these rich landscapes.
“Communities suffered economic losses, illnesses, even death,” said Holmgren. “Even though media has disappeared, communities are still struggling.”
The Forum’s answer to this challenge was to bring Indonesian and international peatland communities to the forefront of the conversation, to learn from their diverse on-the-ground experiences, and to share their knowledge with policymakers, scientists, development workers, private sector stakeholders, and each other.
Plenary moderator Damayanti Buchori, who teaches at Bogor Agricultural University in Bogor, Indonesia, kicked off the day with a question: Is science benefiting local communities?
The key to ensuring it is, she said, is through constructive dialogues and gleaning new knowledge from listening to the stories of people who live in peatland ecosystems.
This set the tone for the day, which went beyond just technical discussions on peatlands research by featuring firsthand experiences from stakeholders involved in these landscapes.
During the first plenary- titled Community perspectives and priorities in peatlands– a former schoolteacher from Kalimantan, Indonesia, described how he devised a way to increase the fertility of peatland soil without reverting to the traditional farming method of slash and burn. Meanwhile, a community member from Riau, Indonesia, recalled how his great-grandfather made his living in the early 1900s by growing and exporting sago from his peatland farm rather than palm oil that requires the draining of peat to grow.
“What’s needed is cooperation between communities and the government,” said Eddy, a farmer and community representative leader from Sumatra, Indonesia, who was one of the panelists. “I think mistakes in the past are rooted in a lack of cooperation. Indigenous communities have been cast out by corporations. Cooperation can enable us to plant crops in peatland areas. We need to preserve them and restore them for our livelihoods.”
In the second plenary session- titled Peatlands around the world: Challenges and opportunities– environmental leaders from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Peru, both home to some of the world’s largest peatland regions, shared challenges, best practices and opportunities for improving global peatlands management.
The plenary, which was moderated by Dr. Justin Lee, Australia’s Deputy Head of Mission to Indonesia, sought to answer the question on what global efforts have entailed thus far, and how can they increase and improve going forwards.
Panelists included Nazir Foead, Head of Indonesia’s Peatland Restoration Agency; Pierre Taty, Director of the Cabinet Ministry of Forest Economy, Sustainable Development and Environment for the Republic of Congo; Dennis del Castillo, Director of the Forest Management and Environmental Service Program at the Peruvian Amazon Research Institute (IIAP); and Gerald Schmilewski, President of the International Peatland Society (IPS).
The community leaders from the first plenary had a chance to interact with the panelists. “I don’t think the Congo Basin is that different from Indonesia, but the Congo hasn’t been touched or destroyed like Indonesia,” said Akhmad Tamanuruddin, the aforementioned schoolteacher from Kalimantan.
Directing his comments toward Taty, he said: “I request that you please make sure your country saves your virgin peatlands, because they allow the world to be a happier place for the people whose lives depend on them.”
DIVERSITY OF VOICES
The global awakening to the importance of peatlands was perhaps the silver lining to the damage incurred by the 2015 fires. It also shed light on the fact that there is a widespread lack of awareness about peatland landscapes, and how they should be best protected and managed going forward.
As demonstrated by the focus on community voices, one of the primary goals of the Forum was to use this opportunity to take a different approach to education about peatlands– an approach that is both broad and comprehensive. This means linking the voices of farmers and fishermen with members of the government, private sector, scientists, and development organizations in order to better balance conservation, research, development, and fiscal goals.
To this end, the Forum’s afternoon sessions were wide-ranging. Attendees shuffled in and out of panels covering youth-focused initiatives and private sector involvement.
Meanwhile, science discussions organized by CIFOR, UN Environment, the World Bank, and the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF) explored diverse topics such as measuring carbon stocks in peatlands, studying the health effects of fire and haze, leveraging investment for peatland restoration, and making the connection between people and peat.
Challenges addressed were similarly diverse, including identifying and developing new crops that can grow in peatland environments, mitigating the proliferation of palm oil plantations, tackling the health effects of peatland fires, increasing the fertility of peatland soil, and attracting more investment from the private sector.
“There are many players within the peatlands landscape, all with different competing interests,” said Buchori. “The question is: How can we live side by side?”
The Forum served as a living example that it is not only possible to achieve this aim, but also necessary and urgent for the benefit of the climate, the environment and local livelihoods.
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