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Innovative peatland restoration efforts key to mitigating climate change

How new initiatives benefit local communities in Indonesia
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Daniel Murdiyarso gives explanation about the use of peat depth gauges. CIFOR/Aulia Erlangga

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Indonesia is home to an extensive area of tropical peatlands, which are carbon-rich ecosystems that are critical for supporting biodiversity and the livelihoods of local forest-dependent communities. Between 30 and 40 percent of global carbon is locked in peatlands, although they cover only around 3 percent of the world’s surface area.

On the flip side, peatlands emit large amounts of greenhouse gases if they are drained, deforested and degraded.

“Most of the greenhouse gas emissions in Indonesia are generated from land use change, mainly from peatland, because there is a lot of carbon in it, so it is important for Indonesia to preserve and restore peatland areas,” said Daniel Murdiyarso, principal scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

The government of Indonesia recently issued a permanent moratorium on new forest clearance for activities such as palm plantations or logging.
The moratorium, which covers around 66 million hectares of primary forest and peatland was first introduced in 2011. In 2019, the moratorium was made permanent after President Joko Widodo issued a Presidential Instruction, which mandated that ministers, governors and other officials could not issue new permits within the moratorium area.

The key to peatland restoration is to first re-wet and maintain the water table at as high a level as possible so that the organic material stops oxidizing, then to reintroduce native vegetation adapted to peatland environments to ensure a continuous supply of organic materials to preserve the peat, he said.

Fire has been traditionally used as an inexpensive method to clear land as it temporarily improves soil fertility and controls pests and weeds. Unfortunately, it is extremely harmful to climate and health, when it burns out of control since it releases large amounts of greenhouse gases and haze into the atmosphere.

Restoring peatlands with local communities

In 2016, the Indonesian government established the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG), which is tasked with restoring 2 million hectares of degraded peatlands by 2020.  Empowering communities to join in the restoration effort is therefore crucial.

“The forest is surrounded by people, so you cannot ring fence it,” Murdiyarso said. “You involve communities in restoration activities and make them a part of it, instead of being against the program,” he said, emphasizing the importance of providing people with job opportunities that will give them alternatives to logging and degrading the forest.

Johan Kieft, lead technical advisor for the U.N. Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD) Programme in Indonesia, stressed the importance of promoting sustainable alternative livelihoods for local communities. UN-REDD), a joint undertaking of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) , U.N. Development Programme and U.N. Environment Programme, was developed to advance the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2008.

Since then, it has become a flagship U.N. partnership for delivering on the Paris Agreement and the sustainable development agenda.

Kieft stressed the importance of promoting sustainable alternative livelihoods for local communities. He advised planting cash crops that can naturally grow on peatland as Jelutung (Dyera costulata), which can be tapped for latex. This is an example of a high-value crop that can thrive naturally on peatlands. There are around 83 other species of plants with high commercial value. “This way, we can create income for communities that depend on peatland soils,” Kieft said.

Business-led conservation efforts

The Katingan Mentaya Project is a peatland conservation and restoration project in the province of Central Kalimantan, located between the Katingan and Mentaya rivers. The project covers around 120,000 hectares of peatland, stretching over 100 km from north to south and about 30 km from east to west.

This private REDD+ carbon project is based on the concept of avoided deforestation.

“Peatlands store more carbon than a typical forest; it can store 10 to 20 times more carbon than a typical mineral forest,” said Dharsono Hartono, founder and chief executive of the project, confirming their value as carbon sinks. “From a carbon project perspective, these hold more carbon than are potentially emitted. So if you protect and conserve it, you can get more carbon credits issued.”

Twelve years ago, Hartono and his business partner took a risk on the idea that through working with communities who earn money, peatland forests can actually be saved. “I thought that it was sort of unreal,” he said.

The company, PT Rimba Makmur Utama ( ), is an innovative social enterprise that invests in the surrounding communities. “The strength of our project is that we work closely with communities, we place them as our shareholders not just as stakeholders,” Hartono said. “And with peatland restoration, we are also mitigating climate change.”

He said that some communities claimed land that was part of the Katingan Mentaya Project and even offered to sell them to the company for $150 per hectare. Instead of buying the land, however, the company offered the community the chance to become part of the project and restore the forest instead. “We provide the seedlings, but the community needs to make sure that the tree is alive and if they are successful, we will pay them $150 dollars a year for the whole area they oversee,” Hartono said. The reason the company took this approach was to ensure the long-term sustainability of the project.

Muhammad Zainuddin, a farmer who lives in nearby Mentaya Seberang village, Seranau District, East Kotawaringin Regency, Central Kalimantan, said he was not convinced at the beginning of the project. However, after three years of receiving free training and practicing climate smart agriculture, he saw the immediate benefits both financially and in terms of environmental improvements.

The future of REDD+ projects

CIFOR senior scientist and leader of the climate change research team, Amy Duchelle, has been following this local initiative for about eight years to date. Impact evaluation of the Katingan Mentaya Project is part of CIFOR’s global comparative study on REDD+.

“An important aspect of this private-sector led project is the focus on local community engagement,” Duchelle said. “It is clear that there’s a long-term partnership between RMU and the 34 communities in the buffer area of the project towards promoting local rights and livelihoods.”

She explained that currently there are around 350 active local REDD+ projects worldwide. These initiatives are all very different-  some are private sector-led, some are led by non-governmental organizations, and some are government-led with different interventions being applied.

“What’s interesting is that rigorous evaluation of these early initiatives can provide lessons for higher level jurisdictional REDD+ programs,”  she said.

Although private sector implementers are more engaged in REDD+ than ever given the growing demand for forest carbon credits, these projects need to be nested within the context of countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement.

Very few countries have so far included peatlands in their NDCs, although they exist in 180 countries,

Indonesia is an exception with their commitment to restore 2.4 million hectares of degraded peatlands by 2030.

REDD+ projects in Indonesia could potentially help support that goal. “[Here] you’ve got a decent private sector project on the ground . . . the benefit for local people can be as real as the benefit for the local ecosystems,” Duchelle said. “Let’s figure out how to link these positive initiatives to higher-level approaches for sustainable land management.”

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
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