Seeking sustainable livelihoods for peatland farmers

Online tropical peatland talk sheds light on value of practical techniques
Farmer in Indonesian peatland. CIFOR/Mokhamad Edliadi

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Originally published on the website of the International Tropical Peatland Center

To a farmer in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), focused on earning a living and feeding the family, clearing peatlands in order to plant rice or bananas may seem to be an easier, and faster, approach than employing activities to conserve these fragile, wet ecosystems.

But that attitude could be reversed if farmers were offered “credible, efficient and easily mobilized alternatives,” to clearing peatlands, says Jean Jacques Bambuta, National Coordinator and Focal Point of Peatlands in the DRC.

It is critically important to offer farmers ways to “generate livelihood opportunities for local communities and Indigenous Peoples,” through conserving peatlands, said Bambuta, at the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) recent digital conference titled “Why Peatlands Matter for Food Security.”

The event focused on the importance of preventing deforestation and destruction of peatlands, extolling the benefits of all the valuable ecosystems services they provide, including climate and water management. Too often, harsh land-clearing and draining methods make way for oil palm plantations and other forms of agriculture.

The GLF event, which was co-hosted by the International Tropical Peatlands Center and the Global Peatlands Initiative, raised many questions for participants, some of which follow:

Q: How can people be encouraged to stop completely transforming peatlands for other uses, through the use of swidden techniques, also known as shifting cultivation or, formerly, “slash and burn” to prepare the land for agriculture?

A farmer whose land has become unfertile may be tempted to clear out nutrient-rich peatlands or forests to make space to plant crops, unless alternatives and support are readily available, says Bambuta, who joined speakers from Indonesia, Peru, and Republic of Congo during the GLF conference. Such support could include helping farmers make better use of existing lands rather than turning to unsustainable peatlands clearing.

“New cultivation techniques and quality inputs are needed to improve yields,” said Bambuta, who has been working on a national plan with stakeholders for implementation of the Brazzaville Declaration on Peatlands. Signed in 2018 by DRC, Republic of Congo and Indonesia, it commits these countries to work together to protect and conserve the transboundary Cuvette Centrale Peatlands. Such work is critical in the fight against climate change, as peatlands are the most carbon-dense ecosystem on the planet, storing 30 to 40 percent of the world’s carbon.

Q: Can we go beyond “poverty reduction” as a generic policy objective, and give priority instead to the “quality of life” of communities upstream and downstream of peatlands?

“So, the big question is: how to ensure that peatland conservation generates opportunities that can be used to improve the quality of life for farmers?” said Bambuta. “Ways to use peatland conservation and protection to generate opportunities must be found that can impact the quality of life within countries.

“For example, benefits accrued from peatland conservation efforts should be used locally, to build hospitals or clinics and schools; to structure local markets; open up communities,” he said. “It is easier to explain to a farmer that the hospital under construction in his village is a spin-off or result of his respect for the peatlands.”

The important role that peatlands can play in supporting food security and sustainable livelihoods is not often well understood because these fragile ecosystems do not necessarily fit preconceived notions of a productive landscape. Yet they have a major part to play in providing critical habitats for biodiversity, vital ecosystem services and climate regelation.

Particularly in the tropics, peatlands contribute to food security and sustainable livelihoods by supporting agroforestry systems. Healthy, wet peatlands sustain rare and threatened biodiversity, help filter pollutants, regulate water flows, curb wildfires. Keeping them functioning and healthy will be key for a healthy climate future and limiting further greenhouse gas emissions that occur when they are drained or degraded.

Yet peatlands are too often drained and cleared, leaving the land parched and subject to frequent fires, at times ignited intentionally as part of traditional preparations to clear land for planting crops. The vulnerability of the environment, and human populations residing in peatlands, was amply demonstrated in 2015 when devastating fires wiped out large areas of Indonesia, destroying livelihoods, food systems and habitats.

Numerous foods and medicines, as well as products that can be sold at markets, can be cultivated or found naturally in peatlands, says Georgine Luamba Lobengo, president of the board, Association des Femmes Pygmées de l’Équateur (l’AFPEQ). She was responding to the question:

Q: Can communities (participating in the digital conference) tell us what foods are available in their communities that are native to the tropical peatlands of their region (not introduced species)?

“In peat bogs, the indigenous foods that the community finds include mushrooms, mahogany apple, honeys, various traditional vegetables and yams, different medicinal plants, and many non-wood and wood forest products,” Lobengo said. “There are also varieties of fish and fry, snakes, snails, turtles and many different animals for hunting.”

Pineapple, areca nut, fish and honey are other sustainable commodities that offer good options for development on peatlands instead of oil palm – because of both environmental impacts and due to the fact that these commodities can be produced and sold by householders, say scientists with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). They cite research showing that pineapple and areca nut can  be cultivated in moist-wet peatland using intercropping techniques in order to maintain nutrients, water levels and biodiversity on peatlands.

In fact, in Indonesia, pineapple agroforestry is supporting restoration of degraded peatlands by providing farmers with more options than the usual burning practices to clear peatland. Scientists with CIFOR are working through the “Community-Based Fire Prevention and Peatland Restoration initiative to develop more options. Although growing crops and sustainable livelihoods are important, at the project’s core is raising awareness of the value – for the communities and the global environment – of fire-free peatlands restoration work. Local farmers are trained to prepare the land for planting without fire. They also learn how to monitor moisture and water levels in peatlands and trees to better understand agroforestry conditions and avoid accidental fires, say CIFOR scientists Herry Purnomo, Dyah Puspitaloka and Imam Basuki.

In terms of livelihoods, research suggests production of pineapple and areca nut could generate annual income for a household of $3,515 and $1,641 per household per year respectively. Fish and honey commodities could mean annual household incomes of $1,281 and $1,581 per household, respectively.

Greater efforts should be made to improve product quality and marketing strategies to increase benefits for local communities. Facilitating direct selling of pineapples to end consumers, drying shelled wet areca nut, and proper packaging and labeling for honey could help.

Other fruitsare cultivated on peatlands in Indonesia, although further study is necessary to determine if these are actually indigenous. Those fruits include avocados, duku fruit, durian fruit, star fruit, pineapple, pomegranate, papaya, mango, melinjo, guava, mango-plum, water apple/wax apple, jackfruit and watermelon.

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