The Indonesian archipelago is home to over a third of the world’s tropical peatlands. These black-watered, sodden swamp forests store an estimated 55 to 61 gigatons of carbon dioxide, making them critical ecosystems to conserve amid efforts to keep global climate change in check.
But around half of those precious peatlands have already been degraded through drainage, deforestation and burning – mostly in the name of land clearance for forestry and agriculture. This degradation has been disastrous for the country’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, placing it among the world’s top five emitter countries.
Indonesia has pledged to restore over 2 million hectares of degraded peatlands under its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the U.N.Paris Agreement on climate change. But peat restoration is a complex process, and as such will require careful monitoring to allow for an adaptive, iterative approach that fits well with local conditions and realities.
Enter the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)’s online workshop series, Exploring Criteria and Indicators for Tropical Peatland Restoration, which aims to develop a set of scientifically-sound, locally-relevant criteria and indicators that are easy to recognize, measure and monitor peatlands over time.
“Gathering in this manner helps us to walk together for peatland restoration based on the best science available,” said Haris Gunawan, deputy head of Indonesia’s Peatland Restoration Agency, in his opening remarks at the second session of this series, Biophysical Attributes and Peatland Fires, which took place last week. The session was attended by 172 people from 21 countries.
Several speakers in the session delved into various aspects of peatlands science. Gusti Anshari, a tropical peat expert and professor at Indonesia’s Tanjungpura University in Pontianak, the capital of the province of West Kalimantan, took the audience through a framework for restoring degraded tropical peat swamp forests.
“The restoration objective is to facilitate tropical peat forest as a ‘super-organism’ – to refurbish both economic and ecological functions,” he said. “It’s not easy, and it may not be cheap, but I do believe that it is manageable.” He emphasized the importance of restoring peatlands’ characteristically high-water tables where these have been compromised; facilitating natural regeneration processes; and long-term engagement of all actors until the goals are achieved.
In a presentation that highlighted the value of engaging in such processes, Muh Taufik, a professor at Indonesia’s Bogor Agricultural University, shared his research on the comparative risks of fire on degraded and restored peatlands, particularly when such areas experience drought conditions. The work revealed that fire hazards are highest when the water table is more than 40 centimeters (15.7 inches) from the ground surface– and that rewetting degraded peatlands can reduce fire risks by up to 30 percent.
“Monitoring and increasing the water level [in degraded peatlands] is crucial and technologically feasible as a management tool, and may be a useful compliance mechanism for improving ecosystems by minimizing biohazards,” he said. Audience member Adnan Zainorabidin inquired about whether there were any monitoring methods that could function as an early warning system for potential peat fires, and Taufik confirmed that widely-available water table monitoring technologies, which include manual measurement and automated water level loggers, could be useful.
Another piece of the monitoring puzzle is our ability to keep track of the location and extent of peatland fires, and determine likely GHG emissions due to these fires, he added.
Solichin Manuri, a senior advisor at Daemeter Consulting in the city of Bogor on the outskirts of Jakarta, where CIFOR is also headquartered, has been exploring how to map these fires accurately and reliably, using radar and GHG accounting tools. “We already have a number of initiatives that are aimed towards mapping fire,” he said. “Now, spatially-explicit criteria for fire mapping should be developed specifically, depending on the method and data used, combined with knowledge from ground or aerial surveys.”
Kristell Hergoualc’h, a senior scientist at CIFOR, narrowed in on some of the complexities and knowledge gaps on GHG accounting in peatlands, explaining how these emissions arise from a range of activities and microbiological processes, which vary according to vegetation cover and environmental dynamics.
“So, this shows the complexity of the mechanisms underlying GHG emissions and the efforts that are needed to account for all of them,” she said. There is still a lot we don’t know about how GHG emission rates change when peatlands are rewetted and restored, and that future research on this topic will provide insights for informed management decisions, she added.
With an eye to the bigger picture, Mark Reed, a professor of socio-technical innovation at Britain’s Newcastle University, highlighted the importance of syncing up peatland research across the globe, so that decision makers and resource users have the best possible information to guide their actions. He described a project he is collaborating on with the International Tropical Peatland Center, and around 50 other tropical peatland researchers from various locations, to help do exactly that.
“Our goal is ambitious; we want to change the way people’s data is collected and reported around the world, so that more and more people collect data on the same variables in ways that can be synthesized,” he said. “Ultimately, the goal is to facilitate meta-analysis that can enable evidence-based policy.”
Several audience members asked how this kind of “top-down” idea might sit alongside the need to find data-collection and interpretation methods that fit with local understandings and realities. “The key thing is, we can’t romanticize and accept unquestioningly all local knowledge, and equally we should not accept unquestioningly what we all think is received wisdom in the academic world,” said Reed. “It all needs to be tested and weighed as to what will work. But you can combine the two knowledge bases; it is possible.”
On that note, keynote speaker Ravi Prabhu, director of Innovation, Investment and Impact at CIFOR-ICRAF, emphasized that while criteria and indicators do need to be scientifically valid and replicable wherever possible – they don’t need to be perfect. “They’re tools,” he said. “So, focus on being good enough. Be practical. Consider the cost of getting the information, and the intrinsic value of that information in helping you to understand what it is you want to achieve.”
He noted that the path to wisdom follows a step wise progression from data to information to knowledge, and identification of criteria and indicators should be understood as a similar process.
Ravi highlighted the importance of focussing attention on the people on the ground who will utilize criteria and indicators or monitoring and assessment of the peatlands restoration and working out how to provide instructions that are comprehensible and tasks that are feasible.
His concerns were echoed by CIFOR Principal Scientist Daniel Murdiyarso.
“Technical information can be gathered more and more easily these days,” said Murdiyarso in his closing address. “But how do we communicate that? Bringing this into people’s day-today conversations is not easy: what do these criteria and indicators really mean for people? We have a big challenge in front of us to make this a people-centered process.”
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