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ASEAN peatlands: Critical in mitigating the climate crisis

COP26 delegates describe work on protection
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Drone photograph shows smoke drifting over peatlands.

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Peatlands are one of the most important ecosystems on Earth for capturing and storing carbon. The Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is playing a key role in efforts to ensure their protection, delegates attending an event on the sidelines of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow heard.

Of the 10 ASEAN nations, Indonesia has the largest area of tropical peatlands in the world and the fourth largest extent of peatland overall, at over 20 million hectares. Its peatland landscapes hold an estimated 57.4 gigatonnes or 65 percent of ASEAN’s total peatland carbon. Malaysia is next, holding around 9.1 Gt or 10 percent of the total.

Peat, the accumulation of leaves, branches and other parts of vegetation that are kept intact through immersion in water, is more commonly known as a “swamp” or “bog.” Over centuries, this accumulation can become meters deep, storing massive amounts of carbon that would otherwise have been emitted to the atmosphere through decay or burning. In total, Southeast Asia’s tropical peat volume is estimated to be over 1,300 cubic gigameters or 77 percent of global tropical volume. The region’s peat carbon pool is estimated at 68.5 gigatonnes, representing 11 to 14 percent of global peat carbon.

These are big, impressive figures but so too are those on the negative side. Carbon emissions from peat degradation owing to land clearing and drainage have contributed 1.3 to 3.1 percent of current global CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel combustion. And long-burning, hard-to-extinguish peat fires — started by natural causes or burning for clearing drained land for cultivation — have been the source of massive amounts of emissions in the form of toxic smoke, referred to euphemistically as “haze,” for decades.  Recent efforts have substantially reduced this phenomenon, one incident of which was estimated to have led to around 100,000 premature deaths in the region through the spread of transboundary haze, closing schools, businesses and whole communities until the smoke cleared, which took weeks.

“ASEAN places climate change high on its agenda and all ASEAN member states are the contracting parties of U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement,” said Vong Sok, head of the Environment Division, Sustainable Development Directorate, ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Department of the Jakarta-based ASEAN secretariat. “In the last decade, the ASEAN Member States have shown their commitment in efforts to achieve Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) by reducing national emissions. Whereas the importance of peatlands is enormous, and their potential for delivering healthy and nature-based solutions has not been fully realized, particularly by contributing to NDCs and adapting to climate change.”

Vong Sok was introducing a side event, titled the Importance of ASEAN Peatlands to Contributing to Global Climate Change Mitigation, as part of a two-day series at the Peatland Pavilion at the COP26 venue.

The series is co-organized by the ASEAN Secretariat with support from the Measurable Action for Haze-Free Sustainable Land Management in Southeast Asia Programme, which is funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the Sustainable Use of Peatland and Haze Mitigation.

“As part of Indonesia’s 2020–2049 plan to protect peatland, we have restored about 3.6 million hectares, mainly conducted by concession holders — 249 concessions divided into 70 forestry plantations and 224 oil-palm plantations — with around 10,800 stations for water-level monitoring established in the concessions,” said Budisusanti, director of Peatland Degradation Control at Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry.

“We continuously monitor water levels in peatlands as part of a rewetting process and restoration of the ecosystems. As well as the concession areas, we have brought 46,000 hectares of community areas under the Desa Mandiri Gambut or Independent Peat Village programme, which means residents participate directly in peatland protection and management and improve their livelihoods at the same time.”

Budisusanti highlighted the importance of financial and technical support from donor agencies and nations, particularly, in development of a major monitoring system, siMATAG-0.4m, which extends the length of the country, cross-referencing high-resolution satellite imagery with field measurements to ensure accuracy and reduce false claims. The programme is also carrying out essential hydrological work, such as blocking former drainage canals to rewet the peat, and training hundreds of community facilitators to help communities adapt their farming and forestry practices.

“It is very easy to understand why peatlands are crucial for mitigation,” said Thibaut Portevin, head of Cooperation with the European Union Delegation to Indonesia and ASEAN. “They are the most efficient carbon sink on the planet: 3 percent of land, 30 percent of carbon. Left undisturbed,  they store more than all other types of land use combined. They are also unique ecosystems, providing diverse habitat for unique flora and fauna. With the Kunming Declaration and now COP26, we must focus on peatlands. Despite their importance, they are the most highly threatened of all forests and wetlands. Conversion has high economic costs that are often not accounted for, such as reduction of food and other resources. All benefits and costs must be taken into account.”

Portevin went on to explain that the increased pledges at COP26 for climate finance will contribute to protection. The European Union alone has already provided EUR 20 million for haze and peatlands just for the Sustainable Land Management in Southeast Asia Programme.

Mohammad Puat Dahalan, senior director of the Forest Management Division and GEF6-SMPEM project director for the government of Malaysia noted that the country had kept its promise made at the Rio Convention more than 20 years ago to devote half of the nation’s land area to forest. Of that, more than 18 million hectares, only 253,447 hectares or 5.27 percent was peatland. Nevertheless, in recognition of the landscape’s importance, peatland has long since featured in national plans for protection and restoration, with substantial achievements. Yet challenges remained. Fire was an ever-present threat despite decreasing in scale and impact thanks to effective management. Other non-forestry land uses, including rapid development of urban areas, put pressure on peat land but the high-level commitment from federal and state levels governments has allowed Malaysia to maintain peat extent as planned.

For other ASEAN Member States, peatland has even come as a surprise. In the Philippines, it was a workshop in Malaysia in 2005 that drew the attention of experts to the possible presence of peatland in their home country.

“After the workshop, we started in Agusan Marsh on wetland conservation with communities, providing awareness and technical information and we found peatland,” said Anson Tagtag, chief of the Caves, Wetlands and other Ecosystems Division of the Biodiversity Management Bureau. “This led us to initiate an action plan, through which we learned of other peatlands. We have now identified approximately 24 peatlands covering 20,000 hectares, which amounts to about 0.3% of forestland. This is small but important, especially for emissions.”

The government has been working in various peatlands with communities to protect the landscapes and also improve local livelihoods. Learning from Indonesia and Thailand, the division ensured the direct participation of communities in land-use planning, ecotourism and restoration.

Together, they developed biodiversity-friendly livelihoods that are already contributing to local resilience to extreme weather events. For example, water hyacinth was a problem in the wetlands but is now being harvested and made into various products.

Kobsak Wanthongchai, dean of the Faculty of Forestry at Thailand’s Kasetsart University in, agreed with Tagtag that working together with communities in managing peatland ecosystems was critical for the ecosystems’ protection and for the welfare of the people.

“Communities around the peat forests and outsiders engage in illegal logging, clear for oil palm and cattle grazing or build settlements, draining the water and burning,” he said. “This leads to degradation, biodiversity loss and carbon release. But people and the peat forests cannot be separated: they live together. Peat forests are a foodbank and source of incomes for local people. If they are hungry or need money they collect food or material they can sell.”

To manage the forests sustainably, Wanthongchai and colleagues have been building communities’ awareness and knowledge of the importance of preserving the peatlands, providing technologies and prototypes and developing cross-sectoral cooperation, bringing together residents, researchers, government and the private sector. Through development of three working models, the team have created strategic information for conservation nationwide, youth programme, media campaign, management plans, built capacity through “forest teachers” and found incentives, such as funding mechanisms and development of forest enterprises dealing in non-timber forest products. They have also inventoried peatlands in Thailand and established criteria and methods for assessments for a national strategy.

The situation in Laos, while experiencing the same essential focus on community awareness and participation in protection, restoration and development of livelihoods, also was unique, stressed Khonesavanh Louangraj, the director of the Environment Promotion Division at the Department of Environment, part of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

“Peatland management is new to Lao PDR,” he said. “One project with FAO, 2016–2021, that focused on wetlands found peatland in them in Xe Champone and Beung Kiat Ngong. Peatland conservation requires wetland conservation through supporting viable local food security and livelihoods within and surrounding wetlands.”

He noted that the challenge in maintaining peatlands was to maintain the whole wetland’s functions, which are integrated, needing the natural flood pattern to support habitats and ecology for native fish migration. Isolated, conservation reserves alone will not suffice. Dams and rice fields do not provide suitable functions and are expanding, he said.

The solutions were manifold, such as providing diversified livelihoods’ options; delineate wetland (and peatland) boundaries; form water-use agreements; restore storage areas, lakes and irrigation; improve wells; halt wetland clearance; control invasive species; reforest catchments; establish tree and fish nurseries; carry out planning for development of non-timber forest products; conduct women’s programmes; improve land-use planning; conduct flood mapping; survey catchments; and monitor water levels and use.

“The way forward,” said Vong Sok in his closing remarks, “is to strengthen climate action in sustainable peatland management, in particular, by developing and implementing a new ASEAN Peatland Management Strategy (2021-2030) and National Action Plans for Peatland management in ASEAN Member States.”

Moderated by Gita Syahrani, executive director of Lingkar Temu Kabupaten Lestari, the session provided a glimpse into the importance of peatlands for ASEAN Member States and globally and offered an opportunity for joining together in continued investment in protection and restoration.

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For more information on this topic, please contact Michael Brady at m.brady@cgiar.org.
This research was supported by the European Union, the government of Germany, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development.
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