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Managing peatlands in Indonesia’s South Sumatra for multiple benefits

Comprehensive approach produces results
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The agrosilvofishery research and demonstration site in South Sumatera. University Sriwijaya/Rujito Agus Suwignyo,

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Peatlands are unique wetland systems and significant carbon sinks. Present in 169 countries they cover less than 3 percent of the Earth’s land but hold more than one-third of its carbon.

The Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) and partners have been conducting research to demonstrate sustainable land-use practices, including exploration of a climate smart agrosilvo-fishery approach to restoring degraded peatlands.

“The province of South Sumatra in Indonesia is a classic case,” said Himlal Baral, senior scientist with CIFOR-ICRAF, and moderator of a side event at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. “How we manage South Sumatra’s peatlands will have a positive or negative impact on carbon storage, climate and livelihoods.”

Session participants discussed the 1.2 million hectares of peatland in South Sumatra that are under pressure from agricultural expansion and development activities.

According to Indonesia’s Peatland and Mangrove Restoration Agency, South Sumatra has the second-largest national target for restoring degraded peatland: more than 600,000 hectares since 2016.

Pandji Tjahjanto, head of the Forestry Department and Darna Dahlan, head of the Peatland Restoration Agency for South Sumatra Province, speaking on behalf of Herman Deru, the provincial governor, said that forest fires in 2015 that blanketed the region in toxic smoke were mostly the result of human activities.

More than 700,000 hectares were burned, much of it peatland. After a dip, in 2019 a surge of more than 17,000 individual fires burned more than 400,000 hectares.

In addition to declaring several new regulations to reduce the risk of fires, the government also instituted a large program of rewetting, revegetating and revitalizing the degraded and burned peatlands.

Rewetting involves blocking and filling-in drainage canals so that higher water levels can return, and installing wells for use by residents. Revegetating includes not only assisted natural regeneration, but establishing nurseries to grow native tree species, with an accompanying planting program.

Revitalization focuses on community livelihoods through adaptation to the unique peatland environment, growing crops — such as sago palm, gelam, jelutong and talas rawa — along with indigenous fish, livestock and developing ecotourism.

The agro-silvo-fishery research and demonstration site in South Sumatra. CIFOR-ICRAF/Himlal Baral

From 2018 to 2021 around 70 hectares have been revegetated in six districts, nearly 300 wells installed and over 1,000 canals segmented and blocked. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed progress.

Sustainable management of peatlands can provide various ecosystem goods and services.

“Approaches include qualitative assessments that identify key indicators of the ecosystem services through interviews with key informants; and quantitative assessments of the biophysics of peat landscapes using proxies,” said Yustina Artati, senior research officer with CIFOR-ICRAF. “The value of services, particularly carbon and water, are also assessed.”

Research focused on a pilot site in the Padang Sugihan landscape in the east of the province, which was prone to fire and degradation. It features conservation areas for Sumatran elephants, and large plantations of timber and oil palm. Fires used for land clearing have led to degradation.

Using the Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Tradeoffs (InVEST) suite of models, the team examined four scenarios:

  1. Business as usual: no change in the economic framework of communities
  2. Sustainable management with paludiculture: for economic and environmental benefits
  3. Conservation-centric: assuming peatland is for conserved for reducing carbon dioxide emissions
  4. Intensive agriculture with more drainage until 2030 accompanied by weak law enforcement

Of the four, sustainable management using paludiculture techniques was perceived to have the greatest economic and environmental benefits, including increased incomes for communities, reduced fire risk and increased tree cover and carbon storage.

“The key to communities’ economic success was the introduction of agrosilvofishery systems that combined agriculture, trees and fisheries,” said Artati.

Bastoni Brata, senior researcher in silviculture with the Environment and Forestry Research and Development Institute (the Indonesian acronym is BP2LHK) in South Sumatra, said that sustainable peatland management is based on Peatland Hydrological Units.

“The government promulgated regulations seven years ago for protection of peatland,” he said, coinciding with the fires of 2015. “Peatland Hydrological Units were established to do this.”

In the production areas of the units, paludiculture is applicable, Bastoni said. It is a peat-friendly farming system that uses peatlands — including rewetted areas — for production and carbon storage, maintaining water levels at a consistent height throughout the year.

Paludiculture can restore degraded peatland so it can be used for economic activities while obstructing peat decomposition and decreasing emissions and subsidence.

“We’ve been researching paludicultural restoration practices since 1995 in degraded peat forests in South Sumatra and Jambi provinces,” he said. “Native tree species grew well, generating high levels of carbon sequestration and high-quality wood that attracts high prices. We found that after 10 years, natural versus artificial regeneration had similar canopy cover.”

Bastoni and team recommended that paludicultural practices such as agrosilvofishery are best suited for shallow peat and already cultivated areas.

“After three years, there was very good growth,” he said. “Nine local fish species were suitable for cultivation.”

Conducting research in the degraded agricultural land of Perigi Village in Ogan Komering Ilir District, Erizal Sodikin, associate professor with the Department of Agronomy, Faculty of Agriculture at Sriwijaya University in South Sumatra, found that improved rice cultivation techniques increased yields from 1.18 to 3.69 tonnes per hectare.

“The impact of agrosilvofishery is very positive,” he said. “Farmers more frequently visit and take care of the land, avoiding fire. Various crops are successfully cultivated along with forest trees and fish species. There is a general improvement in biodiversity and increased productivity with associated increases in community incomes and indirect improvement in their nutrition quality.”

The capacity to sustainably manage peatlands is central to the success of any restoration and livelihood efforts, said Soozin Ryang, program officer for education and training with the Regional Education and Training Center of the Asian Forest Cooperation Organization. Ryang and team conducted research in peatlands in Kalimantan on the island of Borneo.

“Apart from the technical aspects of peatland restoration,” said Ryang, “we adopted ‘people-centered development’ through a landscape approach, building human capabilities, people’s well-being and quality of life. Our basic assumption was that people must be empowered with the tools and knowledge to build their communities to successfully restore degraded peat ecosystems.”

The team established a demonstration site to test adaptive agroforestry tree species for peatland restoration as a learning site for community-based peatland management.

Canals were established to help farmers understand the importance of maintaining water levels, growing suitable agricultural crops and fish, animal husbandry and producing charcoal. Experiments were conducted into soil microbes on the decomposition of wood waste to assess the potential to reduce fire, rapidly improve soil conditions and support production of compost.

Eunho Choi, research scientist with the National Institute of Forest Science, Republic of Korea in collaboration with CIFOR-ICRAF and partners has been exploring opportunities to restore degraded peatlands for multiple economic and environmental values, particularly for local residents. The Institute has been supporting partners in Buntoi Village in the province of Central Kalimantan and Perigi Village in South Sumatra to test and demonstrate a variety of peat-friendly tree species.

Choi’s work involves market value analyses and preference surveys with residents. Selected species were suitable for apiculture, biofuels, cosmetics and medicines, all of which had the potential to increase income while maintaining ecosystem services, and that residents welcomed.

In summary, Baral noted that meaningful partnerships seem to be the key to successful restoration of peat ecosystems, bringing together farmers, policymakers, government technical agencies and scientists.

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For more information on this topic, please contact Himlal Baral at h.baral@cgiar.org.
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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