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How to monitor peatlands holistically… and practically

Researchers share standardized criteria and indicators for tracking peatland restoration
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Purun (Lepironia articulata) is a kind of grass belonging to the riddle-tekian tribe (Cyperaceae) which is often used as a plaited material. Photo by Rifky/CIFOR

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How can we tell whether peatland restoration is going well? Do we measure the water table; ask the locals about their livelihoods; assess decision-making processes and gender dynamics; or tot up stats on the frequency of fires? Most likely: all that and more.

Preserving and restoring peatlands is critical to mitigation of climate change, maintaining healthy ecosystems and supporting community development in many parts of the world. However, due to existing pressures, peatlands have been drained and converted into other land uses (such as plantations, farmlands, or livestock ranches). These disturbed and degraded peatlands can be targeted for restoration to reduce the loss of carbon and other important ecological service natural/undrained peatlands provide. But effective long-term restoration needs to be carefully monitored to adapt designs, strategies, site selection and management approaches that can meet specified goals, while changing tack as required.

In Indonesia, which houses almost a quarter of the globe’s tropical peatlands, researchers with the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) have developed a scientifically robust, reliable and practical set of criteria and indicators (C&I) to help assess progress and outcomes of peatland restoration. These efforts are being made in collaboration with the national Peat and Mangrove Restoration Agency (BRGM), Riau University’s Disaster Risk Study Centre and conservation and development organization PT Rimba Makmur Utama as well as consultations with several national and international peatland experts over the course of the past year.

On 7 July 2022, CIFOR-ICRAF – in partnership with UN Environment Program (UNEP), the Global Peatlands Initiative (GPI), and the International Tropical Peatland Center (ITPC) co-hosted a virtual national workshop to share the draft of standardized C&I that were developed as a practical tool to help policymakers, practitioners and civil society. “Restoration includes many dimensions, because it is not carried out on a blank sheet of paper: the location that needs to be restored is a dynamic social and ecological landscape full of various interests and past practices that need to be corrected,” said BRGM scientist Myrna Safitri, highlighting the complexity of the task at hand. “Therefore, in assessing the success of restoration, it is necessary to understand the existing conditions of the landscape and the history of its formation. The development of C&I to determine the success of wetland restoration is therefore not a black-and-white instrument: it needs to be placed in the right context.”

To aid with that contextualization process, a panel discussion critically analysed the strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for using C&I approaches for monitoring peatlands in four key aspects: biophysical, social, economic and governance. Speaking on the economics aspect, Universitas Tanjung Pura professor and soil scientist Gusti Anshari observed that “peatland restoration is not only about keeping ecosystems alive, but also providing economic products and environmental commodities and services to humans.” He pointed out that “it’s impossible for marginalised people on degraded land to develop sustainable peatlands: they need more support. Peatland projects depend on all stakeholders.”

CIFOR-ICRAF principal scientist Michael Brady agreed on the importance of these kinds of economic considerations, and highlighted the need to verify priority criteria through field testing as well as to provide ongoing management, monitoring and evaluation – and to account for these costs during planning and budgeting. CIFOR-ICRAF senior scientist Herry Purnomo spoke of the need for governance at all levels of peatland landscapes to be characterized by accountability, as well as clear and easily implemented regulations.

   Padang Sugihan wildlife reserve area - Sebokor seen from above, some of this area has been damaged by illegal logging and forest fires. Photo by Faizal Abdul Aziz/CIFOR

Exploring the biophysical elements of peatland restoration, participants in the workshop offered their opinions, through a Slido poll, on progress towards hydrological, revegetation and fire occurrence reduction targets. They also selected key social, economic, and governance priorities for assessment of impact.

The participants then turned their attention to the practical sphere: after deciding what to measure, the process of doing it can invoke its own challenges. As such, the panel explored the ‘nuts and bolts’ of developing and field testing the consultative C&I process. The three CIFOR-ICRAF members on the panel – Anna Sinaga, Meli Sasmito and Siti Chaakimah – noted that while it was relatively easy to access and analyse information regarding the biophysical elements of peatland restoration, the social and economic aspects were often more ‘entangled’ and difficult to tease out. This meant that the C&I may need more revisions, including site-specific adaptations to account for the particularities of local contexts. Governance aspects also require more complex contextual reformulation and verification by people with specific expertise in these areas.

At the other end of the implementation scale, institutionalizing C&I approaches can pose a challenge too. An expert panel, featuring BGRM scientists Budi Wardhana and Agus Yasin alongside Josi Khatarina from the United States Agency for International Development’s Sustainable Environmental Governance Across Regions activity, discussed opportunities, challenges and hurdles, capacity building, and existing institutional support for conducting this exercise broadly and effectively.

Despite these challenges, however, momentum around peatland restoration is building across the globe, as Maria Nuutinen – the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) focal point for the Global Peatland Initiative (GPI) – acknowledged. “I’m very happy to see that there seems to be very broadly shared understanding of the status of restoration and what’s actually needed,” she said.

Part of ‘what’s needed’ at a global scale is better information, and the C&I work will contribute to addressing this aim, said Scotland’s Rural College professor Mark Reed. He shared and summarized some of the GPI’s work “towards standardizing how we collect and can synthesize people and data around the world so that we can provide better evidence to policy and practice to protect these incredible habitats.”

   CIFOR's researcher measure tree diameter in tropical peat swamp forest. Tree diameter survey is one of step for forest carbon monitoring, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by Sigit Deni Sasmito/CIFOR
   Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by Sigit Deni Sasmito/CIFOR

The International Tropical Peatlands Centre (ITPC) also plays a critical role, particularly in terms of “coordinat[ing] interdisciplinary scientists — national, regional and local — to respond to strengthening the criteria and indicators to support global achievement on peatland ecosystem restoration with particular reference for tropical peatlands,” said the Center’s coordinator, Haruni Krisnawati.

As the broad range of participants, presenters, and topics at the event came together, similarly collaboration across levels, locations, and disciplines was and will be a key feature of developing effective C&I and successfully enacting restoration. “To achieve real impact, all these different streams of information, data and evidence have to come together,” said CIFOR-ICRAF scientist Rupesh Bhomia. “This event is another step towards coming together, identifying what tools, resources, and capacity we have, identifying the gaps and then trying to address them. It will only happen with concerted effort, with the progress that we make together as a team. We may be representing different organizations, streams of government, or practitioners, but since we all are committed to the same goal, we can move forward.”

“While putting forward scientific evidence, it is timely to have an assessment tool which is both robust and practical,” said Daniel Murdiyarso, a Principal Scientist at CIFOR who conceived the idea of a series of four webinars in 2021, which culminated in the virtual National Workshop. In recalling the support from several donor agencies, including the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative (NICFI) and Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD), and the International Climate Initiative (IKI), he added at the event’s conclusion that “this is a demand-driven initiative, and we are mindful about that.”

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