Hope for peatland restoration

Burning problem: Firefighters struggling to extinguish peatland fire at Siak Hulu, Riau, in this file picture taken in September 2019. — Xinhua

AN agency tasked with restoring flammable peatlands and reducing fire risks has had its tenure extended for another four years after it missed key goals during its first term.

Mangrove rehabilitation has also been added to the list of responsibilities of the newly renamed Peatland and Mangrove Restoration Agency (BRGM).

The new agency chief, Hartono Prawiraatmaja, 58, said the aim was to work with communities and plantation owners to reduce annual fires that can sicken local communities and send haze across the region.

The new goal is to restore around 1.2 million ha of degraded peatlands across seven provinces, including Riau and West Kalimantan, and rehabilitate about 600,000 ha of critical mangrove ecosystems in nine provinces, including the Riau Islands, in four years.

“We prioritise regions that we identify as having recurrent fires, ” he said.

To reduce the risks, peatlands need to be rewetted. The water table needs to be raised, such as by building dams across drainage canals, which criss-cross huge areas of Sumatra and Kalimantan.

Constructed to help clear peat swamp forests, the canals now serve as bleak reminders of the widespread damage to peatlands over the years.

Presently, Indonesia has 14.9 million hectares of peatlands, having lost half the peatlands it had in the 1980s, when they began to be cleared to establish rubber, pulpwood and other plantations.

About 3.5 million ha of mangrove forests remain, about a fifth of the global total. Indonesia has lost between 30% and 50% of its mangroves since 1970.

“The president has instructed the fire prevention and peatland rewetting must become permanent, ” said Hartono.

He acknowledged that rewetting peatland alone will not guarantee the absence of fires if local communities still clear land by burning, underscoring the need to introduce alternative methods.

“We’ve learned a lot in five years. We must prevent the emergence of hotspots. If they emerge, it means we have slipped-up, ” he added. — The Straits Times/ANN

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