Debate rages over impact of tropical peat conversion


  • Nation
  • Friday, 28 Oct 2016

Don’t point fingers: Peat swamps emit methane when underwater and it only takes a tiny spark to lead to peat fires, so experts believe that oil palm plantations are not the cause of the annual haze.

PETALING JAYA: The environmental impact of agricultural conversion of tropical peat is a matter of intense debate.

Dr Reuben Clements, co-founder of Rimba, a non-profit research group registered in Malaysia, said the drainage and conversion of peatland to agriculture was largely responsible for forest fires that caused the annual haze.

“Research has shown that drained peatland will eventually sink below sea level and become flood-prone, so why establish plantations there anyway?” he said.

Rimba researcher Lahiru Wijedasa attended the recent peat congress in Kuching and is one of the authors of a joint letter calling for better management of tropical peatland.

Indonesia and Malaysia are among the world’s biggest palm oil producers and exporters, with Malaysia contributing to 39% of world palm oil production and 44% of world exports.

Consultant geologist Dr Paramananthan Selliah agreed that coastal peatland risked becoming unsustainable when drained and subsided below sea level.

However, he challenged the view that rapid loss of carbon is the primary concern of agriculture on peatland, adding that peat swamp emitted methane when it was under water.

“Methane is 18 times more detrimental than carbon dioxide for global warming, and if someone carelessly throws a cigarette butt during a prolonged dry period, it can cause a peat fire. So why blame it on oil palm?” he said.

On holding the conversion of peatland to agriculture responsible for forest fires, Dr Paramananthan said the annual haze resulted from all burning and not only peat fires.

A no-burn policy was practised by plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia, he added, not discounting the possibility of unscrupulous planters who burned to clear their land to save costs.

He felt Malaysia needed to have a think-tank of qualified experts who could quickly respond to allegations.

He added that people should also not simply accept “half-truths” by NGOs that were largely funded by producers of other vegetable oil crops such as soyabean and rapeseed – the competitor to oil palm.

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Environment , peatland

   

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