To understand the scale of the damage of mismanaging peatland, the 2015 fires that raged across Indonesia are a good starting point. In October of that year, daily greenhouse gas emissions from peat fires exceeded the daily emissions of the entire U.S. economy. Deadly particulates and haze forced schools and businesses to close and caused respiratory, eye and skin ailments. Overall damages from the 2015 peat fires are estimated at $16 billion, or almost 2% of Indonesian GDP at the time.
“The fire disaster is not simply a technical problem,” said CIFOR’s Purnomo, “It’s also a problem for livelihoods and policy.” Following the 2015 fire, the researcher decided it was crucial to involve a wide range of communities and partners in order to avoid repeating the same devastating mistakes.
The causes of fire in Riau fall into three categories, according to Purnomo. The first is caused by large companies, especially oil palm producers that carry out land clearing by burning peatland. The second is caused by mid-size companies that often grow palm oil without adopting environmentally sustainable practices. They burn the forests and peat to reduce costs associated with environmentally sustainable peatland management. The third kind of fire is triggered by individual landowners who burn peatlands to grow oil palm.
Part of the solution to the damaging fires was collaboration with partners. With decades of experience trudging through soggy peat and working with villagers living in the world’s largest expanse of tropical peatlands, Purnomo and CIFOR-ICRAF researchers teamed up with Teamasek Foundation International and the University of Riau to work alongside community members and local politicians. The resulting ‘participatory action research’ project aims to put a halt to the clearing of peatlands by burning or draining to grow crops like oil palm.
The project relies on a network of partners working together and helping community members get actively involved in the research rather than participating as passively or as mere sources of data.
Meri Andaya and fellow village members in Dompas planted 10,000 pineapple plants in 5 days on the degraded peat. The villagers debated the pros and cons of different land preparation techniques from the use of heavy machinery that damages the land to more labour intensive and traditional techniques that are lighter and less destructive. Along the way, they have learned to cultivate crops in a system known as paludiculture.
“There are two alternatives that we discussed together with farmer groups and communities here,” said Dr. Nurul Qomar from the University of Riau. “The first is whether to choose the use of heavy machinery as is usually done by large companies or the use of a slashing (by hand) system because the heavy machinery has caused damage to the peatlands.” Equipped with such knowledge, the community members opted for the more environmentally friendly approach.
In part 3, we discuss the next steps in peatland restoration and the role of stakeholders and partners.