The government has started research into developing peatlands as agricultural lands and conservation areas, following years of plantation companies and farmers using the slash-and-burn method in an attempt to cultivate peatlands.
The South Sumatra Peatland Restoration Team (TRGD) has focused on four areas in the province for developing as peat management and research centers.
TRGD chairman Najib Asmani said that the four areas were mapped on their individual characteristics for researchers to conduct a variety of peatland studies.
The four areas include Sembilang National Park, which UNESCO designated last year as a Biosphere Reserve.
The three other areas are a 700,000-hectare industrial timber estate (HTI) in Ogan Komering Ilir (OKI) regency, an area that is to become a food plantation research center in Banyu Urip village, Banyuasin regency, and the Sepucuk area in OKI regency that is to become a peat development center.
“Various types of peatlands exist [in these areas],” said Najib, adding that a feasibility study on production development would soon be carried out on the areas for proposing their approval under a gubernatorial bylaw.
Burning carbon-rich peatlands have caused decades of widespread forest fires in Indonesia. The country experienced its worst forest fires and haze crisis in 2015, which caused Rp 221 trillion (US$15.8 billion) in economic losses, equal to 1.9 percent of the national GDP that year.
Najib also said that calling the areas "research centers" enabled the local communities to be empowered and educated in developing the areas without burning them.
Forestry and climate change expert Daniel Murdiyarso of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) said that the peatland studies must be planned well. Researchers needed to determine their targets, especially in terms of future outreach programs.
He said the studies should focus on abandoned peatlands that had become sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
“Peatlands are the largest carbon storage. Indonesia preserves 55 billion tons of carbon. About 70 percent of peatlands in Asia are here,” he said.
Daniel said Indonesia should be able to cut 2 billion tons of carbon emissions a year.
He said peatland emissions could be controlled by not allowing them to dry out. The TRGD's rewetting program was on example of the concrete measures that could be taken to preserve converted forests and peatlands.
Unlike peatlands in conservation forests, peatlands in productive lands and forests were prone to drying out and peat fires. Forest fires impacted not just human life, but also biodiversity, such as by disrupting tiger habitats, causing nutrient pollution and imbalance in river systems, and harming freshwater ecosystems.
“Through research, a region’s vulnerability to disasters and mitigation can be carried out more accurately and quickly,” Daniel said.
KELOLA Sendang project director Damayanti Buchori said that publicizing research studies played an important role in promoting future peatland management.
KELOLA Sendang is a landscape management project initiated by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the Indonesian government and the South Sumatra administration to address the challenges of deforestation, peatland degradation and climate change.