Beyond the Haze

Today, a short piece I wrote with several other C-PEAT-land scientists was published on the Journal of Applied Ecology blog.  Last October, whilst we were excitedly sharing our tales of new peatland findings at the inaugural workshop in New York, our beloved ecosystems were going up in smoke on the other side of the world.  Thousands of years of environmental history have burnt away over the last nine months in Southeast Asia, thanks to the natural phenomenon of El Niño.  It’s ofcourse absolutely nothing to do with our extensive draining of peatlands, subsequent compaction and complete conversion into oil palm and acacia plantations.  (There’s a blog post and paper to come on this.)

I’ve pasted our concerned correspondence below.

Beyond the Haze: Implications of the recent fires in Indonesia for tropical peatland research

This post was written by members of C-PEAT (Lydia Cole, Ian Lawson, Dave Beilman, Dan Charman and Zicheng Yu) to voice the group’s concern over the consequences of the recent extensive burning of Indonesia’s peatlands for science. C-PEAT (Carbon in Peat on Earth through Time) is a thematic group of PAGES (Past Global Changes), and had its inaugural meeting at Columbia University in New York, in October 2015.

Many reports and commentaries concerning the recent fires in Indonesia, including here, have been published over the last twelve months.  El Niño conditions, bringing drier weather to this part of Southeast Asia, in combination with extensive draining of peatlands, resulted in a tinder box that started burning in mid-August of 2015 and continued even as the world’s nations gathered at COP21 in Paris to discuss tools for sustainable forest management.

The consequences of these fires for society, the economy and the environment are still being quantified.  The areal extent of last year’s burning across Indonesia has been estimated to exceed 2.6 M ha (World Bank), with up to 90% of the subsequent haze resulting from peatland fires.  Peat volume losses over such a large area are likely to represent, by analogy with the 1997 fires (Page et al., 2002), a globally-significant loss of stored carbon.

While we share the widespread dismay at these social, economic and environmental consequences, we wish also to point out the loss to science represented by the apparently relentless destruction of Indonesia’s peatlands, a topic which was discussed at the inaugural PAGES Carbon in Peat on Earth through Time (C-PEAT) meeting last October.

Peatlands, which store atmospheric carbon as partially decomposed organic matter, provide a rich diversity of palaeo-proxies that can be used to measure the effect of past climatic change and human activity on ecosystems.  Akin to the loss of climate histories from disappearing glaciers worldwide (Savage, 2015), our library of environmental history in Indonesia is going up in smoke.  The importance of understanding the past will only increase as we enter historically unprecedented climatic regimes and environmental states, for which the prehistoric palaeoenvironmental record is a key resource for insights and analogies.


Page, S.E., Siegert, F., Rieley, J.O., Boehm, H-D.V., Jaya, A. & S. Limin. (2002) The amount of carbon released from peat and forest fires in Indonesia during 1997. Nature 420, 61-65.

Savage, N. (2015) Glaciology: Climatology on thin ice. Nature 520, 395-397.

It’s not rocket science.

I have just read this.  The Malaysia Palm Oil Board (MPOB) is hooking up with the Sarawak Oil Palm Plantation Owners Association (SOPPOA) to figure out what is going wrong with palm oil production in Sarawak.  Amongst other issues, members of SOPPOA have been complaining of: “oil palm estates (having a) …. serious infestation of Tirabatha (a moth of the pest variety), particularly in the lower Baram and central coastal regions, poor fruit set, bunch failures, lower frond dessication and acid sulphate soil problems”.  The lower Baram and coastal regions are mostly peatlands.  Acid sulphate soils result from the draining, oxidation and resultant subsidence of peat, exposing the underlying acid sulphate soils.  It’s not rocket science.

MPOB, the oil palm research and management organisation in Malaysia (Government-funded and led) that directs the production of palm oil across the three States of Malaysia, will conduct the research and report to SOPPOA.  SOPPOA is somewhat at MPOB’s mercy to suggest how farmers across the State of Sarawak can maximise yields and profit, especially from the coastal peatland zones, for which there is limited to zero knowledge on best management practices, from an optimum profit point of view.  From an environmental point of view, I’m not sure there is a point of view.

I wonder what MPOB will conclude.


Retreating from peat!

A degraded tropical peatland in Borneo, with an approximately five year old oil palm plantation in the distance.

A deforested and drained tropical peatland in Borneo, with an approximately five year old oil palm plantation in the distance.

(I also just published this on the UK Tropical Peatland Working Group website.  Worth a quick gander!)

Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) has decided to ‘immediately retire’ approximately 7,000 hectares of its acacia plantations in Indonesia, with the goal of restoring them to intact peat swamp forest and developing a peatland best management practice model.  This is a bold move, forfeiting profits to comply with their Forest Conservation Policy (FCP).  Just over a year ago, they proved to be conservation forerunners again, (loudly) announcing to ‘protect and restore’ one million hectares of forest.  These come as welcome actions from APP, after it spent many years (and still is?) leading the deforestation frontier across Sumatra and Kalimantan, replacing hugely diverse ecosystems with monoculture plantations, and draining many a peatland along the way.

As Wetlands International say, there’s still a long way to go before APP can claim to be conserving, rather than destroying peatlands.  For example, how do they plan to rewet the peatlands?  What species are they going to plant into the current monocultures, and when?  How will they manage fire risk (heightened this year by ENSO) and potential flooding?   What will be the likely carbon emissions under different restoration strategies?  These are all important questions that researchers can help to answer.  Members of the UK Tropical Peatland Working Group are certainly on the case (watch this space).

But APP have given us a goal to hold them accountable to….and we must.

More information on the restoration mission from Deltares, APP’s independent peat expert team, can be found here.