Peat forests are one of the world's largest reservoirs of carbon dioxide. Clearing them causes huge damage to the climate. But that's exactly what's happening in Indonesia -- at a rapid pace.
Peat swamp forests burn for a long time, releasing vast amounts of greenhouse gases
In July 1997, huge plumes of black smoke blanketed skyscrapers in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, forcing residents to don oxygen masks anytime they stepped out of their homes. The environmental disaster was caused by slash-and-burn policies in the country's plentiful forests, exacerbated by a particularly dry year.
The smoke from the fires enveloped nearby Malaysia in a choking haze and reached as far as Australia. It took a year for the last blazes to die out. By then, some ten million hectares of forest land -- twice the size of Switzerland -- had been burned to the ground.
Much of the area that burned were peatlands, one of the world's largest stores of carbon dioxide. Peat is a step in the process of making coal. Plants in peat swamps gradually decompose, producing a brown, matted mass of twigs, branches and leaves. The process traps tons of harmful carbon. Peatlands store 50 times as much carbon dioxide as other tropical forests.
The draining of peat swamps in Indonesia has huge environmental consequences
Not much else is known about peat swamp forests. But what's widely acknowledged is that they are disappearing at a rapid rate -- in the Amazons, in the Congo basin and in Southeast Asia. Beneath much of this forest are layers of moist peat -- at times as thick as 20 meters -- that are thousands of years old.
That's why the peat swamp is drained before the forest is cleared. Once the tree cover is hacked and burned, all that remains are bare peatlands that slowly decompose in the sun. The process results in massive emissions of greenhouse gases -- far more than those released by burning trees.
Huge climate fallout
Munich-based biologist Florian Siegert researches peatlands in Indonesia, home to half the world's peat swamp forests. According to him, the country's peat swamp forests are being cleared at an alarming pace to make way for lucrative oil palm plantations.
“Other types of forests have long been overused. For the palm oil industry, peatland is all that's left,” he said.
In 2002, Siegert and his colleagues for the first time highlighted the immense destruction of the climate produced by the burning of peatlands.
The researchers estimated that the infamous forest fires in Indonesia in 1997 and 1998 emitted roughly the same amount of carbon dioxide as the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal around the world in the same period.
In 2006, further forest fires in Indonesia over a span of just a few months produced greenhouse gases equivalent to Germany's total emissions in the same year.
That has made Indonesia the world's third largest climate polluter. Peat swamp forests in the country are estimated to store some 50 billion tons of carbon dioxide. If just half that forest cover were to be burned, a whopping 90 billion tons of carbon would be released into the atmosphere thanks to the slow decay of its peat-rich ground.
The Indonesian government, well aware of the dangers lurking in its peatlands, has commissioned several studies on its forests. The latest says that half the country's greenhouse emissions can be traced back to the conversion of peatland into oil palm plantations.
The authors of the study, much like dozens of environmental organizations, have urged the government to halt deforestation. They point out that if Indonesia improved fire prevention measures, irrigated dry peatlands and implemented existing environmental laws, it could cut three fourths of peat-related greenhouse gas emissions.
A crisis of implementation
But implementing existing measures remains a big problem in the country. It's illegal to clear forests that grow on peatland that's at least three meters thick but that doesn't stop it from happening on a near daily basis.
Experts say there's a lack of police and administrative forces to crack down on violations.
“There's huge corruption in Indonesia. That makes it difficult to protect the forests,” says Peter Gerhardt from the environment group Robin Hood.
Some have recommended the use of satellite technology to better detect illegal deforestation. Researcher Angelika Heil says a convention on peat swamp forests would raise the pressure on governments to punish offenders.
Indonesia's peat swamp forests are being rapidly cleared to make way for palm oil plantations
But the only way to protect forests is to sway palm oil producers, said Florian Siegert, adding that it can only be achieved by offering them financial incentives. The Indonesia archipelago has millions of hectares of wasteland. But palm oil producers prefer to set up plantations on cleared forest land because they can make big profits by selling the wood before they begin producing the oil.
One way to combat the problem could be a new UN plan called REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, expected to be part of a new global climate treaty.
Under REDD, countries will be compensated for protecting their forests. REDD aims to prevent illegal logging, preserve the habitats of vulnerable species, protect indigenous lands and cut greenhouse gas emissions. A few Indonesian palm oil producers have announced that they are willing to forgo large plantations if they are compensated.
Palm oil remains a problem
“There are good approaches,” says Siegert. But in the end, the only measure that can save peat forests is to stop palm oil production, he says. “It's only when demand plummets that we'll begin a rethink” he says.
For now, palm oil is a part of the European Union's strategy to boost renewable energy. “As long as governments subsidize the use of palm oil to save the climate, we're going to continue seeing a crass contradiction.”
The expert is also skeptical about the industry-driven initiative RSPO (Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil) which brings together environment groups and palm oil producers in a bid to produce sustainable palm oil. “The quality controls are really difficult here,” said Siegert.
Experts say it's unlikely that existing palm oil production practices are likely to change anytime soon. Indonesia plans to double production in the next ten years in the face of booming global demand for palm oil.
“The only thing we can do is to strengthen critical voices in civil society on the ground there,” said Peter Gerhardt. “It's only when the population increasingly begins to value their forests will there be a chance for a real, long-term change.”
Author: Torsten Schaefer (sp)
Editor: Mark Mattox