People, palm oil, pulp and planet: four perspectives on Indonesia’s fire-stricken peatlands


Samantha Grover, La Trobe University; Linda Sukamta, La Trobe University, and Robert Edis

Peat means different things to different people. To many Irish people, it means fuel. To the Scottish, it adds a smoky flavour to their whisky. Indonesia’s peatlands, meanwhile, are widely known as the home of orangutans, the palm oil industry, and the persistent fires that cause the infamous Southeast Asian haze.

Indonesians, and other people with ties to these peatlands, have a range of perspectives on the value of peat – both commercial and otherwise.

Here we explore them through the eyes of four fictitious but representative characters.


Read more: How plywood started the destruction of Indonesia’s forests.


The smallholder in rural Sumatra

Peatland is my land. As migrants from Java, my family now have our own house and our own crops. In some years there have been terrible fires, with smoke so thick we can’t even see the end of our street, and all of our food crops burn. But in other years, the rice and corn grow well, my family eat fish every day, my wife smiles, and our children grow tall.

In Java we had no land of our own, and I worked as a farm labourer. Here in Sumatra we have our own peatland. It is different from Javanese soil but we work hard to tend our crops, watering them in the dry season and protecting them from fire.

A big palm oil company has trained me and 50 other men from our village in firefighting. We have uniforms and water-holding backpacks, and I have learned about when the fire will come. They are helping us to protect our palms, and their own palms, of course. My palms are still young, but in a few years I will sell the palm oil fruit to the company, and then my boys can go to high school in town – as long as the palms don’t burn, God willing.

Floods are a harder problem. How can I protect my land? The government dug canals to drain the peatland before we came, but they are not big enough to hold all the water that comes from the heavens and the floods come more and more often.


The official in Jakarta

Peatland is our burden. Indonesia has fertile land, rich oceans… and then there are the peatlands. It is always either too wet to use, or so dry that it burns.

Other Southeast Asian governments want us to end the fires and haze single-handed, but Indonesia isn’t the only one to blame; peatland fires are a regional problem.

We are caught between domestic and international pressures. Develop our peatlands to lift our people out of poverty, or preserve them for orangutans and carbon storage. Of course, the Indonesian people are my priority.

When I studied agriculture at university in Brisbane in the 1990s, my classmates were a little fuzzy about where Indonesia is, let alone what happens here. Now, when our ministry visits Canberra, I feel sad to see “Palm Oil Free” displayed prominently on supermarket products. Westerners don’t understand that not all palm oil is grown on peatlands, that it is a healthy oil and a highly efficient crop perfectly suited to tropical conditions.

Oil palms can be grown sustainably and have helped many farmers out of poverty. Nearly half of Indonesia’s palm oil is sourced from smallholders, and losing that income can really hurt them.

A palm growing on peatland.
Andri Thomas, Author provided

Our ministry is working hard to ensure that Indonesia develops our peatlands sustainably, restoring and rewetting degraded areas and working with the local people to find economic uses for wet peat. My son wants to follow in my footsteps and work on peatlands too, and has applied to study sustainable development at university in Singapore.

So while peatlands are currently a source of national embarrassment, many minds are focused on transforming them into the goose that lays the golden egg for Indonesia.


Read more: Sustainable palm oil must consider people too.


The businessperson in Singapore

Peatland is good, profitable land. For too long we have considered it wasteland – too wet, too far away. But technology from peat-rich countries like Finland and Canada is helping us to use tropical peatlands for people.

My pulp and paper company has half of its plantations on peatlands, which produce more than a third of our pulpwood. My silviculture (forest management) team works closely with my environmental manager and PR team to ensure that our plantations are grown according to best practice, and that our shareholders and clients know it.

The community benefits in the regions around our plantations are easy to see. The village that my parents came from has electricity now, and big modern houses have replaced the old wooden ones. We have paved the road and our taxes support the government’s new health centre and primary school.

We are not a big company like Asia Pulp and Paper, which can afford to retire part of the estate on peatlands, but we do try to abide by the 2011 moratorium on new plantations on peatlands, despite repeated scepticism from environmental groups. Anyway, the moratorium is a Presidential Instruction, and so is flexibly applied.

The Indonesian government doesn’t want any more fires, and neither do we – we don’t want our plantations to burn! But the new regulations that require rewetting the peat are a big challenge for us. What will grow in wet peatland?

I lie awake at night worrying about my company’s future. What species can we diversify into? Should we move away from pulp and into bioenergy? Are we putting enough money into R&D? Should I spend more on lobbying? My son is studying for an MBA in the United States, but will there still be a profitable business for him to join when he graduates?


The orangutan carer

A youngster in the forest.
Michael Catanzariti/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

We rescued Fi Fi from an area that used to be peatland forest but has been cleared for palm plantations. With no food and nowhere to make a nest, Fi Fi and her mother gradually got weaker and weaker, until workers at the plantation noticed and called us. The mother died before we could help her.

That was nine months ago, and I’ve been caring for Fi Fi around the clock since then in a babysitting team with my friend Nurmala. Fi Fi loves cuddles, milk and fruit, just like my children did at her age.

It is a good job, and we have a great team. Everyone is passionate about protecting the orangutans and the forest. We would like to be able to release Fi Fi once she has learned all her forest skills. Orangutans can look after themselves from about seven years old. But they need a lot of space.

Peatland fires, logging and oil palm planting destroy more forest every year, so places for Fi Fi to be released are hard to find. My brothers and sisters are all happy to stay living near our family home, and when I’m not here looking after Fi Fi, I always have my nieces and nephews on my knee.

I love to have them close, but when the dry season fires come and the haze is so thick I can’t even see my brother’s house across the street, I sometimes wish they had flown a bit further from the nest. Last year we were in and out of the health clinic for a month with my niece’s breathing problems.

I spend all my time caring for precious little ones – both human and orangutan – but the issues themselves are too big for me to fight.


Read more: Good news for the only place on Earth where tigers, rhinos, orangutans and elephants live together.


A way forward?

People are central to the problem of tropical peatland fires. In their natural state, tropical peat swamp forests are too wet to burn. Drainage, installed by people for forestry, palm oil, roads, mining and other development, lowers the water table and dries out the peat. Many peat fires smoulder for months, from the start of dry season in July until the monsoon returns in November.

These fires have a wide range of negative effects: on local health, regional economies and the global carbon cycle. Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, has created a new Peatland Restoration Agency, and announced policies to restrict burning and draining of the peat beyond a maximum water table depth of 40cm below the surface. However, action is still disjointed and ministries are, at times, working at cross purposes.

The truth is that only when enough people value wet peatlands will the fires be prevented. Wet peatlands are great for orangutans and the global climate, but how about local smallholders, government officials and business investors? Saving peatlands will require creating value for these people too.

What crops can be profitably grown with a water table high enough to prevent burning? How can smallholders tap into a carbon trading market? Rather than cutting trees to send their children to school, can they earn more money by protecting the carbon stored in peat? Can villagers be empowered to make a better living from ecotourism than illegal logging?

Humans are integral to Indonesia’s tropical peatlands. And they must be at the centre of the solutions too. Otherwise the fires will keep burning – and none of the four people whose stories we’ve heard want that.


The ConversationThis article was co-authored by Laura Graham of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation and Niken Sakuntaladewi, a researcher with the World Agroforestry Centre.

Samantha Grover, Research Fellow, Soil Science, La Trobe University; Linda Sukamta, Lecturer, Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University, and Robert Edis, Soil Scientist

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Indonesia vows to tackle marine pollution


Thomas Wright, The University of Queensland

It is wet season in Bali, Indonesia, a popular tourist destination for Australian, Russian, German, Chinese and Japanese visitors. The Conversation

As the rain pounds down on banana leaves and rice fields, the rivers fill up and irrigation systems overflow. With it, the water masses bring trash in bulk: anything from food wrappers and plastic bags to bottles and other domestic waste.

To tackle the issue of marine pollution, several organisations got together in Nusa Dua – a popular tourist destination – and other locations across Bali to stage the largest beach clean-up the island has seen.

Around 12,000 volunteers collected 40 tons of garbage at 55 locations, according to the One Island, One Voice campaign page.

While the beach clean-up was a hugely successful awareness campaign and a great promotion which highlights the efforts done around the island, it is only a drop in the ocean of global marine pollution.

Plastic pollution in Indonesia

In recent years, Bali has seen growing environmental problems such as pollution and freshwater scarcity. Popular tourist destination Kuta beach is regularly covered in waste. Most of this is plastic that washes ashore during the rainy season.

The island’s garbage dumps are reportedly overflowing,. This makes solid waste management a pressing issue. Substantial groundwater resources are predicted to run dry by 2020, threatening freshwater resources.

On top of that, Indonesia is the world’s second-biggest marine polluter after China, discarding 3.22 million metric tons of waste annually. This accounts for 10% of the world’s marine pollution.

The effects marine pollution has on ecosystems and humans are beginning to be well documented. Marine scientists have found harmful consequences of marine pollution to sea life, ecosystems and humans.

Plastic can kill ocean mammals, turtles and other species that consume it. It can also poison food and water resources, as harmful chemicals leach out of the plastic.

It poses threats to human health as well. Plastics leach cancerous toxins. After being consumed by marine species, they enter the food chain, eventually ending up in fish we eat.

Marine plastic pollution is a global problem and Indonesia’s beaches present pressing examples to study the socio-economic effects this has on coastal communities.

Most vulnerable to marine pollution left out of global discussions

Last month, The Economist held the fourth Oceans Summit in Bali.

The summit was attended by state leaders such as Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla, representatives of major global economic organisations such as Citigroup managing director Michael Eckhart, and celebrity and entrepreneur Adrian Grenier.

Speakers and panels discussed a number of topics, including the “blue economy” and how companies and governments can participate in this marine-based sustainable industry.

During the summit, the Indonesian government announced it will pledge US$1 billion to curb ocean waste by 70% by 2025. It’s an ambitious objective, which shows dedication and commitment to a plastic-free future.

But not all voices are heard in this global debate. Many Bali-based environmental organisations engaged in education programs were not represented at the summit. Those economically most vulnerable to pollution – such as beach vendors, fishermen and others employed in the marine tourism trade – appear to be left out of the conversation.

Marine pollution and tourism

The Indonesian government plans to boost tourism and increase national visitors from 9.7 million in 2015 to 20 million by 2020. Such increases in visitor numbers and population will raise consumption and waste production, further pressuring the island’s infrastructure and ecosystems.

With tourism as the island’s largest economic sector, many Balinese people depend on foreign visitors to earn an income. Some tourism operators are concerned that if the plastic problem increases it will damage this industry. They fear tourists will stop coming to Bali if it is too polluted.

Marine communities may also suffer negative socio-economic consequences, as fishermen can lose their livelihood and tourism operators lose their customers.

While some tourism operators understand that clean beaches are key in attracting international tourists, the expected growth is likely to further stress Bali’s environment.

What is being done?

Efforts by activists, community groups and NGOs to clean beaches play a key role in protecting Bali’s environment. But they are only a temporary fix and don’t tackle the causes of this global problem.

Such groups are leading the fight against over-development and pollution through protests, clean-up events and educational programs.

Campaigners from Bali-based environmental youth group “Bye Bye Plastic Bags” advocate for an island-wide ban on plastic bags. They also spoke at the Ocean Summit.

And while they convinced Bali’s governor to commit to make the island plastic-bag-free by 2018, continued development of legislation, regulation and industry guidelines is needed to save Indonesia’s waterways from drowning in waste.

Thomas Wright, PhD Candidate in Anthropology, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Indonesia and Australia are sleeping ocean superpowers


Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, The University of Queensland and Jamaluddin Jompa, Universitas Hasanuddin

In many ways, Australia and Indonesia represent ocean superpowers. The two neighbouring countries share huge marine resources and opportunities. At the same time both face increasing challenges to their oceans and coastal regions brought about by climate change and over-exploitation.

Recently, marine scientists from Australia and Indonesia identified possible areas of collaboration for their countries to solve these challenges.

The scientists came together at the inaugural Australia Indonesia Science Symposium organised by the Australian and Indonesian scientific academies. We were conveners for the two-day discussion between the Australian and Indonesian marine experts.

The scientists highlighted at least eight potential areas of collaboration on marine science and climate change:

  1. Scientists from both countries believe it’s important for Australia and Indonesia to work together to understand the impact of climate change on marine resources, and to create solutions. Climate change is causing rising sea levels and surface temperatures as well as ocean acidification. These have resulted in the bleaching of corals and mortality that affect livelihoods in both countries. Both scientific communities urge their governments to do more to rapidly reduce greenhouse gases.

  2. They pointed out that Australia and Indonesia should look into developing a strategy to reduce CO₂ and other emissions by maximising their coastal ecosystems and oceans as carbon sinks.

  3. The scientists recommended the two countries explore ways to increase cooperation and knowledge sharing in new technologies for the rapid monitoring of key marine resources. Many breakthroughs in technologies, such as image recognition, neural networks and machine learning, are set to rapidly reduce the time and costs of detailed reef monitoring.

  4. The two scientific communities also suggested the countries work together to advance the sciences to better manage migratory species such as turtles, sharks and other megafauna.

  5. They recommended a holistic approach to developing coastal fisheries. These fisheries require the development of whole-of-system thinking, with integrated management/governance that recognises the multiple uses and activities across space and time.

  6. They noted that development of national parks has been successful to a substantial extent in both countries. But more work must be done in both countries. Baseline datasets need to be developed in order to detect and respond to present and future impacts.

  7. The scientists see a need for Indonesia and Australia to develop greater cooperation on research, innovation and business development. The links between science and innovation and the blue economy need to be strengthened and reinforced.

  8. They identified a need and interest to develop a regional partnership to collaborate on problem solving in the ocean space and to develop databases that readily available to multiple cultural and language groups.

Why is this important?

Both Australia and Indonesia are heavily dependent on their extensive coastal regions and oceans for their food, income and well-being. The ocean holds enormous economic potential, which runs into billions of dollars each year.

Australia’s ocean spans over 13 million square kilometres – an area twice that of Australia’s landmass. Indonesia’s ocean stretches across almost 2 million square kilometres and the country is endowed with one of the longest coastlines of the world – almost 100,000km long!

An estimated 70% of Indonesia’s population, or around 180 million people, lives on this coastline. Similarly, 85% of Australia’s population lives within 50km of the coast.

But marine ecosystems of both countries are facing threats of over-exploitation and destruction.

Pollution from chemicals and plastics has begun to choke entire coastlines, destroying ecosystems and opportunity. At the same time, ocean ecosystems such as coral reefs, kelp forests and mangroves are disappearing at rates up to 2% per year from many coastal areas.

Most fisheries are under-performing. According to the FAO, 80% of the fish stocks are fully exploited or are collapsing. That is, we are getting much less than the sustainable yield should give us.

On top of this, ocean ecosystems and fisheries are severely threatened by climate change – through ocean warming and acidification. These impacts – from the deepest sea to our coasts – are threatening to foreclose on our future ocean wealth and opportunity.

The blue economy

The World Wildlife Fund recently estimated the asset value of the ocean to be US$24 trillion – which if it were a country would be the seventh-largest economy on the planet. This oceanic “wealth” fund delivers US$2.5 trillion in benefits to humanity each year – an economic activity associated with the marine economy that is growing three times faster than Australia’s GDP.

Increasingly, countries and businesses are turning to the ocean to generate novel industries and opportunities for food and income. Termed the “blue economy”, there is increasing focus on better using ocean resources to feed our hungry world.

By 2050 the world’s population will have added 3 billion people and will reach 9 billion. To feed those extra 3 billion people the Food and Agriculture Organisation has indicated that food production must increase by 70%.

The FAO has said that 80% of the required production increases will have to come from increases in crop yields, with only 20% coming from new farmlands.

But the stark reality is that the rate of growth in yields of the major cereal crops has been steadily declining – from about 3.2% per year in 1960 to 1.5% today. Consequently, we must find another alternative or risk ecological disaster as we turn more and more parts of the world’s crucial ecosystems into food production systems.

And it is much more than a matter of simply finding more food.

For industries, such as tourism, new fisheries, energy production and the development of new pharmaceuticals, the blue economy represents an enormous untapped potential.

Tackling the future as Marine Team Indonesia and Australia

It is critical to strike a balance between harvesting the economic potential of our ocean and safeguarding its longer-term health and well-being.

Unfortunately, despite the economic value of these opportunities, the marine resources of Australia and Indonesia are at serious risk of being degraded before we develop these opportunities.

There is a great opportunity and imperative for Australia and Indonesia to join forces to solve these critical challenges.

But to solve the problems, we need greater knowledge about our ocean wealth. We also need to build the capacity to understand and sensibly exploit these ocean resources.

All this means more people and infrastructure. We also need to promote greater regional knowledge and regional information exchange. We need to come together much more regularly to swap ideas and develop new solutions and approaches.

And if we do, then the power of our respective oceans will be unleashed for the greater good.

The Conversation

Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Director, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland and Jamaluddin Jompa, Professor and Dean of Marine Science and Fisheries, Universitas Hasanuddin

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.