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.

Somewhere out there could be a giant new planet in our solar system: so where is it?


Tanya Hill, Museum Victoria and Jonti Horner, University of Southern Queensland

There’s plenty of excitement at the announcement overnight that a new planet is potentially waiting to be found at the extremes of our solar system.

The possible ninth planet is thought to be quite substantial with a mass around ten times that of Earth and a radius that’s two-to-four times bigger than Earth’s. This characterises it as a Neptune-like object.

What’s truly remarkable about Planet Nine, as it has been dubbed, is its very long orbit. It is estimated to take between 10,000 to 20,000 years to orbit our sun, on an elliptical orbit that stretches way beyond the Kuiper Belt.

The Kuiper Belt is a ring of icy objects (which includes Pluto) that circles the sun beyond the orbit of Neptune. Neptune orbits about 30 times further from the sun than the Earth and astronomers refer to Neptune’s distance from the sun as being 30 astronomical units (au) (where one au is the Earth-sun distance). Pluto follows an elliptical orbit that brings it as close as 29.7au from the sun, then out to almost 50au at its most distant point.

Planet Nine’s proposed elliptical orbit takes it from 200au at its closest to the sun (or perihelion) and between 500au to 1,200au at its furthest (aphelion). When it comes in close, it should be bright enough for high-spec backyard telescopes to pick it up.

But unfortunately, most of the time the planet will be much more distant and that represents a greater challenge. It will require the world’s largest telescopes, such as the 10m diameter Keck telescopes and Japan’s 8.2m Subaru telescope (both located on Mauna Kea in Hawaii) to have a hope of seeing it.

Ghostly pull of gravity

The planet has yet to be seen. So why is it thought to be out there? And how can we know so much about it? Planet Nine is the best fit to explain the orbits of six distant objects.

The six most distant known objects in the solar system with orbits exclusively beyond Neptune (magenta) all mysteriously line up in a single direction. Also, when viewed in three dimensions, they all tilt nearly identically away from the plane of the solar system. Batygin and Brown show that a planet with ten times the mass of the earth in a distant eccentric orbit anti-aligned with the other six objects (orange) is required to maintain this configuration. The diagram was created using WorldWide Telescope.
Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

What’s odd about these six objects is that they have peculiar but remarkably similar orbits. These objects have been nudged off kilter and yet they are all shepherded together in the same region of space.

The first of these objects to be discovered was Sedna. It was observed in 2003, as it approached perihelion. When its 11,400-year orbit was calculated, the discovery team realised that this object was orbiting in a kind of “no man’s land” (or more correctly “no person’s land”).

It was too distant to belong to the Kuiper Belt and not far enough away to be among the sphere of comets orbiting the sun in the Oort Cloud.

Sedna was also beyond the gravitational pull of Neptune, so something else, perhaps a large planet or possibly even a passing star (one of the sun’s many siblings perhaps), might have nudged it off course. What makes Planet Nine feasible is that it can explain the orbit of Sedna along with the other five objects.

At their closest approach to the sun, these six objects sit within the plane of the solar system. Planet Nine would have an orbit that is anti-aligned to the six objects and provides the gravitational tug needed to keep those planets in check.

And there’s more. What makes good science is when a proposed model explains something above and beyond its original intention. Simulations of Planet Nine predict that there should also be objects in the Kuiper Belt that have orbits perpendicularly inclined to the plane of the solar system.

Turns out, these objects exist. Five such objects have been known about since 2002, although their orbits have been unexplained until now.

A predicted consequence of Planet Nine is that a second set of confined objects should also exist. These objects are forced into positions at right angles to Planet Nine and into orbits that are perpendicular to the plane of the solar system. Five known objects (blue) fit this prediction precisely. This diagram was created using WorldWide Telescope.
Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

Haven’t we seen this before?

If Planet Nine does exist, it’s not the first time that a planet in our solar system has been discovered theoretically before being directly observed. In 1845, deviations in the orbit of Uranus, suggested there might be an eighth planet to the solar system and in 1846, Neptune was observed exactly where it was predicted to be.

There have also been predictions that haven’t stood the test of time. Back in the 1980s, scientists proposed that the sun might be a binary, with a dim undiscovered companion moving along on elongated orbit. Every 23 million years (or so), this star named Nemesis would pass through the solar system causing a deluge of comets to impact Earth and produce mass extinctions.

More recently, around the turn of the millennium, astronomers noticed an asymmetry in the distribution of new comets coming in from the Oort Cloud. In theory, comets should come evenly from all directions, but there was a slight excess distributed around a great circle on the sky. One of the explanations was that there could be a Jupiter-mass planet in the Oort cloud, known as Tyche.

In 2014, NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) examined the entire sky across infrared wavelengths. It was the perfect telescope to detect Nemesis or Tyche, but failed to find any evidence of either.

Will we find Planet Nine?

Scientists are sceptical by nature. It’s exciting to have a model that predicts the existence of Planet Nine but this prediction must also be tested. Astronomers have begun searching through astronomical surveys, such as the WISE survey, the Catalina Sky Survey, and the Pan STARRS surveys in the hope of making a sighting.

So far, nothing has been seen. The conclusion, as described in a blog by astronomer, Mike Brown (who proposed Planet Nine along with colleague Konstantin Batygin) is that Planet Nine, if it exists, is likely in the hardest place to find.

It seems to currently be at its furthest point from the sun, at least 500au away; it’s probably fainter than 22nd magnitude (that’s 1,500 times fainter than Pluto); and very possibly it’s aligned with the plane of the Milky Way Galaxy (meaning that Planet Nine may currently be hidden against the background stars of our Galaxy).

Regardless, the hunt is on and there just may be a great discovery out there, waiting to happen.

The Conversation

Tanya Hill, Honorary Fellow of the University of Melbourne and Senior Curator (Astronomy), Museum Victoria and Jonti Horner, Vice Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow, University of Southern Queensland

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

Ocean predators can help reset our planet’s thermostat


Peter Macreadie, University of Technology Sydney; Euan Ritchie, Deakin University; Graeme Hays, Deakin University; Rod Connolly, Griffith University, and Trisha B Atwood, Utah State University

If you knew that there was zero percent chance of being eaten by a shark, would you swim more often? Rhetorical questions aside, the fear of being eaten has a profound influence on other animals too, and on the way they use marine environments.

Turtles, for example, fear being eaten by sharks and this restricts the movement and behaviour of entire populations. But when the fear of being eaten dissipates, we see that turtles eat more, breed more, and go wherever they please.

It might sound like turtle paradise, but in an article published today in Nature Climate Change we show that loss of ocean predators can have serious, cascading effects on oceanic carbon storage and, by extension, climate change.

Cascading effects

For a long time we’ve known that changes to the structure of food webs – particularly due to loss of top predators – can alter ecosystem function. This happens most notably in situations where loss of predators at the top of the food chain releases organisms lower in the food chain from top-down regulatory control. For instance, the loss of a predator may allow numbers of its prey to increase, which may eat more of their prey, and so on. This is known as “trophic downgrading”.

With the loss of some 90% of the ocean’s top predators, trophic downgrading has become all too common. This upsets ecosystems, but in our article we also report its effects on the capacity of the oceans to trap and store carbon.

This can occur in multiple ecosystems, with the most striking examples in the coastal zone. This is where the majority of the ocean’s carbon is stored, within seagrass, saltmarsh and mangrove ecosystems – commonly known as “blue carbon” ecosystems.

Blue carbon ecosystems capture and store carbon 40 times faster than tropical rainforests (such as the Amazon) and can store the carbon for thousands of years. This makes them one of the most effective carbon sinks on the planet. Despite occupying less that 1% of the sea floor, it is estimated that coastal blue carbon ecosystems sequester more than half the ocean’s carbon.

The carbon that blue carbon ecosystems store is bound within the bodies of plants and within the ground. When predators such as sharks and other large fish are removed from blue carbon ecosystems, resulting increases in plant-eating organisms can destroy the capacity of blue carbon habitats to sequester carbon.

For example, in seagrass meadows of Bermuda and Indonesia, less predation on herbivores has resulted in spectacular losses of vegetation, with removal of 90–100% of the above-ground vegetation.

Stop killing predators

Such losses of vegetation can also destabilise carbon that has been buried and accumulated over millions of years. For example, a 1.5-square-kilometre die-off of saltmarsh in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, caused by recreational overharvesting of predatory fish and crabs, freed around 248,000 tonnes of below-ground carbon.

If only 1% of the global area of blue carbon ecosystems were affected by trophic cascades as in the latter example, this could result in around 460 million tonnes of CO2 being released annually, which is equivalent to the annual CO2 emissions of around 97 million cars, or just a bit less than Australia’s current annual greenhouse gas emissions.

So what can be done? Stronger conservation efforts and modification of fishing regulations can help restore marine predator populations, and thereby help maintain the important indirect role that predators play in climate change mitigation.

It’s about restoring balance so that we have, for example, healthy and natural numbers of both sea turtles and sharks. Policy and management need to reflect this important realisation as a matter of urgency.

More than 100 million sharks may be killed in fisheries each year, but if we can grant these predators great protection they may just help to save us in return.

The Conversation

Peter Macreadie, Senior lecturer & ARC DECRA Fellow, Deakin University and Senior lecturer & ARC DECRA Fellow, University of Technology Sydney; Euan Ritchie, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University; Graeme Hays, Professor of Marine Science, Deakin University; Rod Connolly, Professor in Marine Science, Griffith University, and Trisha B Atwood, Assistant Professor of aquatic ecology, Utah State University

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

A Bad Day for Climate Change Deniers … And the Planet


TIME

It’s not often that the climate change deniers get clobbered three times in just two days. But that’s what happened with the release of a trio of new studies that ought to serve as solid body blows to the fading but persistent fiction that human-mediated warming is somehow a hoax. Good news for the forces of reason, however, is bad news for the planet—especially the oceans.

The most straightforward of the three studies was a report from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirming what a lot of people who sweltered through 2014 already suspected: the year is entering the record books as the hottest ever since reliable records started being kept in 1880—and the results weren’t even close.

Average global surface temperature worldwide was 58.24º F (14.58º C)—surpassing previous records set in 2005 and 2007—and making 2014 a full 2º F (1.1º C) hotter than the…

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We may have to suck up CO2 to prevent planet from frying, U.N. says


Grist

The climate situation is so dire that we may have to resort to geoengineering to keep the planet livable, according to a leaked draft of a forthcoming report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The New York Times reports:

Nations have so dragged their feet in battling climate change that the situation has grown critical and the risk of severe economic disruption is rising, according to a draft United Nations report. Another 15 years of failure to limit carbon emissions could make the problem virtually impossible to solve with current technologies, experts found.

A delay would most likely force future generations to develop the ability to suck greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and store them underground to preserve the livability of the planet, the report found. But it is not clear whether such technologies will ever exist at the necessary scale, and even if they…

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