09 May 2017 Story Air

Managing peatlands and keeping carbon dioxide under control

By Dianna Kopansky, UN Environment peatlands coordinator

Smoke from peatland fires contributes to global air pollution, which causes nearly 6.5 million deaths annually.

Indonesia has suffered from seasonal peat fires for decades but is now moving to restore its peatlands and use them sustainably.

Peat fires in Indonesia have caused widespread haze, and contributed to air pollution, which has also adversely affected neighbouring countries.

If you drain a peatland and degrade it, it releases greenhouse gases and is susceptible to fires. As a way to prevent fires, Indonesia is rewetting its peatlands to keep them wet and use them sustainably.

Peat is partially decayed vegetation saturated with water and accumulated over thousands of years.

Of the 2.6 million hectares of land burned between June and October 2015 in Indonesia, 33 per cent was carbon-rich peatland. On some days the fires generated more carbon dioxide than average daily emissions in the United States.

The air pollution affected 43 million people and hospitalized 550,000. According to the World Bank this cost Indonesia US$ 16 billion in economic losses - an equivalent to 1.9 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product - and twice the total value of the Aceh Tsunami Reconstruction.

The fires not only have a dire impact on people’s health, they severely affect tourism in the sub-region.

The impetus for the fires is to clear the land for agriculture. Peatland continues to be degraded due to logging, drainage and burning. The costs are huge.

Turning a corner?

To address this daunting challenge, in 2016 Indonesia set up the Peatlands Restoration Agency, and the government has started re-wetting the drained areas.

Furthermore, in 2016 Indonesia, Peru, The Republic of Congo, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, together with international organizations and research institutions, set up the UN Environment-led Global Peatland Initiative. The objective of this initiative is to create a conducive environment for the member countries to learn from each other’s experience, thus minimizing the adverse environmental impact and ensuring a better quality of life for communities living in or surrounded by peatlands.

“We urgently need to have an accurate census of peatland locations so that we can put in place national and sub-regional action plans to conserve and restore them,” says Jan Peters from Succow Stiftung, Partner in the Greifswald Mire Centre, a Global Peatlands Initiative member.

“For local communities to benefit from this natural resource, we need to rehabilitate the degraded peatlands by rewetting them and keep these significant carbon stores in the ground.”

Practical action

In Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan Province, and more specifically in Dusun Hilir sub-district, Generating Anticipatory Measures for Better Utilization of Tropical Peatlands (GAMBUT), a project supported by the Government of Indonesia, UN Environment and the United Nations Office for Project Services is testing innovative, and technically sound, peat rehabilitation methods in the province. The project is funded by the United States Agency for International Development.

GAMBUT, which means “peat” in Bahasa, helps educate local communities on the importance of peatland so they can sustainably farm and reduce the carbon footprint of their crops. It also builds the capacity of local communities to effectively respond to fires through the use of fire early warning systems.

The project, building on earlier work of the national REDD+ agency, started in 2015. It will provide grants to communities with the aim of improving their livelihoods through the development of horticulture, fisheries (the area is very rich in kerapu fish), and other related sectors. In return, people will take part in rehabilitation activities, such as the unblocking of water channels to allow water to reach peatland. 

At the community level the hope is that grant recipients will help to put an end to illegal logging, and stop ”slash and burn” practices, thus contributing to improve livelihoods, health and well-being.

As the world’s environmental leaders come together in December 2017 for the Environment Assembly focusing on pollution, they will have to make bold decisions to prevent future environmental impact from haze-causing peat fires.

Learn more by viewing this slideshow https://spark.adobe.com/page/QHhI2Za2OzJaK/

Peatlands are the most efficient carbon sink on the planet. When they burn they release huge amounts of carbon dioxide. Read Peat fires stoke global warming.

Peatland is also critical for biodiversity conservation, water resource management, and livelihoods.

The upcoming Global Peatlands Initiative meeting from 15-17 May 2017 and the Global Landscapes Forum: Peatlands Matter meeting on 18 May 2017 in Indonesia present a great opportunity for the world to make real changes to peatland management and help countries avoid the costs of future peatland fires globally.

For further information: Dianna Kopansky: Dianna.Kopansky [at] unenvironment.org

Media enquiries: florian.eisele[at] unenvironment.org