A new policy brief by Wetlands International and Tropenbos International calls for a thorough science-based approach, instead of some of the currently widely applied policies and management models, which have insufficiently considered the issue of peatland subsidence. In 2015 Indonesia was hit by a disastrous haze event caused by extensive peatland fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan. In response, the Indonesian government launched a national Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) with an ambitious target of restoring over 2 million hectares of peatlands by 2020. Success will depend on a proper understanding of the functioning of peatlands.

While the Indonesian government is currently taking bold steps towards large scale peatland restoration to prevent major fires, including rewetting of priority peatland areas, some key players in the pulp for paper and other plantation industry claim that peatlands can be drained sustainably and thus contribute to the government’s goals. It is the case of the so-called “eko-hidro” approach, a peatland management model developed by Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL), a large pulp-for-paper company with major assets on Indonesian peatlands. The model is claimed to provide a sustainable form of drainage-based peatland management. It is applied in the Kampar Peninsula, where APRIL holds major plantations.

The paper published by Wetlands International and Tropenbos International argues that the “eko-hidro” approach is not successful in mitigating the adverse effects of drainage. This is based on a review of studies in peatlands in Indonesia and other parts of the world. It concurs with the findings, a decade ago, of the Kampar Peninsula Science Based Management Support Project, led by the science institute Deltares, which already pointed to the inevitable negative long-term impacts of peatland drainage. At that time it already showed no significant difference in subsidence rates between “business as usual” and “eko-hidro” approaches.

Wetlands International also released a policy brief questioning APRIL ‘eko-hidro’ water management approach, and showing that peer-reviewed scientific literature concludes that all peat drainage is associated with subsidence, fire risk and high carbon emissions.

Peat consists of 90% water and 10% organic material that is mostly carbon. Continuously high water tables have prevented the breakdown of organic material and allowed thick layers of peat to build up over centuries, in many areas in Indonesia. Millions of hectares of peatland in Sumatra and Kalimantan have been drained in order to allow for the development of oil palm and industrial tree plantations. Drainage of peatlands has at least three important consequences with major social and economic effects. First, when drained, the peat oxidizes and carbon is continuously released into the atmosphere as CO2, contributing to climate change. Second, drained peatlands are extremely fire prone, and fires have repeatedly destroyed millions of hectares. Last year, peatland fires destroyed several million hectares, and the haze associated with these fires had devastating impact on the economy of SE Asia and on public health. Lastly, the loss of peat due to oxidation results in subsidence of the peatland which brings the land surface down to sea or river level and eventually leads to frequent or even permanent flooding. Most of the lowland peatlands of Sumatra and Kalimantan have been affected by drainage, and continuation of such drainage-based land-uses – including pulp-for-paper and oil palm plantations in these areas will thus in the long term lead to frequent and prolonged floods during the wet season in many millions of hectares, resulting in the loss of vast areas of productive land. Such land will become high risk areas again for fires in each major dry season.