The Environmental Paper Network is helping to host a workshop in Indonesia to share knowledge about paludiculture, sustainable management of peat soils and solutions to the peatland degradation caused by the paper industry. Sergio Baffoni gives a flavour of the discussions.

There is a palm that produces bread, a vine to braid baskets, a grass to weave carpets.  For decades, local people have successfully planted crops that are native to peat wetlands, such as sago, rattan, jelutung, purun and other native plants, which assured their livelihoods and food security, while not threatening other sources of livelihoods, such as fishing and gathering. This culture is based on the natural environment, does not require the use of fire or drainage and keeps the soil healthy.

Even on degraded and drained peat lands, such as in areas deforested by government-sponsored projects or by plantation expansion, and even in areas devastated by fire, local communities have struggled to develop fire-free horticulture methods that prevent soil subsidence, flooding in the wet season and fires in the dry season.

This knowledge has cost years of experimentation and exhausting work, but almost nobody knows about it. This is why Wetlands International and Jikalahari, a network of environmental organisations in Sumatra, with the support of EPN and CLUA, have organised a workshop to compare local communities experience in paludiculture on peat.

Paludiculture means planting on water keeping the peat wet, using local species that grow naturally on peat. “We have done it for centuries,” says Syaripudin Gusar, from a village in South Sumatra. “Now palm oil and acacia plantations have taken all the land, and only 300 hectares of purun grass remains to our community, 7 hours by boat from the village.” But purun artisanal manufacturing is their identity, so they don’t give up.

“To plant without burning you have to find the right plant, the right species,” says Akhmad Tamuruddin, from Borneo. He arrived in Borneo 34 years ago, with other transmigrants. He was given a little piece of land in the middle of the nowhere, and nothing more. “We had to use fire to open it up. I used fire too, I have to admit it. But every time you burn the land, it goes down several centimetres. You have to burn it every time you sow, it’s half a meter in five years, it’s madness. So I stopped. It has been hard work, but nearby areas are getting flooded every heavy rain, while my land remains dry.”

“We planted sago before independence,” says Abdul Manan from the Meranti Islands, in the Straits of Malacca. Sago is a kind of palm with a spongy centre that it is edible. “We do not need fertilizers, the ponds are full of fishes, we don’t have to dry or burn the peat, it’s not a monoculture. We make noodles, porridge, chips, and even sugar from it.” Then a company arrived and planted sago by cutting the forest, digging canals, drying and burning peat, followed by a pulp and paper company (connected to APRIL), which also started to cut the forest, dig canals, dry and burn peat. The villagers resisted, in order to protect their gardens, their forest and their traditional way of life. Now they are blocking the canals. They still produce sago.

In the workshop, other successful experiences of living on peat without destroying it are exchanged. Then villagers from different provinces ask each other how much it costs to work peat with mineral soil to avoid fire, whether it is possible to plant rattan between Rambutan fruit trees instead of between rubber trees, and how to commercialize sago. They are many pieces of local wisdom, and together they can become a systemic solution to preserve forest, climate and local development.

Industrial development followed a very different path. As well as the palm oil industry, the pulp and paper industry has developed a highly destructive model based on large scale monoculture of alien species, which requires peat degradation. Land that local communities managed according to traditional wisdom has been robbed, cleared and drained. Canals cut into the peat bogs have drained waste land areas, released huge amounts of CO2 and made them prone to forest fires and subsidence.

These industries should learn from the local communities, and change their silviculture model or leave the ground to other people who can manage it better for the future of Indonesia. After the peat fire crisis last year, which impacted the health of millions of people in Indonesia and neighbouring countries, leading to several deaths and releasing more than one billion tonnes of CO2, the pulp and paper industry cannot delay any longer.

Peat soil must be protected by keeping the water level high or by rewetting if drained. Peat has to be planted with local species that can survive in swamps. Among these there are species that can produce paper fibre. The monoculture model has to be turned into a new landscape-based mosaic approach, which includes restoration of natural forest, community based paludiculture and agroforestry, and paludiculture-based fibre plantations for papermaking.

For those unable to attend, we will be hosting a webinar on paper industry impacts on peatlands in Indonesia, by Bas Tinhout of Wetlands International, at 0900 UT on Tuesday 22 November 2016. Contact hag (@) for details of how to join the webinar.