Peatlands — also known as bogs, mires, moors and muskegs — serve as carbon sinks, comprising more than half of all wetlands worldwide and equal to 3 percent of total land and freshwater surfaces.
They have been subject to a broad range of environmental degradation, including drainage for agriculture, commercial forestry and fuel.
Built up over thousands of years from layers of decayed, waterlogged vegetation, peatlands have in recent years played a larger role in landscape restoration strategies as scientists seek solutions to keep global warming in check.
They store a third of surface soil carbon and 10 percent of global freshwater resources worldwide. This gives them the potential to play a key role in meeting U.N. Paris Agreement targets established in 2015 aimed at keeping post-industrialization global warming in check.
In discussions at the 2018 Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn, Germany, delegates shared best-practice experiences of managing tropical peatlands and highlighted the potential offered by new South-South cooperation through the International Tropical Peatland Centre (ITPC) launched in November.
In 2017, scientists said they had mapped the largest tract of peatlands in the tropics in the Cuvette Centrale Basin in the Congo. Since then, peatland experts worldwide have worked toward establishing greater collaborative efforts.
Headquartered on the outskirts of Jakarta in Bogor, Indonesia at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the ITPC alliance includes its host country, Republic of Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Indonesia produces half of all global emissions from peatlands, which are often drained for palm oil and pulp wood plantation production.
“Indonesia is eager to share our invaluable experience with our fellow countries, the two Congos, in managing peatlands with appropriate, sustainable practices,” said Siti Nurbaya Bakar, Indonesia’s minister of environment and forestry.
In 2009, Indonesia pledged to reduce its national greenhouse gas emissions at least 26 percent by 2020. The country aims to share lessons learned, assist and collaborate with other developing countries with the support of UN Environment.
In its 2015 Intended Nationally Determined Contribution to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change, Indonesia increased its voluntarily promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 29 percent on its own and up to 41 percent with international support by 2030, against a business-as-usual scenario.
Tim Christophersen, head of the water, land and climate branch at UN Environment, which helped set up the ITPC, said that Indonesia is now on track to correct past mistakes made in peatland management.
“Siti Nurbaya is a champion for this cause,” Christophersen said. Through sharing lessons with other tropical countries, peatland management will improve, offering potential livelihood benefits in addition to environmental advantages, he added.
Draining peatlands not only leads to land subsidence, but also makes these landscapes more vulnerable to fires, which can rapidly burn for years underground in certain conditions. In 2015 in Indonesia, fires burned uncontrollably for lengthy periods due to dry weather and soil.
Peat fires and haze in Indonesia that year killed 100,000 people, put half a million people in the hospital and caused up to $40 billion in damage, said Hans Joosten, a world leader in peatlands management with the International Mire Conservation Group and Germany’s University of Greifswald.
“We must appreciate very much that Indonesia has taken the lead in turning this back – it’s leading the list of global top emitters from peatlands, even without the enormous peatland fires,” Joosten said. “But the European Union is a good second – the European Union likes to blame Indonesia for peatland emissions but should also look at their own.”
Countries in the global north share responsibility, he said. “If we look at land use, peatlands produce 30 percent of all emissions from all agriculture.”
Land subsidence caused by draining poses a challenge. Much of the Netherlands is now at risk of flooding because it is below sea level. In some cases the land has sunk 8 meters, Joosten said.
“We’ve calculated that peatlands subsidence will, in this century, lead to uncontrolled flooding of 10 to 20 million hectares of productive land worldwide, and that is frightening because we are losing land now that we need it most; for more people, for less poverty, and for replacing fossil resources as we have agreed in the Paris Agreement,” Joosten said.
A sustainable option to draining peatlands is paludiculture, the cultivation of agriculture and plants in damp conditions – a viable option because it produces biomass from wet or rewetted peatlands.
“Make drained peatlands wet again – and if you use them, use them wet,” said Joosten. “There will be no Paris (Agreement) without peatlands; peatlands must be wet. For the climate. For the land. For the people. Forever.”
Paludiculture is an option, but strategic planning is important to avoid such increased risks as malaria, said Francisco Rilla, director of science and policy for the Ramsar Convention, which oversees international wetlands management and conservation.
We have to maintain variability and the biodiversity in peatland landscapes, Rilla said. For conservation, adding water is right, but it is not enough. We need time, and we have to be careful.
Indonesia’s new interactive Peatland Restoration Information and Monitoring System (PRIMS) has been designed to support transparency and complex restoration initiatives to complement the recently introduced moratorium on oil palm plantations, said Budi Wardhana, who heads the initiative at the country’s National Peatland Restoration Agency.
“The purpose of the development of PRIMS is to communicate results and outcomes and also to encourage positive momentum, to inspire and allow for transferable resolve, to guide and support implementation of restorations and provide feedback including continuous and collective learning for adaptive management,” Wardhana said.
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