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The Keava Raba peatlands in Estonia. Single.Earth, Unsplash

6 ways to save our peatlands

How to protect our forgotten climate hero, according to experts

To learn more, join us at GLF Peatlands 2024: The Climate Solution We Forgot on 6 June.

This article is brought to you by the International Model Forest Network.

Call it a peatland, a bog or a fen – these ancient, water-laden ecosystems are not only rich in biodiversity but also provide invaluable, nature-based solutions to combat the climate crisis.

But peatlands are under threat from drainage, cutting and burning to make room for other land uses – not to mention from the impacts of the climate crisis itself. In fact, the world’s peatlands are being lost three times faster than its forests.

So, how can we look after and restore them to make sure they can continue to sequester carbon for generations to come?

We asked experts, scientists and environmental activists from across the globe to share six key steps to protect the world’s precious peatlands.

Loch Kinnardochy
Loch Kinnardochy, Scotland. spodzone, Flickr

1. Fix the water

Degraded peatlands often contain drainage ditches to draw out water and convert the dried-up land to other purposes. The Great Fen, one of Britain’s largest peatland restoration efforts, is altering those ditches that surround two national nature reserves.

“We are sculpting the landscape, creating cursive channels and areas of open water,” says project manager Kate Carver.

Ditches have been filled in to make them shallower and sluices put in place to hold water back. While water from the fens was previously pumped into the North Sea, it’s now kept in place instead.

In Poland, peatland forms about 10 percent of the approximately 21,000-hectare Oborniki Model Forest, located near the city of Poznań in the west of the country. The Polish forest agency is now building meter-high stone and timber dams to inhibit water flow out of the peatland.

This will enable more water to flow into the forest to offset the lack of rainfall, says Jaroslaw Bator, deputy head of the Model Forest, which forms part of the International Model Forest Network.

This strategy also keeps the peatlands and other habitats that depend on water from dying out, Bator explains.

2. Fix the landscape

The Great Fen Project, which will eventually restore 3,700 hectares of peatland, is planting various species of native grass seed. This not only stabilizes the peat, says Carver, but removes nutrients like nitrates and phosphates left over from agricultural production.

Some sheep and cattle grazing also helps, she adds, as the perforations from their hooves encourage the emergence of rare fen species.

Trees can also be planted to help revive peatland, but they have to be the right species, says Sarasi Sinurat, field co-ordinator of the Ranu Welum Foundation.

Sinurat works in Indonesian Borneo, where peatland still covers an estimated 2.5 million hectares, and his group has already planted more than 20,000 trees in the area, including jetulan, rambutan, guava and ironwood.

“The trees we plant are carefully selected to ensure they are suitable for the peatland environment, including endemic species and fruit trees that support the local ecosystem and communities,” says Sinurat.

Another restoration technique is moss layer transfer. Developed by the Peatland Ecology Research Group based at Université Laval in Quebec City, Canada, it consists of transferring moss and plant fragments from donor sites to abandoned peatland after contouring and rewetting. Over 1,000 hectares have been successfully restored using this method in the past 20 years.

Canada Indigenous march
An Indigenous-led protest march in Toronto, Canada, in 2021. michael_swan, Flickr

3. Embrace Indigenous stewardship

Canada is home to about a quarter of the world’s peatlands. For millennia, Indigenous Peoples have stewarded the boreal peatlands they call home, harvesting berries and medicinal plants and hunting animals that thrive in these watery ecosystems, like moose and caribou.

“A lot of the active conservation work being done right now is being led by Indigenous Peoples, protecting the integrity of their territories, which in many cases involves a lot of peatland,” says Maria Stack, a professor of geography and environmental management at the University of Waterloo and principal investigator of the Can-Peat Research Network.

In the Hudson Bay Lowlands of northern Ontario and Quebec, for example, local First Nations have been pushing back against government plans to open a vast area of peatland to mining, issuing moratoriums against the project or taking the Ontario government to court citing treaty violations.

“It is Indigenous land when we’re talking about Canada,” says Strack. “They need to be actively involved in the decision making on what’s happening on that land.”

José Xerafico
José Xerafico, a sheep herder and restoration practitioner in the Colombian Andes. Courtesy of David Santiago Rocha Cárdenas

4. Meet the neighbors

“Local communities are key to all management of natural resources,” says David Santiago Rocha Cárdenas, founder of Peatlands for the Future and a 2023 GLF Peatland Restoration Steward. “A project without the community won’t work.”

Rocha is working to restore three hectares of high mountain peatland in the Colombian Andes, but he’s reluctant to take credit for the initiative.

“We don’t say ‘we’ are isolating or restoring, because it is the community that has been doing this,” he explains.

“They are the ones who live with those resources – they’re the ones who know how to manage them, who depend on them and who see the need to conserve and take care of them to ensure these resources last for a long time.”

Eka Cahayaningrum, who served as a GLF Peatland Restoration Steward in 2022, sees a similar dynamic in Borneo.

“The local community can be the champions because they are the ones who live around the peatland ecosystems, so they have the right to protect their environment,” she says.

Borneo peat fire
Indonesian troops fight peat fires in Borneo in 2015. Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR-ICRAF, Flickr

5. Collaborate

In Borneo, Sinurat collaborates with Indigenous youth “to strengthen the movement, develop the capacity of young people and ensure project sustainability.”

For example, the island’s peatlands are often threatened by wildfires, which are mainly set by humans to clear land for agriculture and livestock.

Last year, Sinurat coordinated with the firefighting team of a local organization called Youth Act Kalimantan to help extinguish 19 peatland fires that devastated the region.

Cahayaningrum agrees that collaboration is key. Her organization, Himba Raya Indonesia, fosters cooperation among local and international NGOs as well as government stakeholders and agencies to safeguard remaining healthy peatlands.

“The government can support conservation efforts with policies and regulations,” she says, adding that meeting with other environmental groups has been particularly constructive.

“We can learn things from different places and share best practices and challenges around what is happening in our area.”

6. Educate

Sinurat, for one, has been taking to social media.

“I often share discussions of various environmental issues that require action for climate justice,” he says.

He also posts short videos and photos and speaks at schools, connecting “the importance of forest and peatland conservation to the sustainability of our planet and human life,” he adds.

Public engagement is also vital for the Great Fen. In fact, the project relies heavily on donations from both individuals and organizations like the U.K.’s National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Visitors to the site include landowners, academics and policymakers, says Carver, where they can now learn about the new form of farming the Trust is pioneering, known as paludiculture, or ‘wet farming.’

Rocha believes one of the most important aspects of peatland restoration is simply educating the public about peatlands in general.

“In Colombia and around the world, very few people know what a peatland is,” he says.

“If people don’t know about these ecosystems, haven’t heard the word ‘peatland,’ then they won’t take care of them.”




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