The wide-spread peat fires in 2015, causing major smoke and CO2 emissions and public health concerns in several SE-Asian metropoles, triggered a significant policy change by the Indonesian government. President Widodo launched in January 2016 a nationwide forest and land fire control programme and decided the establishment of a National Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG).
Indonesia’s first Ramsar Site (N°554) Berbak National Park, designated in 1991 in the Jambi Province, hosts an exceptional biodiversity, including many endemic plants, Sumatran tiger and tapir living in tropical swamp forests and black-water (peat rich) rivers with a rich fish community providing local livelihoods. The site holds some of the last remaining peatlands in Sumatra that are an important carbon store (50-100 million tonnes). A significant and growing population lives in the Ramsar Site buffer zone and depends on the wetland ecosystem for a range of goods and services. Besides the smallholders territories, the area is composed of a Grand Forest Park (“Tahura”), protection forests and commercial logging concessions. Deliberate and accidental forest fires occur regularly and create in dry years (such as the 2015 El Niño year) a “ring of fire” around and at the edges of the National Park.
Peatland drainage and clearing, mainly associated with logging and palm oil plantations, have left a drier landscape that is only partly forested and which has already subsided through peat soil oxidation and erosion at many places. This area is regularly affected by floods and fires in wet and dry seasons, which incur significant costs to the local economies and the well-being of the people in the Berbak area and beyond.
In March 2016, the Indonesian Ramsar Administrative Authority (AA), i.e. the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) asked the Ramsar Secretariat to carry out a Ramsar Advisory Mission (RAM) to advise the local government and communities about the importance of peatland ecosystems and their conservation, including ways of rewetting degraded peatlands, particularly in low-productivity areas, as a contribution to green development towards sustainable land-use practices. The aim is also to reduce Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions as a nationally determined contribution (NDC) to implement the Paris Climate Agreement (adopted by UNFCCC in 2015) at national level.
The RAM logistics were organized by Ms Cherryta Yunia of the Ramsar AA. The mission visited the National Park offices in the small village of Suak Kandis in the Ramsar Site buffer zone and discussed with staff and local stakeholders from different villages and citizen groups, followed by a short visit of a palm oil plantation on a drained peatland and a nearby restoration area being part of the project for a Berbak Green Prosperity Partnership (“Kehijau Berbak”) which develops rewetting and peatland restoration techniques (with drainage canal blocking and plantation of e.g. swamp rubber trees in rewetted areas) and aims to establish, together with the local communities, sustainable peatland management practices (paludiculture).
The Indonesian Ramsar focal point, Antung Radiansyah, director for essential ecosystems management in the MOEF, chaired a workshop held the next day in the capital Jakarta, where the RAM experts Marcel Silvius, Reza Irwansyah (both of Ramsar’s international organisation partner Wetlands International) and Wim Giesen (of the Kehijau Berbak project) had an opportunity to present the first findings and advice of the mission. Other presentations included the lessons learnt for peatland management in Indonesia by Raffles Panjaitan from the directorate of land and forest fire control in the MOEF, and a presentation of the new national policy for recovery and restoration of degraded peatlands, that aims to restore 2,5 million ha of drained peatlands, by Alue Dohong from the National Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG).
The draft mission report and its recommendations are currently written up. They will be shared with the partners in the Global Peatland Initiative (GPI), lead by UNEP, during a forthcoming meeting, scheduled for 16-18 May 2017 in Indonesia. Ramsar’s recommendations are intended to provide concrete guidance for the proposed work to be included in the action plan under development for the national project of the GPI in Indonesia. The Ramsar Secretariat will publish the final report to provide guidance and recommendations how to prevent peat fires, how to organise fire suppression once the peat is burning, and how to rewet degraded peatlands in view of preventing further fires and developing sustainable forms of paludiculture that provide will support the livelihoods of local stakeholders. Watch this space to read the conclusions that are likely to be of interest also elsewhere in Indonesia and in the neighbouring countries
Reported by Tobias Salathé, Ramsar Senior Advisor for Europe