Peatland in SEA
One of the major land types in Southeast Asia is peatlands. In a natural state these occur as peat swamp forests. These wetland forests have developed primarily in the coastal lowland plains in-between major rivers. They cover approximately 35 million ha in the region with the majority in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, Thailand and Viet Nam and smaller areas in Myanmar, Lao PDR and the Philippines. In Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam they form more than 10% of the land area of the country. Peat swamp forests play a critical role in the economy and ecology of the region - providing timber and non-timber forest products, water supply, flood control and many other benefits. They also play a very significant role of global significance in storing an estimated 120 billion tonnes of carbon or approximately 5% of all global terrestrial carbon as well as being repositories for unique and important biodiversity.
Degradation of Peatlands
Over the past 30 years, peat swamp forests have been increasingly cleared, drained and degraded as a result of unsustainable forestry and agricultural practices. An estimated 13 million ha have been impacted and often degraded by legal and illegal logging activity which often involves drainage of the peat during the extraction process, and over exploitation of forest resources. Although most peatland soil (especially those deeper than 2 m) is marginal to poor for agriculture, 5-7 million ha have been cleared and drained in the region for agriculture and plantation projects - mainly oil palm, pulpwood, rice and various small-scale crops. Many of these agricultural programmes in peat have ended in failure with the most notable example being the so-called Mega-Rice Project in Kalimantan, Indonesia where 1 million ha was cleared and drained for rice cultivation although less than 5% was suitable for this purpose. This scheme and many others were abandoned before they were complete.
Degradation Due to Drainage and Subsidence
Even without fire, the peatlands of the region degrade rapidly once they are drained with land subsidence of up to 3m as recorded in some parts of the region following unregulated drainage. Subsidence in deep peat leads to flooding, destruction of infrastructure and other impacts. Shallow peatlands are frequently underlain by potential acid-sulphate soil, hence drainage and loss of the peat layer often leads to further acidification of soil and groundwater making agriculture and settlements impossible.
Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts
All of these various problems have combined to make the degradation of the peat swamp forests of Southeast Asia into one of the most extensive and important land degradation problems in the world. Unless urgent action is taken to address this problem, it will have major global environmental and social implications. If the stored carbon within the peatlands in the region is released, it will have a significant impact on global climate as it is equivalent to 20 years of current global fossil fuel emissions. The loss of biodiversity will also be significant at the global level. Peatlands are the last refuge of such flagship species as the orang utan as well as being repositories of over 2500 plant species (including over 500 medicinal plants) and over 300 fish species - many of which are restricted to this habitat.
Loss of peatlands will also have a significant social, health and economic impact for the people in the region. Fires in less than 6% of the region's peatlands have caused US$9 billion worth of damage in one year and led to over 500,000 people seeking medical treatment for respiratory ailments. The key functions that peatlands play in water storage and supply as well as flood control and the prevention of saline intrusion will also be compromised by further degradation of the system.
Responses to the Problems
With increasing recognition of the significance of peatland degradation in the ASEAN region, there has been a growing level of activities at national and regional level. At national level there have been a range of actions initiated including the establishment of national mechanisms for monitoring and controlling peat fires. There have also been some measures to promote the sustainable use of peatlands in some sites, but these have not been scaled up to national or regional level. The focus to date has been primarily focused on addressing the symptoms of the problem – such as controlling peatland fires, addressing land subsidence and flood control following peatland degradation.
At the regional level, the ASEAN countries have started to establish a number of mechanisms to address forest and peatland fires and associated transboundary smoke haze. These include the ASEAN Regional Haze Action Plan and the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. The focus on the specific problems related to peatland has led to the adoption in February 2003 of the ASEAN Peatland Management Initiative and the initial development of the associated ASEAN Peatland Management Strategy for wise use and sustainable management of peatlands. Addressing environmental degradation especially transboundary haze pollution has been highlighted in ASEAN Vision 2020 as well as being as a key element in the proposed ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community.
Over the past 10 years the international donor community has started to provide some support to address the problem of forest and peatland fires in the region. Support has come from a range of sources including the ADB, European Union, JICA, GTZ, CIDA, Netherlands Government and GEF. Support has primarily focused on fire control, monitoring and early warning. Relatively few projects have focused on longer term fire prevention through sustainable peatland and forest management. In the past five years some projects have started to look at the issue of peatland management in relation to sustainable use. The largest of these has been the Climate Change Forest and Peatland in Indonesia project (CCFPI) supported by CIDA and implemented by Wetlands International Indonesia, Wildlife Habitat Canada and Global Environment Centre in conjunction with a range of national and local agencies and community groups. This project has developed a number of modalities for community-based management and rehabilitation of peatlands which will be developed further through the current project linked to the development and implementation of National Action Plans.
With regard to specific support from GEF – funding was first provided in 1998, in response to the major El Nino-induced forest fires in Southeast Asia. UNEP-GEF provided a grant of US$750,000 for a project on Emergency Response to Combat Forest Fires in Indonesia to Prevent Haze in Southeast Asia. This completed project focused on development of monitoring and early warning systems and generated some important outputs including assistance for development of regional monitoring mechanisms and the regional transboundary haze agreement as well as support for a range of capacity building activities. In 2001 UNDP-GEF initiated a project on sustainable management of peatlands in Malaysia focussing on three sites important for biodiversity conservation. This on-going project is developing good models for integrated management of peatlands in the target sites but does not work outside Malaysia. In 2003 UNEP-GEF supported a global targeted research project on Integrated Management of Peatlands for Biodiversity and Climate Change. This project has supported (with an allocation of about $250,000) pilot activities in Indonesia and assisted regional cooperation in Southeast Asia. The project has facilitated the development of the ASEAN Peatland Management Initiative and initiation of the ASEAN Peatland Management Strategy – both of which provide an important basis of the current project. The UNEP-GEF project will be completed in Mid-2006, prior to the initiation of the current project. These three GEF supported activities provide a good basis for the development of the current project. Lessons learned from the earlier interventions will guide the design of the future project.
Need for New Intervention
To date, efforts in the region to address the increasing problems of peatland fires and associated transboundary haze and greenhouse gas emission have focussed mainly on early warning and firefighting approaches. Although significant progress has been made in this area with the guidance of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Secretariat and member countries and assistance of the international community – the problem of peatland fires still persists and in some countries has worsened. In recent years there has been growing recognition that peatland drainage and degradation is one of the main root causes of regular land and forest fires, and in order to prevent fires in the future it is important to address the root causes of degradation – such as the inappropriate development strategies, subsidies and incentive measures which encourage peatland drainage and degradation, inappropriate water management systems or dis-empowerment of local communities. There have been a number of small-scale site based activities to develop or test techniques for peatland rehabilitation and management, however, these have not been fully documented or scaled up.
ASEAN member countries have established an ASEAN Peatland Management Initiative in 2003 and are currently developing an ASEAN Peatland Management Strategy (complemented by National Action Plans) to guide the sustainable management of peatlands over the period 2006-2020. The current project aims to support the implementation of this Strategy, by strengthening regional and national capacity, supporting actions to prevent peatland degradation, demonstrating restoration options and sustainable management strategies and empowering local communities to take the lead in resource management.
It is planned that this project will assist countries in the region to implement priorities identified in the ASEAN Peatland Management Strategy and associated national action plans by assisting countries to undertake strategic activities at the national or local level, as well as provide support and exchange activities in a regionally coordinated multi-country manner.
For more information on peatlands, click here