A hope for peatland protection, no more business as usual on peat

EoF News / 12 November 2015
Trees of peat forest are felled, peat canals are cleared and drained by PT RAPP in Kampar Peninsula. It is APRIL main timber supplier. ©Eyes on the Forest, Feb 2012

Eyes on the Forest commended the Ministry of Environment and Forestry for issuing a letter (S.494/MENLHK-PHPL/2015) and instructions (S.661/Menlhk-Sekjen/Rokum/2015) regarding peat management for the prevention and control of fire. This is an unprecedented, bold move by the Ministry, in reaction to the country’s devastating peat fires this year.

Following various pledges and statements to protect peatlands by President Joko Widodo and his officials during peat fires and haze in recent months, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry issued new technical guidelines. “This gives a real hope that the country is changing its direction on how it manages its peatland,” says Woro Supartinah of Jikalahari. “These instructions on peat protection and management pave the way for Indonesia's paper and palm oil billionaires to address their legacies and restore the country's carbon sinks”, she added.

The letter and instructions require not only the central and local governments to no longer issue new licenses on peatlands except for public interest, but also companies to:

  • No longer conduct land clearing in peatlands for forestry and plantation business, even in already licensed areas (letter point 1, instructions point 2).
  • Not operate and plant trees in burnt areas because law enforcement is underway and there will be peat recovery plans prepared (instructions point 3).
  • Either block peat canals or keep the water level at 40cm based on the Regulation No. 71/2014 to implement eco-hydro technology in the existing plantation areas to protect deep peat and peat domes (letter point 2 and instructions point 4).
  • The government will issue technical guidelines to elaborated peat protection zone and cultivation zone (instruction point 7).

The new instructions, if followed and implemented correctly, should significantly reduce the risk of future fires on peatland in the future, by no longer allowing one of the underlying causes: peat deforestation. “WWF with other NGO’s in Eyes on the Forest is fully committed to support the Ministry of Environment and Forestry by monitoring its implementation in the field,” said Aditya Bayunanda from WWF-Indonesia.

Who should follow these instructions?

Fast and comprehensive implementation of these instructions requires identification of the main drivers of peat deforestation and drainage, the underlying cause of the fires. To do so, Eyes on the Forest analyzed Sumatra-wide land cover change between 1985 and 2014[i] in relation to the island’s peatlands[ii]. We found that:

  • Sumatra's 8.8 million hectare peatland was covered by 7.5 million ha of natural forests in 1985 (85%) and 1.7 million ha (19%) in 2014 (Map 1). Most of that deforestation happened in Indonesia’s pulp and palm oil production epicenter Riau province. Sumatra’s peatland lost 77% of its forest over 29 years, cleared at an average rate of almost 200,000 hectares per year (3%).
  • Between 2011 and 2014, the annual average loss even reached 6%. 14% and 7% of the total deforested area in this period was planted with pulpwood trees and oil palm, respectively. Almost all remaining deforested areas on satellite images showed as bare soil or young vegetation. EoF believes that most of them likely were intended to be developed into either of the two plantation types.

 In 2014, of Sumatra’s 8.8 million hectares of peatland (Map 2):

  • 1.7 million ha (19%) were covered by natural forest.
  • 2.2 million ha (25%) were planted with oil palm plantations.
  • 1.0 million ha (12%) were planted with pulpwood plantations.
  • 0.7 million ha (8%) were cleared and burnt. Some of them might already have been planted with oil palm or pulpwood seedlings.
  • 0.4 million ha (4%) showed young vegetation which might have included young oil palm plantations.
  • The remaining 2.8 million ha (32%) were covered with other non-natural forest land covers.

We also found that of Sumatra’s 8.8 million hectares of peatland (Map 3):

  • Only 0.7 million ha (7%) were inside protected areas. Of those, 68% were covered by natural forest. The remaining area was deforested and covered by non-forest vegetation including illegal oil palm plantations.
  • 2.1 million ha (24%) were inside licensed pulpwood plantation concessions. Some of those licenses had been issued through court proven corrupt practices though the owners continued to operate. Of those, 0.3 million ha (18%) were covered by natural forest, 1.0 million ha (46%) were actually planted with pulpwood plantations, and the rest was deforested and covered with other vegetation including illegal oil palm plantations.  

In conclusion, for Indonesia to end the annual occurrence of peat fire and haze, it is crucial that both pulp & paper and palm oil industries take immediate actions.

EoF recommends that:

  1. The palm oil and pulp & paper industries implement the new instructions immediately. Most importantly this is a task for the dominant players of the country’s paper industry. The Sinar Mas Group / Asia Pulp & Paper has benefited more from peatland conversion than any other corporate group, maintaining a land bank of 1.4 million ha (16% of all peatlands) on the island’s peat. Half of that is planted with pulpwood trees (700,000 ha), 14% is natural forest (190,000 ha) and the rest is either bare soil or is covered with oil palm and other vegetation types. Whatever this company does with its peat empire will have a significant impact on the whole country’s GHG emissions (see also EoF News on 17 September, 18 September, 14 October and 5 November). The Royal Golden Eagle Group / APRIL is the other significant player in the paper sector with a peat land bank of 0.6 million ha (7%). The company has continued to deforest and drain peatlands in Sumatra and Kalimantan until 2015. But this also applies to all the palm oil groups whose supply chains have been sourcing palm fruits produced in the vast stretches of oil palm plantations that have been draining Sumatra’s peat, including the Astra, Musim Mas, RGE, GAR, and Wilmar.
  2. The palm oil and pulp & paper industries conduct peat conservation and restoration to address its legacy. Company owners, listed by Forbes as some of the richest billionaires in the country, need to address their personal legacies. Now is the time to pay back their carbon debt to the country and invest their fortunes to undo the damage they have done to the health of the country’s people, economy and ecosystems.
  3. The palm oil industry takes full control of its raw material sourcing until the plantation level. The industry needs to ensure it is not providing incentives to further peat development, its products are not made from palm fruit harvested on peat soil and that their current and future suppliers are and were not involved in deforestation and drainage of peatlands. Every company needs to immediately start tracking their supplies to the plantation level.