Mission Possible: Restoring Indonesia’s peatland

by Guest Blogger

May 2, 2010

Hikmat Soeriatanuwijaya is a campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia who is currently at the Climate Defenders Camp in Indonesia.

I am now on the peatland area of Semenanjung Kampar, half an hour away by boat from Greenpeace’s Climate Defenders Camp.

As far as I can see are bushes, grasses, several trees, and bushes again. Man, this is not the rainforest. Here I am, at Semenanjung Kampar, which has more than 1.7 million acres of forest and stores more than 2 billion tons of carbon. Oh yeah, I remember now, the latest data said that almost half of Semenanjung Kampar forest, over 740,000 acres, has already been destroyed for plantations.

And this area must be one of  those 740,000 acres we are talking about. The peatland on this particular area is damaged because of the several canals built a couple years ago for illegal logging activity. Now the logging activity is stopped, but the canals remain, draining and damaging the surrounding peatland each and every day.

In one canal, I see about 50 Greenpeace activists and local community members working hard to build a dam. Under the command of Petteri, the dam is looking good. They have already finished the first wall and continue to build the next one.

Greenpeace activists and community members dam a canal draining peatland in Indonesia's rainforest
Greenpeace activists and local community members work on a dam to stop the draining of Indonesia’s peatlands. © Greenpeace /Will Rose

“Greenpeace activists and local communities are working together to build this dam and restore the ecosystem of this place,” said Petteri.

Building the dam in this canal will stop the greenhouse gas emissions and restore this peatland to the normal condition of the rainforest. It’s big work, and a mighty big act of hope considering this peatland has already been severely destroyed.

But it is not a Mission Impossible! What’s the point of planning the mission if we already feel it’s impossible to achieve the goal?

Just call it Mission Possible, or even better, Mission of Hope.

A dam is built by Greenpeace activsts to stop the draining of Indonesia's peatlands
Jesus Fernandez from Greenpeace Spain and other Greenpeace activists work on the dam. © Greenpeace /Will Rose

Greenpeace activists dam the canals dug into Indonesia's peatland to stop them from draining
Local community members work with Greenpeace activists to build the dam. © Greenpeace /Will Rose

Because no matter how hard it is, there’s always hope. Scientists say that what Greenpeace and the community are working on here really can restore the condition of the surrounding peatland.

“Much of the carbon released from peatland swamps is the result of draining so the land, or the logs, can be used,” says Professor Jonotoro, a peatlands expert. Professor Jonotoro has been joining Greenpeace efforts to stop deforestation for quite some time. This friendly man is also very concerned about the future of Semenanjung Kampar forest.

We stand in the river bank while the damming work is still in process. Jonotoro is the right person to talk to get to know more about the peatland situation. He is one of the peatland experts from Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry, and a lecturer at Lancang Kuning University in Pekan Baru.

According to Jonotoro, peatland is made up of a store of waterlogged and semi-decomposed vegetation, which squelches underfoot. The deeper the peatland – it can stretch to a depth of more than 15m – the more carbon it holds. “As the water level drops, more and more of the stock of carbon is released into the atmosphere,” he explains. This not only takes a toll on biodiversity, but if set on fire dry peatland can burn for weeks. The fire can even be extinguished on the surface only to continue burning underground and reappear the next day.

“By building this dam, we aim to restore the peatland to the rainforest condition, so the ecosystem is able to thrive here again,” Jonotoro explained.

"So Professor," I asked him, "can you tell me just how much this area has been damaged? And when this damming project is finished, how long until the restoration process begins?"

Jonotoro paused and looked at me sharply. I was afraid he no longer wanted to explain further because I’ve already asked a lot of questions since we departed from the camp. But no, he grabbed his field hat and said: “Come with me!”

We walked deeper inside the area. Have to be careful because peatland is very unstable. Bustar, our Forest Campaigner, fell down when we crossed a wood bridge. After 20 minutes of walking, we arrived at an area surrounded by tall grasses. There was a pipe there and Jonotoro checked it by putting wood tools in it.

“It’s pretty dry. This place is losing the water table,” he said. He pulled his measuring tools out and showed me: 50 centimeters.

“The best condition for peatland is 20 to 0 centimeters. When this peatland can achieve that condition, the environment can be restored. Usually, we can see the effect on the ecosystem at around three months. The result will depends on many things. But when the dam is built, we will definitely get positive results.”

Yes, Professor, we will get results. Because the dam is built, the water table is rebuilding, and we are restoring Indonesia’s peatlands!

– Hikmat

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