Peatland is partially decaying (or carbonized) organic or plant matter that is formed by its decomposition in water. All living things contain carbon and as living things die and decompose, that carbon gets converted to carbon dioxide and goes into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. The carbon found in material that falls into peatland bogs gets sequestered and avoids release into the earth’s atmosphere. That makes peatland a carbon sink.
Peatland is actually the most efficient carbon sink in the world, holding about 50 gigatons (approximately 126 million Boeing 747s) of the world’s carbon (Page et al, 2001). In a world where greenhouse gas reduction is a primary concern, you would think protection of the world’s most efficient carbon sinks would take a priority. Indonesia and Malaysia contain more than half of the global tropical peatland and those peatlands are some of the oldest and deepest in the world which mean they contain the most carbon (Page et al., 2011, Dommain et al., 2011, W€ust et al., 2011).
A study published in Science (Fargione et al. 2008) calculated that burning tropical rainforest releases 610 metric tons of carbon dioxide per hectare of land and creates a carbon debt of 86 years. Burning peatland releases 6000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per hectare of land and creates a carbon debt of 840 years. Burning is the primary way to clear previously forested land in Indonesia and Malaysia. A prior study found that about 1.7 x 106 hectares of Indonesian oil palm estates have been planted on carbon-rich peatland. (Page et al, 2007, Kompas 2010a). Planting on degraded grassland (typical carbon content of 39 t/ha) would lead to a net removal of CO2 within 10 years. (Conservation Biology, Danielson, et al,2009). So why don’t plantation owners just plant on degraded grassland? The reason is economics. It can take 2-5 years for a palm plantation become productive. Selling cleared timber can generate $1000-2400/ha of revenue (Casson, A, 2009). This initial influx of cash can help a small farmer family survive while waiting for their farm to become productive.
In 2011 the Indonesian president declared a 6-year ban on issuing permits for the conversion of primary forest & peatland clearance. Even so, Deforestation increased significantly during 2014 to 2015 according to a WRI study. The study concluded that the failure of 6-year ban was most likely due to the fact that it was issued in the form of Presidential Instruction which has no legal consequence for perpetrators (Wijanya, A., et al. (2017, May 24). 6 Years After Moratorium, Satellite Data Shows Indonesia’s Tropical Forests Remain Threatened [Blog Post]).
Peatland is very flammable. Once ignited, it can smolder, undetected for months, creating immense smoke and haze. These emissions also affect the health of those living in the area. A joint study between Harvard and Colombia in 2015 estimated that fine particulate in haze due to fires in Sumatra & Kalimantan hastened deaths of 100,000 people (Koplitz, S., et al 2016 Environ. Res. Lett. 11 094023).
A new NASA study provides space-based evidence that the Earth’s tropical regions during 2015 & 2016 were the cause of the largest annual increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration seen in at least 2,000 years. The OCO-2 satellite recorded atmospheric CO2 increases that were 50% larger than the average increase seen in recent years. That increase was 6.3Gt of carbon. Tropical Asia’s increased carbon release came mainly from Indonesia & was largely due to increased peat and forest fires (WASHINGTON, Oct. 12, 2017 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/).
As recently as Jul 2017, major fires in Aceh, Indonesia burned 64 hectares of forest & peatland. The National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) alleges the fires were caused by local farmers’ slash & burn practices (Churchill, E. “Forest fires in Aceh: No cause for alarm”. Borneo Post Online 27Jul2017).