Peatland & Palm Oil Development in Indonesia

According to the Indonesian Great Dictionary, the word “gambut” (means peat) was derived from the language of the Banjar tribes of South Kalimantan (belongs to their daily spoken language). The peat is formed through slow decomposition of organic matters such as leaves, branches and bushes, in an anaerob condition.
Based on thicknessm, peat is devided in four different types:
1. Shallow peat with a thickness between 0.5 to 1.0 m
2. Medium deep peat with a thickness between 1.0 to 2.0 m
3. Deep peat with a thickness between 2.0 to 3.0 m
4. Very deep peat with a thickness over 3.0 m
Further, based on maturity, there are three types of peat:
1. Fibric: original vegetative matters can still be identified or minor decomposed
2. Hemic: medium decomposition rate
3. Sapric: advanced decomposition/high decomposition rate
Peat in general is high acidity (high pH), with low nutrients and alkalinity. Therefore, agriculture or cultivation produces on peatland is low. These are the main characteristic of Indonesian peatland.
Peat Function
Community living on peat areas for generations utilises the land for agriculture, farming and fishery. During dry season, peat community are used to plant rice, vegetables and aloe vera. On other peat areas, perennials are also the main source of livelihood for the locals, such as rubber and coconut. During the wet season locals starts to nurse fish in bamboo cages, as well as other cattles such as poultry. Some others keep their water buffalos or cows, as they consider those as savings.
Besides, according to environmental experts, peatland is very useful as water catchment, recharge and reserve area. Even as global warming and climate change currenlty became major environmental issue, the existence of peatlands became also very important, based on their ability to preserve green house gases (such as carbon and methane),which are some of the cause of global warming and climate change.
The Impact of Peat Conversion to Palm Oil
According to Wetland International, the extensives of peat swamps on Indonesian large islands reach up to 26 million ha. Between 200 to 300 ha of peatlands are estimatedly converted annually to plantation forest, large scale palm oil estates and crop cultivation by locals. Specific for palm oil, based on research on 2008, Sawit Watch identified at least 100,000 ha land converted to palm oil plantation each year.
For example in the Province of Riau, Sawit Watch recorded 792,618.08 ha peatlands converted by 110 companies to palm oil plantations. So in average each company converted 7,205 ha peatlands to palm oil plantation.
In the Province of West Kalimantan, there are 324,051 ha peatlands converted to large scale palm oil plantations owned by 133 palm oil companies. Peat depth in those converted peatlands ranges between 50 to 400 cm. Each company manages in average 2,436 ha. Still according to data of Sawit Watch, PT Berkah Tanjung Mulya is the company owning the largest palm oil plantation on peatlands of West Kalimantan, as large as 20,206 ha.
In other areas, in Central Kalimantan tob e exact, Sawit Watch identified 592,939 ha peatland converted to large scale palm oil plantation by 178 comapnies. Averagely, each company has converted 3,331 ha of peatland with depth ranging between 50 to 400 cm to palm oil plantation.
The clearing of peatland, especially to develop new palm oil plantation, usually done technically by digging canals to drain the peat, then burn it. The next step is to spread dolomite and chemical fertilizer on the land to improve soil fertility. The cause of peatland conversion, according to Wetlands International, Indonesia release 2 billion tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere every year. This is equal to 8% of the global carbon emission caused by human activities. It is not surprising that Indonesia is ranked on the 3rd biggest carbon emitter of the world after China and the USA.
Althoug already warned by the international community concerning the negative impact of clearing of peatlands towards global warming, the Indonesian Government keeps motionless. For the sake of economic growth, the government throgh its Agriculture Ministry even issue legal foudation for companies and other interested parties to open peatlands in Indonesia. This new controversial regulation is contained in the Decree of Agriculture Ministry No. 14/Permentan/PL.110/2/2009 on the Guidelines on Peatland Utilisation for Palm Oil Cultivation.

Beside climate issue, celaring of peatland also raises endless social conflicts between customary/local communities that area either pro or contra the palm oil development, or between costumary/local communites and palm oil companies and local governments. Such social conflicts started usually with land conflicts ended with victims, both casualties or loss.

By: Abet Nego Tarigan dan Jefri Saragih