2016’s peat restoration efforts leave critical lessons learned

JAKARTA (foresthints.news) - On this day, the 6th of January, last year, President Joko Widodo formed the Indonesian Peat Restoration Agency by a presidential regulation for the sole purpose of accelerating the restoration of peatlands as well as returning the hydrological function of peat in the wake of 2015’s massive and severe peat fires.

To facilitate the acceleration of peatland restoration efforts, the presidential regulation concerned set a target of restoring approximately 2 million hectares of peatland from 2016-2020. To this end, the peat agency was required to formulate a 2016-2020 peat restoration plan.

In the year just passed, 30% of this total area - around 600 thousand hectares of peatlands - were designated for restoration that must be completed. The terminology “must be completed” was the direct phrase used in the presidential regulation.

This is the first reporting on the first 10 months of the peat agency’s efforts over 2016, and includes the lessons learned from its work.

Peat restoration efforts

In mid-September 2016, the peat agency, known by its Indonesian acronym as the BRG, released an indicative targeted peat restoration map covering an area of 2.49 million hectares. Using this map as a reference, the peatland area whose restoration had to be completed for last year was set at almost 750 thousand hectares.

The Environment and Forestry Ministry provided its support in the mapping process for the indicative peat restoration map, considering that nearly 100% of the spatial data used by the peat agency in producing the indicative map derived from the ministry. The ministry also gave technical assistance in this regard.

In early October 2016, the peat agency issued a regulation on the guidelines and procedures for peat restoration.

“In this, our first year, using the various modalities and dynamics available, the peat agency focused on planning and mapping, as well as institutional and societal preparations,” Peat Restoration Agency Chief Nazir Foead declared at the end of 2016.

The first obligation of the peat agency - according to the presidential regulation - was to compile a 2016-2020 peat restoration plan aimed at meeting peat restoration targets over the next five years.

“Legally speaking, we need to be honest with the public that it has been very difficult to measure the peat agency’s performance this year, given that the legal documents for the 2016-2020 peat restoration plan have not been finalized by the agency,” Professor San Afri Awang, a member of the peat agency’s steering team, told foresthints.news on Wednesday (Jan 4).

San Afri, who is also one of the Director Generals at the Environment and Forestry Ministry, was quick to point out, however, that this did not mean the peat agency had not undertaken any peat restoration efforts during 2016.

“As a new institution, the peat agency has carried out institutional development right up to the provincial level. Of course, this takes a lot of time and energy. Other peat restoration efforts have also been conducted on the field level to some extent.”

He elaborated further, explaining that it was simply hard to assess the peat agency’s performance and the extent to which it had realized its goals, especially in 2016, because the legal documents for its peat restoration plan were not available.

In its end of year statement, the newly-formed peat agency said that it made peat restoration interventions by preparing communities in 104 villages located across four peat restoration priority regencies, namely Ogan Komering Ilir, Musi Banyuasin, the Meranti Islands and Pulang Pisau - the combined area of all of which amount to more than 800 thousand hectares.

When the peat agency was asked the scope of its definition of the terminology “peat restoration interventions”, no response was received by foresthints.news.

The peat agency also stated that peat mapping using LiDAR technology, which among other things can confirm peat depth levels, was being performed in over 600 thousand hectares.

The peat restoration planning process in Pulang Pisau regency, in the province of Central Kalimantan, which involves peatland areas in excess of 470 thousand hectares, is - according to the peat agency - still in the process of becoming a legal document.

Of this total area, foresthints.news was able to verify more than 180 thousand hectares, which are not included in the peat agency’s targeted peat restoration area of 2.49 million hectares.

“Peat restoration plans for the other three peat restoration priority regencies will be finalized in April 2017,” Nazir Foead told foresthints.news on Thursday (Jan 5).

Burned peat restoration progress

The peat agency also said that it has assigned 25 companies to carry out peat restoration in their own concessions in 36 blocks measuring more than 650 thousand hectares. These assignments took place from mid to late December 2016.

Given that the assigning of these companies only took place at the tail-end of 2016, there are as yet no peat restoration measures that can be evaluated. Progress in this regard will only be able to be measured in December 2017 or early 2018.

In terms of its timeline, the assignment of these companies occurred after the Environment and Forestry Ministry’s peat restoration team - over November and December 2016 - conducted monitoring which exposed that no peat restoration efforts in the concession areas concerned had been undertaken by late 2016.

“It was quite astonishing to observe the facts on the ground. Undeniably, peat restoration interventions in 2015’s burned peatlands spread among the concession areas amounted to zero. The truth on the ground takes no sides,” San Afri, who also serves as chairman of the ministry’s peat restoration monitoring team, lamented.

Peat restoration interventions in 2015’s burned peatlands outside of the concessions at the ground level, he added, didn’t meet expectations, and only covered a small area.

Peat restoration monitoring conducted by the ministry in the provinces of South Sumatra and Riau, two peat restoration priority provinces, demonstrated that hugely significant parts of 2015’s burned peatlands - which are incorporated in the peat agency’s targeted peat restoration areas - have been cleared, and planted with palm oil and replanted with acacia.

The following photos, taken as part of the ministry’s monitoring, illustrate how 2015’s burned peatlands - located in the peat agency’s targeted peat restoration areas - have become locations for the new planting of palm oil.

These photos show how the pulp giant Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) has replanted acacia in 2015’s burned peatlands, situated in the peat agency’s targeted peat restoration areas. In fact, these practices have been outlawed since mid-December 2015.

What made 2016 a decisive year?

Professor San Afri went on to explain why the restoration of 2015’s burned peatlands must be ensured.

“2015’s burned peatlands cover a very significant area, as evidenced by the number of companies that utilize them to carry out new planting of palm oil and replanting of acacia. Why is this happening? It’s because of the absence of a peat restoration plan,” he affirmed.

As a result, he continued, it’s really not surprising to see zero peat restoration intervention at the ground level in 2015’s burned peatlands in the concession areas.

“If we simply allow palm oil companies to carry out new planting in burned peatlands, this would mean waiting about another 25 years to achieve peat restoration through the revegetation of indigenous peat plants in the concessions.”

The Director General proceeded to say: “If we let pulpwood companies replant acacia in 2015’s burned peatlands and drained peat domes, this would mean waiting at least another 5-6 years to perform revegetation with indigenous peat plants.”

In this light, he added, in early December 2016, Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya ordered a number of companies to remove all the palm oil and acacia they have planted in 2015’s burned peatlands, and also reaffirmed that the replanting of acacia in drained peat domes after it has been harvested is prohibited.

Wrapping up his interview with foresthints.news, the Director General exhorted: “What’s the use of a presidential regulation designed for accelerating peat restoration if we simply allow 2015’s burned peatlands, including drained peat domes, to be turned into arenas for the new planting of palm oil and replanting of acacia? We need to act so as not to have to wait another 5-25 years for the restoration of the burned and damaged peatlands.”