In Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia, peatlands have been extensively drained and cleared using fire for agricultural purposes (mostly for oil palm, rubber, paper, and pulp plantations). Since 2000, more than 90% of global land area expansion for oil palm production has taken place in Indonesia and Malaysia. As a result, there has been a dramatic increase in the frequency, intensity, and extent of peatland fires. In Indonesia, peat fire hotspots include Sumatra and Kalimantan, where around 13 million hectares (20,000 square miles) of peatlands have burnt up over the last few decades. These peat fires and haze events have been increasing in intensity and scale of destruction. The 2015-16 fires are thought to have caused 100,000 premature deaths, large-scale deforestation, massive GHG emissions, and economic losses amounting to over $16 billion in Indonesia alone. To address the issue, a peatland restoration agency was formed, and the Directorate of Peatland Degradation Control within Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry was established in 2015. Yet, forest and peatland fires remain a major challenge, with over a million hectares burning again in 2019, half of which were peatlands.
So what can we do to reverse course? One important step would be to transition to fire-free sustainable peatland management in plantations. This could include implementing zero-burning techniques of land preparation, developing peatland-adapted livelihoods, and encouraging financially viable agribusiness options for peatland fire risk reduction. As part of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) supported ASEAN Peatland Forests Project (APFP) funded by the Global Environment Facility, communities in Indonesia were trained to manage and control fires. Community fire groups and brigades were also established, and innovative community regulations to prevent fires supported these measures.
This article was published by Mongabay, whose environmental solutions and pandemic response coverage is supported by the Global Environment Facility among other funders. Mongabay’s stories are editorially independent of the GEF.