A guide for the protection of tropical peatlands

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Drainage of peatlands generates substantial CO2 emissions. In the Netherlands, virtually all the original raised bog habitats have been destroyed. Abroad, for example in Indonesia, large peat areas are still intact. But not for long if we are not careful. The local population and a variety of companies would like to use the peatlands for agricultural purposes. Together with a number of other parties, I established a protocol in order to ensure that these tropical peatlands are managed in a sustainable manner.

The support of regional parties is essential, because the protection of peat is a vulnerable process

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Peatlands cover some 45 million hectares of the world. A major part of that is to be found in South East Asia, for example Indonesia and Malaysia. Millions of hectares there are being drained for the development of oil palm plantations and for the cultivation of acacia crassicarpa, a fast-growing type of wood used for the paper and pulp industry.

This has far-reaching consequences for the environment, as the original function of peat is carbon sequestration. CO2 from the atmosphere is stored in peat biomass, and this biomass grows at an average rate of a millimetre per year. In this way, a large stock of CO2 has built up over the past ten thousand years: stored in thick layers of peat.

By draining the peatlands for agricultural use, this process is reversed. The peat profile is exposed to oxygen, which causes the peat to oxidise: instead of CO2 being absorbed, it is emitted.

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But there is more that goes wrong in this process. Peat fires frequently break out, generating lots of smog. This causes serious damage to the local population, to the economies, and also to relations with neighbouring countries. Therefore, the Indonesian government and a number of companies and other parties intend to discontinue peat drainage on such a large scale.

However, putting an end to this process is not quite so simple, and requires a well prepared plan: which peatlands should be rewetted and which ones should be kept in use for agriculture? The peatlands are obviously important for the local economy – companies make a profit by cultivating these lands. Besides, Western interference raises ethical questions. In the Netherlands, we became prosperous by burning up our peat. So who are we to tell other countries not to do so?

Together with Indonesia and parties such as WWF, I have studied this problem. Our advice is to protect those peatlands which are still reasonably intact. Wherever possible we will partly rewet those, to which end Alterra has developed a specific methodology. In a protocol covering over seventy pages, we indicate precisely where and how to build dams to make the groundwater level rise. This will ensure that the peat will remain thoroughly wet. In areas that have long been in use for agriculture, we will leave the hydrology unchanged. The document, ‘the Approved Verified Carbon Standard’, is now freely accessible and can be downloaded by all parties. Anyone interested can use it.

Why is this so important

A well prepared plan is needed to protect tropical peatlands that are still reasonably intact, and to guide companies in reducing their CO2 emissions. This protocol provides the required guidelines. The document has gone through various review processes and has been fully validated. If companies comply with the standards, they can even make a profit in the form of carbon credits, provided by worldwide funds such as the Kyoto Fund. CO2 from tropical peatlands travels around the world. This means that all of us benefit from the protection of these peatlands.

It is important to create awareness on the subject of sustainability in other countries. However, merely imposing mandatory conditions leads to complicated discussions, particularly when you are from the Netherlands, where we have burnt up almost all our raised bogs, generating significant CO2 emissions. I sometimes hear Indonesians say: ‘Why should we be prohibited from doing what you have done? These are our very own natural resources - you gained prosperity by exploiting yours.’ In these cases I explain to them that fifty years ago, CO2 was not yet an issue. We did not know then what we know now. Moreover, we have meanwhile ensured that they can also make money by reducing CO2 emissions. As a result, I can gradually see a new way of thinking emerge: from defensive to cooperative.

The support of regional parties is very much needed because the damming of canals, as proposed by us, is a very vulnerable process; if you want to, it’s very easy to destroy the dams. As a consequence, it’s essential that the idea is locally embraced - otherwise it simply won’t work.ducing their CO2 emissions. This protocol provides the required guidelines. The document has gone through various review processes and has been fully validated. If companies comply with the standards, they can even make a profit in the form of carbon credits, provided by worldwide funds such as the Kyoto Fund. CO2 from tropical peatlands travels around the world. This means that all of us benefit from the protection of these peatlands.s needed to protect tropical peatlands that are still reasonably intact, and to guide companies in reducing their CO2 emissions. This protocol provides the required guidelines. The document has gone through various review processes and has been fully validated. If companies comply with the standards, they can even make a profit in the form of carbon credits, provided by worldwide funds such as the Kyoto Fund. CO2 from tropical peatlands travels around the world. This means that all of us benefit from the protection of these peatlands.

Biography

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I studied soil science at Wageningen University and worked on the development of soil physical measurement techniques. This resulted in widely used pedotransfer functions, which translate easily available soil-texture information into missing soil-physical information. Rewetting tropical peatlands was a subject in which I used my theoretical background to help solve practical problems. Over the years, I have published over 40 papers in scientific journals.

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Social and Commercial opportunities

A number of companies are interested in this protocol to help them reduce their CO2 emissions, for example the large Indonesian plantation company APP (Asia Pulp and Paper), which cultivates acacia trees. Not only because it earns them carbon credits, but also because sustainable cultivation is becoming increasingly important for the market. Take oil palm, for example: its processors, such as Unilever, increasingly demand sustainable cultivation of this raw material.

The protocol is also interesting for various other parties, like Wetlands International – a party in the Netherlands that focuses on wetlands worldwide. Or for the Borneo Orang Utan Survival Foundation, because peatlands are a habitat for Orang Utans.

In addition, companies have committed themselves to this project on account of goodwill or for other reasons. Beer brewer Crombach from Germany, for instance, partially financed the drafting of the protocol. For other companies, too, this can be interesting, for example airlines or major telephone companies. 

My dream for this project

I would like to see this document distributed more widely in order to raise awareness. There are numerous areas where this methodology can be put to good use, including parts of Malaysia and Thailand.

My expertise

Tropical peatlands, water management, CO2 emission, Verified Carbon Standard