The importance of peatlands for biodiversity

Peatlands in tropical countries harbor vital biodiversity while helping to mitigate climate change by acting as highly effective carbon sinks. In addition, these wetlands fulfill essential economic functions by protecting the sea shores from erosion and the effects of storms.

And there’s more.

“Drainage of peatlands reduces the quality of drinking water because the water is contaminated with organic carbon and contaminants historically absorbed into the peat. In many parts of the world, peatlands provide local food, fiber and other products that support economies,” says IUCN.

“They also preserve important ecological and archaeological information, such as pollen records and human artifacts,” adds the conservative group.

Yet peatlands are being cleared at an alarming rate in many Southeast Asian countries, where some 25 million hectares of peatlands remain, mostly in Indonesia.

However, it is encouraging that some countries have undertaken to restore large areas of peatland. One such country is Indonesia, whose government has pledged to restore 2.5 million hectares of degraded peatlands at an estimated cost of $3.2 billion to $7 billion.

Despite the initial scale of this investment, the economic and environmental gains from the restoration project will outweigh the costs, say UK scientists.

Based on satellite data and their computer models, a team of researchers from the University of Leeds estimate that over the decade 2004-2015, peatland restoration could have saved $8.4 billion. .

In 2015, when massive wildfires swept through much of Indonesia, economic losses reached $28 billion, while the six largest fires between 2004 and 2015 caused a total of $94 billion in damage. economic losses due to loss of plantations, forests and agriculture.

At the same time, the country’s CO2 emissions have increased dramatically and millions of people have suffered various health impacts due to increased air pollution.


Fires are more likely to occur on degraded land

In Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia, farmers regularly set large fires to clear land, but these fires can get out of control and spread to degraded forests and peatlands.

Fires are more likely to occur in degraded forests in protected areas, while drainage channels used in agriculture can cause fires almost five times more likely. Peatlands can be restored by blocking drainage channels to re-wet the peat and planting trees to revegetate the landscape.

If the country’s peatland restoration project had been completed in 2015, the total area burned that year would have been reduced by 6%, while CO2 emissions would have been reduced by 18%, researchers say in a paper. In addition, they say, emissions of fine particles (PM2.5) would have been reduced by 24%, saving up to 12,000 lives.

In short, large-scale peatland restoration will bring many tangible benefits to countries like Indonesia.

“Peatland restoration has many benefits, ranging from local reductions in property loss, regional benefits for air quality and public health, to global benefits of reduced CO2 emissions,” says Laura Kiely, who conducted the study.

“Not only do fires destroy farmland and disrupt transport, tourism and trade, but peatland fires cause significant CO2 emissions. Between 1997-2016, fires in Equatorial Asia, most of which occurred in Indonesia, were responsible for 8% of global carbon emissions from the 1997-2016 fires,” adds the scientist.

Not only that, but the benefits of peatland restoration in Indonesia would also have global implications.

“Indonesian peatlands store about 57 gigatonnes of carbon, or about 55% of the carbon in tropical peatlands worldwide. Clearly there is a global benefit to restoring and protecting Indonesian peatlands,” says Kiely.

The Indonesian government-sponsored peatland restoration project will require careful monitoring mechanisms as local support for the initiative will be key to its success. Challenges also remain.

“Future climate change will put peatlands in Indonesia and peatlands around the world at increased risk of degradation and fires,” says Dominick Spracklen, professor of biosphere-atmosphere interactions at the university.

“The Indonesian government’s efforts to restore its peatlands could be a shining example in the years to come,” he adds.

By Daniel T. Cross. Articles in English

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