By: Rhett A. Butler

In a notable shift away from business-as-usual in Indonesia’s plantation sector, forestry giant Asia Pulp & Paper Group will undertake ecosystem restoration in 7,000 hectares of commercial timber plantations, converting acacia back to native peatland species as part of a broader peatland management program.

The move, announced at a press conference in Jakarta last week, represents the next step in APP’s efforts to reform its forest management practices, long a target of criticism by environmental groups. More importantly, the initiative could have far broader implications in Indonesia by establishing best practices for peat management and pressuring the government and other private sector players to curb ongoing destruction of peatlands across Sumatra, Borneo, and New Guinea.

Deforestation and degradation of peatlands are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions in Indonesia and a key driver of the choking “haze” that periodically blankets Southeast Asia. Drainage to peatlands is also causing large areas of coastal land in Sumatra to sink or subside, increasing the risk of flooding.

The new initiative is called the Peatland Best Practice Management Program, which falls under the Forest Conservation Policy that APP established in 2013 in response to heated criticism from environmentalists. The program involves a phased approach, the first elements of which are being led by Deltares, a Dutch consultancy with expertise in wetlands-related issues.

The first step involves mapping the vast areas of peatlands in Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, and West Kalimantan where APP has the bulk of its plantations. Deltares used an airplane-based remote sensing technology that uses lasers to construct a highly accurate three-dimensional representation of features below, including vegetation structure, elevation, and water levels in canals to understand the extent and depth of peatlands as well as forest cover.

Flying 11,000 kilometers of transects, the effort will produce a comprehensive peat model for 4.5 million hectares of land, including APP concessions and surrounding areas.

While the maps won’t be finalized until next year, the initial findings are significant. For example, the survey found that the few remaining major forest areas along the east coast of Sumatra are all on deep peat. And of the five forested peat domes — areas of particularly deep peat — four are in Riau, none of which are formally protected.

The fifth is located in Berbak and Sembilang National Parks in Jambi and South Sumatra.

Critically, the work showed that APP concessions are present on five forested peat domes, indicating that the company “has a unique opportunity to support peatland forest conservation and emission reduction,” according to Deltares, which recommended that it move to retire plantations in several especially sensitive locations, where peat drainage and degradation is having a substantial impact on forested domes.

“APP’s decision to retire these areas of commercial plantation is an important milestone in the delivery of our Forest Conservation Policy and we believe it is an unprecedented commitment,” said Aida Greenbury, Managing Director Sustainability, in a statement. “The retirement of active plantations is not an easy decision for any business to take, but we believe that taking urgent steps to protect remaining areas of peatland forest, as well as reducing and avoiding climate emissions from peatlands, must be a priority. While there is still a long way to go, and we have much to learn, this announcement today represents a major breakthrough.”

But it may not be as easy as simply blocking drainage canals and letting water levels rise and forest recover. For one, APP will first have to conduct a Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) process with local communities to ensure their wishes are respected. Greenbury noted that some communities might oppose APP blocking canals that are used for transport and access.

Secondly, some of the areas are highly degraded, meaning that dams will need to be carefully planned and the restoration process potentially facilitated by active replanting. APP says the effort is intended to be a pilot so lessons can be drawn on what approaches work best under given circumstances. In some areas APP will use enrichment planting with native swamp trees, while in others it will let nature take its course without intervention other than felling the acacia trees.

That work could eventually inform other projects that aim to rehabilitate peatlands. More broadly, the mapping component of the program could help the Indonesian government and other companies identify peatlands that should be restored or off-limits to development.

butler app 081815-2

Only 20 percent of peatland in Riau, Jambi and South Sumatra is presently forested. Pulp and paper plantation on peatland in Riau. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

The timing of such information is critical. The Indonesian government is currently weighing a measure that would weaken peatlands protection while a number of plantation companies — ranging from palm oil giant Wilmar to APP’s biggest competitor APRIL — are making commitments to better manage, and avoid conversion of, peatlands.

APRIL declined to comment on APP’s initiative, but Wilmar told Mongabay it is “very interested” in learning more about its work. The palm oil company added that it currently uses guidelines established by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) for managing peatlands to minimize greenhouse gas emissions.