Indonesia Peat Destruction Continues

Millions of tonnes of carbon stored in Indonesia's peat forests are being released into the atmosphere at an alarming rate as deforestation, drainage and fire are converting it into a globally significant source of atmospheric carbon dioxide, according to a study published Thursday in the UK-based journal Nature.

Forestland covers roughly 60 percent of the country, making it the third largest area of tropical rainforest in the world, according to the United Nations collaborative initiative on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (UN-REDD), which has a draft plan and a presidential decree by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2007, mandating that it slow emissions so but so far no progress has been made.

Were REDD+ to be implemented in Indonesia it would change the way natural resources are governed by creating a standardized map, putting land titles, mining and forestry concessions on line and forcing provincial governments to operate with transparent standards on land use. At present the system is prone to such widespread abuse that it is virtually impossible for anyone to know with any certainty the exact boundaries of forests, including supposedly protected national forests

The Nature study is titled "Deep instability of deforested tropical peatlands revealed by fluvial organic carbon fluxes" (the full article is available by subscription only). Bearing the names of six authors, it was published online in Thursday's edition of the journal, making a mockery of continuing and widespread pronouncements by the Indonesian government that it is seeking to halt deforestation. Tropical peatlands, according to the study, contain one of the largest pools of terrestrial organic carbon, amounting to about 89,000 teragrams (1 Tg is a billion kilograms). Some 65 percent of this carbon store is in Indonesia, where it is being converted "into a globally significant source of atmospheric carbon dioxide."

Carbon dioxide, released into the atmosphere from forests and from the burning of fossil fuels in industrial nations, is the single biggest source of greenhouse gases, which are expected to raise the global mean temperature of the earth by at least 2 degrees C by the end of this century. Many scientists expect the temperature to rise by as much as 4C, which would cause catastrophic climate change, turning temperate zones into deserts, causing wild weather phenomena such as endured by the Philippines in December from Super Typhoon Bopha, which killed 1,146 people and left 834 missing.

"We measured carbon losses in channels draining intact and deforested peatlands, and found it is 50 percent higher from deforested swamps, compared to intact swamps," Sam Moore, the lead author of the study and former Open University PhD student, said in a press release.

"Dissolved organic carbon released from intact swamps mainly comes from fresh plant material, but carbon from the deforested swamps is much older - centuries to millennia - and comes from deep within the peat column."

The researchers said that carbon emissions from deforested peat swamps "may be larger than previously thought."

"Carbon dating shows that the additional carbon lost from deforested swamps comes from peat which had been securely stored for thousands of years. Carbon lost from the drainage systems of deforested and drained peatlands is often not considered in ecosystem exchange carbon budgets, but the research team found it increased the estimated total carbon loss by 22 percent," they said.

"Water falling as rain would normally leave the ecosystem through transpiration in vegetation, but deforestation forces it to leave through the peat, where it dissolves fossil carbon on its way."

Vincent Gauci, the paper's corresponding author and a senior lecturer in earth systems and ecosystem science at The Open University, attributed the loss of stored carbon to increased agriculture, especially for oil palms.

"Ancient carbon is being dissolved out of Asian peatlands as they are increasingly turned over to agriculture to meet global demands for food and biofuels," he said. "This has led to a large increase in carbon loss from Southeast Asian rivers draining peatland ecosystems - up by 32 percent over the last 20 years, which is more than half the entire annual carbon loss from all European peatlands. The destruction of the Asian peat swamps is a globally significant environmental disaster, but unlike deforestation of the Amazon, few people know that it is happening."

Another study published last September in Nature Climate Change, a sister publication, said that In 2010 alone, land-clearing for Kalimantan oil palm plantations emitted more than 140 million tonnes of carbon dioxide – an amount equivalent to annual emissions from about 28 million vehicles.

"Since 1990, development of oil palm plantations has cleared about 16,000 square kilometers of Kalimantan's primary and logged forested lands – an area about the size of Hawaii. This accounts for 60 percent of Kalimantan's total forest cover loss in that time, according to the study's authors.

"Despite contentious debate over the types and uses of lands slated for oil palm plantations, the sector has grown rapidly over the past 20 years," said project leader Lisa M. Curran, a professor of ecological anthropology at Stanford and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. By combining field measurements with analyses of high-resolution satellite images, the study evaluated lands targeted for plantations and documented their carbon emissions when converted to oil palm."