Photo: NASA Earth Observatory

Protecting Indonesia’s peatlands – which form some of the densest carbon stocks in the world – is crucial to meeting global climate goals. After years of neglect, some of the world’s brightest minds are seeking to create innovative, science-driven solutions aimed at protecting, rehabilitating and saving peatlands across the archipelago.

A Country Burns

Heavy smoke from peat fires in Borneo chokes Indonesia in 2015. (Photo: NASA Earth Observatory)

Heavy smoke from peat fires in Borneo chokes Indonesia in 2015. (Photo: NASA Earth Observatory)

The importance of Indonesia’s peatlands became clear when, in late 2015, fires erupted across the country in what turned out to be the largest, man-made climate event of the new millennium. When peat burns, all of Southeast Asia chokes. Many die, too. A study from Harvard and Columbia Universities estimated that more than 100,000 people lost their lives as a result of the historic haze event. Unnaturally dry peatlands were the chief source of the deadly haze, not to mention the accompanying toxic chemicals and their adverse health impacts.

Indonesia’s peatlands have been devastated by the growth of palm oil and paper plantations over the past two decades. Agribusiness drained peats for monoculture farming, subjecting the land to massive environmental stress. Eventually, that land erupted into fires. Plantation growth was so rapid and so unplanned that to this day, we have a minimal understanding of the depth, quality and quantity of peat underneath plantations or threatened forests across Indonesia. We can’t begin to figure out how to save peat — especially while maintaining livelihoods — until we understand peat.

Peat is a soil-like material consisting of decomposed plants and other organic matter. It's commonly found in moist, acidic environments, like bogs. (Photo:

Peat is a soil-like material consisting of decomposed plants and other organic matter. It’s commonly found in moist, acidic environments, like bogs. (Photo: James St. John / Flickr)

“Indonesia… has peatland area of around 15 million hectares,” said Prof. Dr. Hasanuddin Z Abidin, Head of Indonesia’s Badan Informasi Geospasial (BIG), which translates to Geospatial Information Agency. “This peatland area was estimated using a 1:250.000 scale. At this scale, peatland management and carbon emission estimation cannot properly be done.”

 Plunging into the Peat Challenge

It is clear that innovation is necessary to better understand peat and that technology will play a role. Enter World Resources Institute Indonesia, which has been at the forefront of using data to empower policy makers and corporate actors in solving the deforestation, fire and haze crisis.

Their Global Forest Watch mapping platform was the go-to source for data as the fires were ongoing in 2015, and in the months since, they have doubled down on using data and technology to combat rampant deforestation and toxic haze.

One of the most innovative and promising projects is the Indonesian Peat Prize (IPP), hosted by BIG and implemented by WRI Indonesia, aimed at sparking new technologies that can transform how we map, monitor and assess peat.

Peatland burns in Indonesia. (Photo: USDA / Flickr)

Peatland burns in Indonesia. (Photo: USDA / Flickr)

“The existing peat maps are still at very small scale,” said Hidayah Hamzah of WRI Indonesia. “One centimeter on the existing map equals 2.5 kilometers and that is not sufficient enough to answer peatland management issues. We launched the prize to aim to find a more accurate, faster and more affordable method to measure peat thickness.”

The contest, which launched last year, received 44 applications from non-profits, startups and the private sector. From that initial bunch, ten were chosen to test their technologies in a specific region on the island of Sumatra. This July, their prize advisory board will judge the remaining contenders using three main criteria – accuracy, speed and affordability – before selecting finalists to move onto the last stage. They expect to announce a winner in October.

The ultimate goal is nothing less than a technology that could revolutionize the amount of data we have about peatlands across Indonesia — and how to protect them.

“We hope to revise current national standards for mapping peatland… to where one centimeter equals .5  kilometers or 500 meters,” Hidayah said. “This will be more detailed and more useful for the stakeholders to allow them to do sustainable peatland development.”

This could help BIG realize their goals of knowledge-based management of peatlands.

“[We hope] the IPP product will be used to update the national standard of peatland mapping in Indonesia,” Abidin said. “This will ensure the effective and efficient conservation for peatland management related activities.”

Other Efforts to Watch

WRI isn’t alone, as the Indonesian Government, led by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, has started to take preserving peatlands seriously. After the 2015 fires, they announced the creation of a Peatland Restoration Agency, with the goal of restoring about 2 million hectares of peatlands across the archipelago.

Indonesia took another positive step this past December, when President Jokowi announced a moratorium on all activities that could damage the nation’s peatlands. It was a move that was hailed by many, though there were questions about how well it would be enforced.

“This regulation will be a major contribution to the Paris climate agreement and a relief to millions of Indonesians who suffer the effects of toxic haze from peat fires,” Nirarta Samadhi, Director of WRI Indonesia, said in a press statement.

One area to watch to see if Indonesia is really turning away from destructive agribusiness industries is Aceh, the country’s westernmost province, on the island of Sumatra. Sumatra was ground zero for last year’s fire events, and the island, once considered one of the world’s richest biodiversity hotspots, has seen its natural landscape devastated by the palm oil, paper pulp and mining industries.

The Leuser Ecosystem. (Photo: gbohne / Flickr)

The Leuser Ecosystem. (Photo: gbohne / Flickr)

The Leuser ecosystem is one of the few remaining, intact areas of virgin rainforest on the island, mostly due to the fact that Aceh was, for decades, mired in civil conflict that made it tough for extractive industries to operate. That is no longer the case.

“We cannot allow our forests and peatlands to be destroyed in this way. Most of the destruction is purely for quick short-term profits for just a few already extremely wealthy companies and people,” Rudi Putra, of the Leuser Conservation Forum, said in a press statement. “What we want to see is proper long-term management based on the realities of the environment here to ensure sustainable long-term economic development.”

Indonesia needs to stop clearing virgin forestland for plantation expansion and turn to science and data to ensure that plantations are only built on degraded, low-impact areas where there are few, if any, peatlands. If all goes to plan, we’ll soon have the knowledge to know exactly where not to grow palm oil or paper pulp. Next, it will be up to the companies and the Indonesian Government to act and put an end to rampant deforestation and fires in an effort to help the nation build a sustainable future.

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