University of Leicester eBulletin

Saving the Peatlands of Borneo

July 2002
No 159

orang-utan Recent EU funding for University of Leicester research into Borneo peatlands will help to save the natural habitat of species such as the orang-utan, already under threat. The island of Borneo includes 11 million hectares of peatland, an area almost half the size of the land area of the UK, important reservoirs of biodiversity, which include rare and endangered animals.

Tropical peatlands also perform valuable natural functions such as carbon sequestration and flood control, yet they are currently under considerable threat from land degradation, clearance and fire. In many cases, large-scale forest clearance is being carried out by companies to provide land for plantation crops (e.g. oil palm), but elsewhere the forests are being severely degraded as a result of uncontrolled illegal logging which provides a short-term income for local people but no prospect of sustainable livelihoods.
Destruction is increasingly rapid and severe damage has already been caused on both a regional and global level.

Dr Sue Page, of the University of Leicester Department of Geography and Institute of Lifelong Learning, has recently received European Union funding of £46,433 for a three-year research project that will result in improved management of tropical peatlands.

The STRAPEAT funding (Strategies for Implementing Sustainable Management of Peatlands in Borneo, FPS-INCO-DEV) will enable her to put to use information she collected during a previous EU-funded project investigating the natural resources and biodiversity of South-east Asian peatlands.

The STRAPEAT project will result in recommendations to confront the issues of resource management. In particular, guidelines will be prepared for implementing sustainable land management strategies, including advice on the restoration and rehabilitation of degraded and mismanaged areas. The project aims to strengthen local research capability and to disseminate information on wise use to relevant local and regional stakeholders, e.g. local communities, government employees, private sector industries.

Speaking about the importance of the project, Dr Page said: “Producing management guidelines for tropical peatlands represents a considerable challenge. In addressing one of the least-studied tropical ecosystems, we hope to emphasise the true regional and global importance of these vast wetland landscapes and to ensure that their future management is based upon a better understanding of the full range of environmental, social and economic values that they can provide, both in a natural and a developed state”.

Note to editors: Background information follows. For further details please contact Dr Sue Page, via telephone +44 (0)116 252 3335.

Background Information:

Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia between them contain almost 70% of the total tropical peatland resource by area (c30 million hectares) while the island of Borneo has about one quarter of the total (11 million hectares).

Natural peat swamps in Southeast Asia have been recognised as important reservoirs of biodiversity. In particular they contain a large number of endemic tree species and several rare and endangered animals, including orang utan.

Some of the trees are important commercial timber species, while streams and rivers draining from tropical peatlands are important fish habitats.

Tropical peat, owing to its often considerable thickness, is a significant store of carbon (at least 25% of peat carbon globally), large amounts of which are released to the atmosphere following land development and fire.

Southeast Asia peat swamps play important functional roles in the regulation of hydrology, especially water retention, flood control, water supply and prevention of saline intrusion.

Major land developments that are commenced without a proper understanding of the tropical peatland ecosystem have caused severe damage to and degradation of large areas of peat swamps in both Indonesia and Malaysia.

Utilisation of this resource for agriculture or plantation crops necessitates destruction of its rain forest and biodiversity and loss of carbon sequestration. 

If these peats are developed for agriculture, oxidation will start followed by the gradual disappearance of the peat substrate. Complete removal of peat is followed by pyrite oxidation that causes widespread acidification. 

An important reason for the failure of peatland development projects in the past is the uni-sectoral (only agriculture or only forestry) approach, in combination with an over emphasis on physical characteristics (water, soil and vegetation) compared to the socio-economic attributes. 

Each type of land use (including protection of natural resources) sets specific requirements for water and land management.

So far there has been little progress towards formulating guidelines for sustainable management of tropical peatlands and the information that exists is unhelpful for practitioners and difficult for stakeholders to understand and implement.

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